What Role Should AI Play in College Admissions?

Adding artificial intelligence to the college admissions process has advantages. And disadvantages, too.

Written by Diane Gayeski
Published on Dec. 01, 2023
What Role Should AI Play in College Admissions?
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Nearly 60 percent of higher education institutions will use AI in their admissions departments by 2024, according to a recent intelligent.com report.

Sounds scary. Who wants a robot to determine the trajectory of their or their children’ lives? But here’s an important insight: Even before AI entered the picture, the college admissions process wasn’t quite the human-centered, carefully scrutinized process you might imagine. 

The reality is that because the Common App allows students to apply to multiple institutions with just a few clicks, colleges are deluged by applications that must be reviewed quickly. 

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How Do College Admissions Work Now?

Most admissions offices use part-time employees to sort applications using rubrics to rate GPAs and standardized test scores, the strength of a student’s selected coursework, extracurricular activities and awards and the academic rigor of their high school. They read essays and recommendations to look for content that might add additional insights, such as an illness explaining a lot of absences and poorer grades during a particular term, or an explanation of how the applicant developed a passion for a specific major. 

AI in College Admissions: Pros

  1. Quicker, more consistent decisions
  2. Tailored and more frequent communication with applicants 
  3. Data collection and analysis can improve the admissions process over time.
  4. Sharing rubrics and decision processes with all applicants can lead to more transparency.
  5. Creating rubrics can lead conversations that increase inclusivity and eliminate existing hidden biases.

Colleges also track signs of student interest, such as whether the applicant has toured the campus or spent time carefully reviewing the website. This provides them with data to estimate the yield rate, which is the percentage of students accepted to a particular program who decide to enroll. The yield rate then determines how many acceptances they should offer based on enrollment capacities for different majors. Colleges want to offer seats and financial aid to those most likely to accept it. 

AI in College Admissions: Cons

  • AI systems trained on historical data can perpetuate biases. 
  • AI cannot duplicate the nuance of a human conversation that might reveal insights into the applicant, such as a different major.
  • AI cannot evaluate essential elements for some majors, such as music auditions or art portfolios.
  • Basing more decisions on rubrics and scores can lead to more gaming of the system.
  • Rubrics must be systematically reviewed and updated by both admissions and IT experts, which is time consuming.

Ultimately, admissions and academic leaders work together to build a class that’s likely to stay until graduation, succeed and become happy and successful alumni. They need to factor in the institution’s priorities, needs and goals, including geographic diversity, facility and faculty resources for each program and degree programs they hope to grow or intend to phase out.


How AI Can Assist College Admissions

The initial review of applications can now be carried out by intelligent systems equipped with scoring rubrics, ensuring a consistent evaluation of factors. 

AI systems are getting really good at understanding natural language in an essay. They never get tired or have a bad day, and they can spot factors in an application that might prompt admissions officers to give a second look to a mediocre applicant. 

By consistently applying rules, intelligent systems can avoid the common human biases of rating applicants — how an essay strikes a personal chord, for instance, or issuing a snap judgment based on some of the first elements of the application they saw. 

Automated systems can also help applicants decide whether to attend a school by quickly and accurately reviewing transcripts. That way, applicants have timely information about what previous coursework might transfer in and thus reduce the time and cost to attain a degree. 

AI can improve communication with applicants by tracking demonstrated interest and whether all elements in the application have been completed.

Basic rankings and groupings can then be provided to admissions professionals, who can use their valuable time to engage in further conversations with applicants and to make the final decisions. 

AI’s role in admissions extends to improving communication with applicants, tracking demonstrated interest and whether all elements in the application have been completed. Most colleges now use chatbots on their admissions pages to answer frequently asked questions and to be able to provide support 24/7. Applicant tracking systems are now powered with AI so applicants can be sent personalized reminders about deadlines, invitations to open houses or news that might make the college attractive to them.

This kind of customer support for applicants is by far the most widespread use of AI in college admissions, with transcript evaluation also becoming more popular. Institutions that do use software to review elements of an application basically get the kinds of scores and ranks that assistants have always provided — usually “definitely accept,” “maybe” and “little chance of success” piles. 

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The Limits of AI in College Admissions

While AI systems promise efficiency and may reduce human error or bias, they have important limitations. They are only as good as the data that has built them, and often, the algorithms that rate applicants on their potential for success are built on profiles of those who have succeeded previously.  That can mean lower scores for traditionally under-represented applicants, such as men applying to nursing schools or students from high schools where few go on to college being rated less likely to succeed than those from prep schools.  

Bottom line: There’s nothing better than talking to an informed admissions officer or to the department chair in an applicant’s intended academic major to make a good mutual choice about college. Applicants can get a unique insight into the culture, outcomes and actual experience of a specific program, and the staff or faculty member can write up notes from a conversation that can go into an admissions file, possibly strengthening the chances of getting in. 

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