A Revolutionary Shift: Impact of AI on College Admissions. Its Promise and Perils

POSTED ON 06/28/2024 BY The Red Pen

how AI tools assess transcripts, detect AI-generated essays, and balance efficiency with ethical considerations.

Artificial intelligence (AI) brings both promise and seismic change to the realm of college admissions. Initially, fear and scepticism swept through admissions offices as concerns mounted over students potentially using AI to write their college application essays. However, a dramatic transformation is underway. Many colleges and universities are embracing AI, weaving it seamlessly into the fabric of their admissions review processes.

According to a groundbreaking survey by Intelligent in 2023, 50 percent of admissions offices used AI for reviewing. This figure is expected to soar to a staggering 80 percent by 2024. Yet, with such revolutionary innovation comes intense scrutiny, raising critical questions about fairness, transparency, and preserving human-centric values in an ever-more automated world. This blog delves into the dramatic interplay between AI and college admissions, unravelling its far-reaching implications for students and institutions.

Role of AI in college admissions

Last year, undergraduate enrollment significantly rose, marking the first uptick since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. This surge coincides with AI’s growing acceptance and integration within college admissions. A report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that college admissions officers are often overwhelmed and under pressure, typically allocating only around eight minutes to review and evaluate each college application. Therefore, colleges and universities have increasingly begun to use artificial intelligence to assess applicants. 

AI is implemented in various aspects of the admissions process. For example, Texas A&M University-Commerce and North Carolina State University use AI tools like Sia to process college transcripts to cope with the increasing number of applications. The Intelligent survey indicates that AI is involved in reviewing the transcripts and recommendation letters of the applicants. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Pennsylvania have developed an AI tool called RoBERTa to identify vital personal traits, such as leadership and perseverance, within application essays. 

Benjamin Lira, a doctoral student in psychology at Penn and co-author of the study, said, “You can actually have AI that advances the aims of holistic admissions, which looks at applicants as a whole and not just their grades or test scores.” Additionally, AI assesses personal statements, detects AI-generated applicant essays, and conducts initial interviews. 

While some institutions openly use AI tools to assist with admissions data, others remain cautious, maintaining a traditional approach to reviewing applications. Andy Borst, Vice President for Enrollment Management at the University of Georgia, recently addressed speculations and misunderstandings about the role of AI in college admissions. He clarified that even prestigious institutions like Harvard University still manually review essays and recommendation letters without the assistance of AI. While Borst acknowledged that AI is valuable in managing large amounts of admissions data, he stressed the importance of applications being reviewed by admissions officers. Similarly, Ryan Motevalli-Oliner, Associate Dean for Enrollment Operations at Kenyon College Ohio, emphasises the enduring importance of human judgment in holistic college admissions despite recognising AI’s potential to synthesise information.

This cautious but progressive approach reflects a broader trend in higher education—balancing innovation with preserving the human evaluation process, which is crucial to fair and considerate admissions practices.

Generative AI and application essays

Generative AI has significantly changed how college application essays and personal statements are written. It is a blessing in disguise for high school students juggling numerous academic tasks, extracurricular activities, and individual responsibilities. With such packed schedules, many students find it challenging to allocate time effectively, frequently resorting to last-minute writing or delaying their essays altogether. According to Sarah Levine, Assistant Professor of Education at Stanford, “ChatGPT may help students use writing as a tool for thinking in ways that students currently do not. Many students are not yet fluent enough writers to use the process of writing as a way to discover and clarify their ideas. ChatGPT may address that problem by allowing students to read, reflect, and revise often without the anguish or frustration that such processes often invoke.”

Despite the convenience offered by AI, critics rightly express concerns regarding its potential impact on the authenticity and personalisation of these essays. Admissions officers seek genuine, individual voices that authentically reflect the unique perspectives of each applicant. Complete reliance on generative AI runs the risk of diluting the authenticity of these essays, potentially resulting in generic, cookie-cutter compositions that fail to capture the true essence of the applicant. In our article “ChatGPT: The Truth About AI-Writing for College Application Essays,” we delve into the reasons why using generative AI for crafting college application essays may not be advisable.

University admissions lack a clear consensus regarding the use of generative AI. Adam Nguyen, founder of Ivy Link, says, “The landscape is shifting, but colleges are not unified in their approach to GPT. If you look across the landscape of US college admissions, especially elite college admissions, there are no clear rules on whether you could use GPT or not.”

Balancing the benefits of AI in college admissions and ethical considerations

While AI offers substantial potential benefits in streamlining and enhancing various aspects of the admissions process, it also raises ethical concerns that demand attention. 

Artificial intelligence used in admissions often relies on historical datasets that might unintentionally favour certain types of candidates, perpetuating existing inequalities. Wendy Hall, a UK-based professor of computer science, warns that “Bad inputs can mean biased outputs, which led to repercussions for women, the disabled and ethnic minorities.” This raises significant concerns for university admissions as AI becomes more prevalent. For instance, a school might develop an algorithm based on data from students with the highest test scores, which could disproportionately represent a particular group of students. If success criteria are based on the data of a majority group, the AI could develop implicit biases and end up excluding minority groups.

Moreover, collecting and storing vast amounts of applicant data raises privacy and security issues that must be addressed to protect individuals’ personal information and identities.

However, if implemented thoughtfully and ethically, AI can significantly improve the admissions process. Educational institutions must prioritise accountability and address ethical concerns about the AI systems they use in admissions. These include continuous monitoring, transparency, robust privacy measures, and human oversight to ensure fairness and mitigate biases in admissions decisions.

At The Red Pen, we work closely with applicants to strategically build their profiles for US university applications. If you need help with undergraduate applications, please contact us. Our admission specialists look forward to assisting you. Meanwhile, you can read our blogs on Undergraduate Application Outcomes: What They Are, How to Respond, and How to Choose the Right Undergraduate Admissions Consultant.