As artificial intelligence has become increasingly prevalent, so have discussions about its place in higher education. A growing number of college professors say they’re embracing tools like ChatGPT in their classrooms, and many admissions offices are incorporating some form of AI in the decision-making process, a trend that many say will grow in the coming years.
Fifty percent of higher education admissions offices are using AI, according to a September 2024 survey by Intelligent, an online magazine focused on higher education. That number is expected to rise to more than 80% in 2024, according to the survey, which polled nearly 400 education professionals in both K-12 and higher education.
The idea of AI being used in college admissions may conjure anxiety among prospective college applicants and their families, experts say, particularly since 87% of survey respondents whose schools currently use AI – including both colleges and K-12 schools – said it is “sometimes” or “always” used to make final decisions on applicants.
Some admissions professionals – roughly two-thirds, according to the Intelligent survey – have concerns about the ethical ramifications of using AI.
But experts say its use may not be as ominous as it sounds on the surface, and it doesn’t mean the human element will be completely replaced.
“When people hear this, they freak out,” says Rick Clark, assistant vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Institute of Technology. “They saw that study come out and they think all of a sudden Yale is not going to have humans making decisions anymore. That is just completely false.”
How AI Is Being Used in Admissions
In most admissions offices where it’s being used, AI is an efficiency tool to automate certain aspects of the admissions process and help lighten the load for admissions officers, particularly those at schools that receive a high volume of applications.
The most common uses are to review recommendation letters and transcripts, according to the survey; more than 70% of respondents said they use AI for such tasks. Sixty-one percent said they use it to communicate with applicants through some form of chatbot or automated messaging; 60% said they use it to review personal essays and 50% reported using it to conduct interviews.
That schools use AI to make “final” admissions decisions may be misleading, experts say. Highly selective schools, with acceptance rates often below 10%, require nuanced application evaluation and final decisions made by humans. That won’t change even as the use of AI in college admissions grows, experts say.
But schools that have historically made decisions using a formula or rubric, where they’re pulling data to analyze standardized test scores and GPAs to see if students fit within the school’s admissions criteria, have begun using AI to make some of those initial screening decisions to eliminate applications that automatically don’t qualify.
The process was already “very algorithmic” when done by humans, but now AI allows it to be automated, says Diane Gayeski, a professor of strategic communication at Ithaca College in New York and a higher education adviser for Intelligent. This frees up admissions counselors to focus more on other aspects of admissions like scholarships and financial aid, which can be especially beneficial at schools with a smaller admissions staff, Clark says.
“If you can have an AI model run through and then a human just sort of spot checks it, and it can go ahead and make those decisions, that’s just going to let your team focus on what’s viable or important,” Clark says.
The system uses this information, along with SAT and ACT scores, to create an academic profile of an applicant that allows admissions counselors to predict whether they’d be successful at the school.
Rutgers—New Brunswick has received more than 60,000 applications for fall 2024 admission, a record high, says Courtney McAnuff, vice chancellor for enrollment management. The school’s academic record system saves admissions officers a lot of time, as they ask only for official transcripts of the roughly 7,700 students who are admitted based on their self-reported data.
“It saves us about 400,000 transactions because we’re not getting transcripts, either digitally or through the mail,” McAnuff says. “We don’t have to file or image those transcripts. We don’t have to acknowledge the 50,000 people that called and asked if we got their transcript.”
They typically see fewer than 10 cases each year where self-reported data doesn’t match the official school transcript, in which cases admissions or scholarship decisions are void.
How AI Will Be Used in Future College Admissions
Clark says in the future he can see more schools going to a similar model as Rutgers, but potentially figuring out ways for high schools to input official transcript data, which the AI application would then analyze according that university’s specific rubric.
“If a school uploads a transcript and you’ve got AI that can go in and do that for you, it takes work off of the students and is theoretically more accurate, because it’s coming from the school and the transcript is being calculated by AI through that same mechanism,” he says.
Similarly, schools may begin using AI to scrape information from a transcript to identify an applicant’s grades in certain disciplines. This can be especially valuable if students identify the discipline they plan to study or are applying to a certain school, such as engineering. Some AI tools can make it easier for admissions officers to locate and sort grades in specific courses without having to repeatedly refer to the transcript.
“That’s where, I think, absolutely in the year ahead, there’s going to be solutions for eliminating the need for human touch on that kind of thing,” Clark says. “None of that really needs to be done by a human going forward because that’s what AI is skilled at. Training it to locate and populate those type of fields is where it will become, very soon, part of our review process but not a decision-making process.”
While there may be some concern about AI being used in college admissions, 56% of those already using it and 38% of those who plan to use it said they think AI can help reduce bias in the admissions process. Gayeski says she hopes more good will come from it than bad.
“The process of AI is kind of illuminating,” she says, “because if it makes people actually define their criteria better and if it could make it more transparent to the public, I think that would be helpful.”