How Should College Admissions Approach AI?

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Dr. Katelyn Sanders
Director of Admission
& Alumni Affairs
Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy
Shenandoah University

Dr. Scott D. Miller
Virginia Wesleyan University

As a famous New Yorker cartoon declared, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Today we could say the same thing about chatbots, which are quickly becoming ubiquitous in our digital and professional lives.  But what happens when chatbots designed to replicate human expression get involved in the highly personal college application process?

Recent experiments from The New York Times and Today found that AI chatbots aren’t quite ready yet to craft a world-class college admissions essay, but the key word here is “yet.”  Large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT, Bard, and other popular machine learning algorithms are constantly getting better at following users’ prompts to produce coherent communications that feel authentically human.  Even when they generate a poor result, the feedback they receive about why a particular result is inferior or inaccurate helps the bots improve — much like actual students.

Obviously, there are many ethical concerns about students fabricating entire essays with chatbots.  For one, the essay may not actually match a student’s expertise, opinions, or lived experience, which is the equivalent of submitting fiction in place of an autobiography.  For another, widespread use of chatbots amounts to plagiarism, since these programs generate their output based on existing texts written by others.

As a result, many organizations are considering these implications and trying to determine what rules, if any, should be put in place to ensure the authenticity of the essay writing process.  Some are employing technology to detect AI-aided applications, although their accuracy is largely debatable.  Even students themselves are split on the issue while also admitting they wouldn’t necessarily trust college admissions offices which used AI to help make admissions decisions.  Overall, trust in machine learning programs is wavering, but that isn’t stopping them from being widely adopted.

Virginia Wesleyan University employs a seven-part enrollment strategy that diversifies the types of students served while also ensuring that no single aspect of a potential student’s application, including their essay, dominates the

selection process.  By working with applicants across seven different stages of their educational experience — including traditional undergraduate and graduate students, transfers, evening/ weekend/adult, dual enrollment, continuing workforce/development, and online learners—VWU cultivates a dynamic and varied student body whose experiences may be enhanced by collaboration with AI and LLMs, but whose individual and personal educational needs are always our primary focus.

That said, we also believe there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle regarding AI.  These new and disruptive technologies are evolving quickly, and they’re likely here to stay.  But rather than banning AI-assisted work, penalizing its usage, or incentivizing alternatives, perhaps the key is to encourage faculty and students alike on how to best use it ethically and effectively.

For example, when it comes to evaluating applications and essays, instead of trying to determine whether the applicants used AI, it may be more beneficial to focus on the quality and consistency of the work itself.  Just like your camera’s auto-focus doesn’t automatically make you a professional photographer, using ChatGPT doesn’t automatically make someone a compelling writer. Conversely, being able to revise and polish an AI-assisted draft into a high-quality finished piece is a valuable skill that employers in many sectors will be seeking in the coming years.

Likewise, if you use AI in your own admissions processes, you may want to let people know this up-front, so they have a clear picture of how they’ll be evaluated.  Such transparency will allow your stakeholders to find their own comfort level regarding AI-aided processes and outcomes.  It can also help them determine if they’d prefer to seek an alternative approach that’s less reliant on the technology.

As for whether you should be using AI in your processes, it’s less a question of if or when, and more a matter of how and why.  Which applications of AI and other machine learning technologies will help streamline your work-flow, improve your accuracy and clarity, enhance your outcomes, and amplify your impact?  Even if you’re reluctant to fully buy in when it comes to AI, you should still stay apprised of the latest evolutions in the tech-nology so you can understand the opportunities and the challenges it creates.

Of course, it’s also important not to get overly worried. Remember, there have been game-changing "tricks of the trade" for many years now, from calculators and Cliffs Notes to Wikipedia and the Internet in general. Ultimately, each of these momentarily disruptive technologies were just new tools to be applied in the evolution of learning.  Yet even the best tools can still produce shoddy work if they’re poorly applied, while talented and diligent users can use those same tools to create outstanding results.  The problem isn’t the tool, itself, it’s managing the impact of what those tools make possible.

When it comes to the use of AI in college admissions, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg and the potential seems endless.  Colleges and universities must nimbly adapt to the rapid changes being created by AI and machine learning technologies.  At the same time, we must also remain true to the mission and purpose of higher education, which is to help students develop critical thinking skills while also preparing them to become valued contributors in their chosen fields.

By embracing the upside of AI while also remaining vigilant toward its potential for misuse, you can responsibly incorporate it into your process while still maintaining the human-centered approach that is so fundamental to teaching, learning, and communicating —and that’s one timeless value that will never change.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Dr. Katelyn “Katie” Sanders is Director of Admissions and Alumni Affairs at the Bernard J. Dunn School of Pharmacy at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.

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