Admissions and AI: ‘Siri, How Many Students Will I Enroll?’

Artificial intelligence has been getting a lot of attention lately. Although variants of the technology have been around for decades, the excitement is driven by AI assistants in the forms of Apple Siri, Amazon Alexa, Google Now and Microsoft Cortana.

These products basically do the same thing: take some input (“Alexa, how tall is Mt. Everest?”), rapidly test that input against a large dataset (Microsoft Bing) or algorithm, and return a response (“Mt. Everest is 29,029 feet”).

Although this is a rudimentary example, the same principle can apply theoretically to any business process, helping to expedite and automate costly, labor-intensive and biased human interventions. So can admissions and AI have a collaboration?

To answer the obvious question: Yes — admissions and AI are great together!

Existing AI technology is already driving marketing automation and customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, allowing your direct mailings and emails to be created and delivered with optimal effectiveness.

On the selection side, algorithms are speeding up efforts at some institutions. Applications and test scores come in, get algorithmically fed through a GPA + test score grid, and subsequently sorted into three piles: yes, no and maybe. Under the right conditions, these decisions can trigger mail merges with admissions letters or emails going out within hours of the application’s receipt.

Cool stuff.

For institutions that rely on “holistic admissions,” automation may be a bit farther down the road. Still, there is no reason to believe that future admissions and AI tools won’t read essays, classify extra-curricular activities, detect patterns that quantify “institutional fit” or evaluate high school coursework.

For some this might seem like a wonderful reprieve from the laborious, repetitive task of admissions reading. Others might see this as a threat, not just to their jobs but also to the purported educational values of the process itself. To these folks, I’d like to offer two points:

  1. Imagine if you could substitute the time you spend reading applications, with time actually working with students. In other words, less admissions, more counseling. You could reach out to more underrepresented populations, build relationships with counselors, have more on-campus programming, and help students navigate the financial aid process. The opportunities are boundless, especially if the resources currently allocated to reading were allocated to outreach. Best of all, these high-touch, student-focused activities are where humans shine, and computers don’t.
  2. If that’s not convincing, then perhaps you can take comfort in the fact that the technology isn’t there yet. In a Harvard Business Review article from November 2016 What Artificial Intelligence Can and Can’t Do Right Now, Andrew Ng explains that, “If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future.”

Arguably that interval will grow to beyond one second, perhaps exponentially. Even so, there’s no reason to think that automated admissions is happening tomorrow.

By Brad Weiner, Ph.D., Director of Data Science, Capture Higher Ed