Instead of seeing AI as a threat, colleges should recognize ChatGPT as an emerging tool for transformation and improved outcomes in admissions

Is generative AI in college admissions a massive threat, or an opportunity?

Instead of perceiving AI as a threat, colleges should view it as a tool that holds potential for positive transformation and improved outcomes

Key points:

  • As AI technologies evolve, universities must adjust to a world where information is increasingly more accessible
  • Given the dynamic nature of this changing landscape, it’s important for colleges to undergo a shift in perspective regarding ChatGPT
  • See related article: ChatGPT: The shakeup education was waiting for

Everyone is talking about ChatGPT, but perhaps none are more concerned than those of us who work in education. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that some universities are taking proactive measures and revamping their courses in response to the new chatbot–some changes include swapping written responses for oral responses, requiring that students write their first essay drafts in class, and initiating more group work.

In the midst of the rapid advancements in AI chatbot technology, OpenAI’s ChatGPT has emerged as one of the more prominent players. Google’s Bard is also making its mark in the industry, offering its own unique set of features and functionalities. As these technologies continue to evolve, it becomes imperative that universities act proactively and find solutions to adjust to a world where information is becoming even more easily accessible, packaged exactly the way we want it, thanks to AI.

ChatGPT is similar to other technological advancements

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT might be fairly new in terms of broad availability, but adjusting to new technologies is nothing new for universities. ChatGPT is not very different from other advancements we’ve seen in technology. At one point it would have been unimaginable to have a group of students typing notes on their laptops in class, or searching up information in the moment on a search engine. Today, it’s very uncommon to see a student writing notes with an old-fashioned pencil and paper, or impossible to think about essays having to be written at the library, when information is accessible from virtually anywhere.

ChatGPT is a new tool that students use to research projects, ask for grammar and spelling support, and yes, some prompt the bot to write essays or papers for them. But while it’s an unfamiliar tool, it works similarly to a book or a Google search–not any book will suffice for research, and not any Google search will be accurate either. It’s up to the student to ensure that their research leads them down the correct path and that the conclusions drawn go beyond just the facts, and into deeper implications relevant to their subject matter.

Over-reliance on technology can lead to a loss of skill

However, just as with any new tool or technology, it is important to approach the use of ChatGPT with caution. In 1967, Texas Instruments invented the first handheld electronic calculator. Today, students of all ages can purchase an inexpensive calculator, and depending on the class, can use it to support their math studies. Yet, some would argue that an over-reliance on the calculator has led to a loss of basic math skills once learned in the primary grades. 

In the age of smart chatbots, we’re likely to see an over-reliance on this type of tool to support writing and researching. This can lead to problems too. What happens if you’re unable to use ChatGPT within your profession, but have relied on it throughout your education? When it comes to writing and grammar skills, it’s imperative that we continue to teach and nurture the ability to independently research and write without the over-reliance on tools like ChatGPT and drive home the risks of not developing these skills to students.

It’s also important that we consider the accuracy of information. Not everything that a chatbot spits out is going to be accurate. Some academics have also argued that we should focus less on the memorization of knowledge – there will be ways to access that in-the-moment – and focus on assessing how people fact-check and put together this information, and how persuasively they craft their argument.

The pros and cons of ChatGPT in admissions

Given all of this, what does the future of AI tools in higher education look like? Instead of taking a “sky is falling” approach to ChatGPT, it’s best to look at this latest tool in a measured way.

In the case of higher-education admissions, ChatGPT will challenge the system in both positive and negative ways. College essays are considered a key component of the admissions package for many students. The Observer interviewed ex-Harvard advisor Adam Nguyen on college essays and whether or not AI-generated college essays are any good. According to Nguyen, essays that are written by AI are decent, and will be virtually impossible to be detected by universities–however, using ChatGPT and other tools as an assistant to help guide the applicant in essay writing will be a much more effective way to use the tool.

In the past, students with more resources would have benefited from paid tutors and other support while writing essays. However, with ChatGPT, all students can access this type of support – in this way, the tool can help to democratize education by leveling the playing field for students who have been historically disadvantaged.

However, an over-reliance on this tool can also lead to disastrous consequences. Using ChatGPT to plagiarize essays and personal statements is a concern, but this tool needs an active and human user who can sift through inaccuracies and provide an empathetic and authentic voice. If a student does over-rely on ChatGPT, they risk setting themselves up for future failure as a professional who lacks the key skills to succeed. As schools search for ways to detect ChatGPT, students could also face penalties if AI work is detected when not permitted.

Higher education admissions pivoting in the age of ChatGPT

One risk of ChatGPT in higher education admissions is that programs will look to pivot their admissions criteria. If programs are concerned about plagiarism in essays and personal statements, they may decide to rely more heavily on standardized test scores or GPA and eliminate the writing component completely. This can lead to worse outcomes, because it would mean that schools are relying too heavily on academic metrics, which leads to a less holistic view of applicants. This impact could change the types of students admitted to a program – knowledge-based standardized tests have historically shown bias against students from minority backgrounds and lower socioeconomic statuses.

While essays and personal statements were introduced to offer a more holistic view of students, evidence suggests that they don’t actually portray an accurate and complete picture of the student. This is why it is key to ensure admissions is committed to a holistic admissions process that is actually evidence-based. If programs are moving away from essays, it’s critical that they replace this requirement with another non-academic measure – ideally, one that is backed by research. Tests that offer a measure of an applicant’s soft skills, such as collaboration, empathy, resilience, and teamwork, are one tool that can support a program’s overall holistic admissions goals.

ChatGPT: A threat or opportunity?

Given the dynamic nature of this changing landscape, it’s important for colleges to undergo a shift in perspective regarding ChatGPT. Instead of perceiving it as a threat, colleges should recognize this new technology as an emerging tool that holds potential for positive transformation and improved outcomes.

In conclusion, we need to embrace this new tool with a balanced approach—one that acknowledges its limitations while empowering students to harness its benefits responsibly. By providing guidance and support, we can ensure that students are equipped to navigate the boundaries of this tool, avoiding dependence or attempts to manipulate the system.

As higher education institutions embrace new technologies, it is crucial to proactively monitor their impact on the education system. Taking a proactive stance involves establishing an ethical framework for the tool’s use, engaging students in the process, and fostering their commitment to ethical practices. By working together to build a solid foundation, we can leverage this tool to enhance the educational experience while maintaining integrity and promoting student success.

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