5 Ways Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Higher Education

Colleges rightly fear the havoc AI might wreak on higher education, but the benefits might ultimately outweigh the risks.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Updated on October 4, 2023
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  • New artificial intelligence tools pose threats to colleges but also offer opportunities.
  • AI has implications for admissions, student retention, teaching and learning, the curriculum, and administrative efficiency.
  • Colleges should take advantage of AI's potential and not fear the technology.

Throughout history, colleges and universities have been shaped by massive disruptors radically altering the landscape of higher education. Some have been singular events: the Industrial Revolution, the Morrill Act, the Great Depression and the Great Recession, wars, the GI Bill, the Higher Education Act of 1965, Title IX, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Others are more systemic and permanent: immigration, demographics, standardized testing, distance learning, alternative credentials.

Today, higher education faces perhaps its greatest disruptor, an existential threat in the form of artificial intelligence. New technologies are conflating fact and fiction, making it increasingly difficult to know what's real and what's concocted by bots, while machine learning has skeptics sounding apocalyptic alarms.

Even Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, which runs ChatGPT, says he's "scared" of AI's potential.

Yet AI holds great promise for higher education, helping students choose the right college, learn more efficiently, graduate on time, and enter the job market better prepared for the future.

Many college students have eagerly adopted this technology. A BestColleges survey revealed that 43% of students say they have experience using AI tools such as ChatGPT.

As universities struggle to remain relevant and prove their worth, will they respond to the moment and embrace this new paradigm? Or will they fall victim to a new reality in which automation and the democratization of knowledge render them obsolete?

Here are five ways AI promises to revolutionize higher education.

1. Finding the Right Students and Persuading Them to Enroll

College admissions has become a tale of the haves and the have-nots. Selective universities have grown even more selective, with acceptance rates falling into the low single digits at some institutions. On the other hand, many small private colleges and regional publics are struggling to fill their classes, resulting in more than 90 closures and mergers over the past seven years.

And looming on the near horizon is an enrollment cliff caused by lower birth rates during the Great Recession.

With fewer college-age students in the pipeline, universities will have to employ even more sophisticated enrollment management strategies to fill their classes.

Thankfully, AI can help.

For prospective students, chatbots provide immediate, personalized responses to inquiries and help students navigate the application process. Predictive analytics help admissions officers prioritize students who demonstrate sincere interest and are most likely to enroll, calculate the amount of financial aid students need, and estimate the probability they will graduate.

An AI-powered tool called Element451 uses behavioral data to rate students' potential for success. It's 20 times more predictive than using demographics alone, the company claims.

What's more, AI algorithms can sift through mountains of applications, sorting for grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, saving overtaxed staff time and effort.

Once students are admitted, AI tools from companies such as Mainstay persuade students to submit deposits and enroll. AI also assists with additional tasks such as processing visas, student housing assignments, and course registration, all customized for each student.

The goal is not only to streamline activities but to create better matches between students and universities.

On the flip side of this coin, students are using tools such as ChatGPT to craft application essays, misrepresenting themselves and causing plenty of consternation among admissions offices. Assuming students might also use AI to create artistic or musical portfolios, how do universities accurately evaluate who they're admitting?

2. Strengthening Retention and Helping Students Graduate

When students and the universities they attend are better matched, retention improves. But it's not that simple, of course, and students might drop out for any number of reasons.

AI tools aid with academic advising, predicting when students might fail or drop a course, alerting faculty and staff before problems arise.

Students with concerns about financial aid, advising, and career opportunities can receive around-the-clock counseling from AI chatbots. Ocelot, a company producing this technology, found that 40% of student interactions with AI chats happened outside of normal business hours.

Virtual assistants can also help students manage their mental health. One such tool, Woebot, enables students to explore their emotions with "intelligent mood tracking."

Students with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, ADHD, and autism can benefit from AI tools that identify patterns students might exhibit that are consistent with specific learning challenges. Universities can then make assignments and exams more tailored and accessible.

Identifying early warning signs can help universities assist struggling students and help them persist toward graduation.

3. Personalizing Teaching and Learning

Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, believes AI can spark the "greatest positive transformation education has ever seen."

His company offers every student a personal teaching assistant — a "Khanmigo" — that doesn't provide answers but leads students Socratically toward solutions. It can help students with math, coding, and interactive writing, and suggest lesson plans for teachers based on student learning patterns.

Adaptive learning personalizes the interaction between the student and the material, guiding learners based on their unique needs and preferences.

Universities are already realizing the value of virtual tutors. At the Georgia Institute of Technology, "Jill Watson," an AI virtual graduate teaching assistant, answers student questions in an online forum. Walden University's AI-powered "Julian" provides students with tutoring assistance anytime.

Personalized learning and 24/7 tutoring shatter the traditional mold of education, says Vistasp M. Karbhari, a former president of The University of Texas at Arlington.

"Just as the Gutenberg press irreversibly changed the way knowledge was shared," he wrote in Fierce Education, "digital technologies are helping transform education from an industrial revolution-based 'one size fits all' paradigm where students receive the same information, at the same time, and at the same pace, akin to an assembly line, to one that can be self-paced, adaptive, and personalized — focusing on the learner."

What's the downside? Personalized learning lacks a personal touch, critics claim. Professors harbor concerns that bot-drive education diminishes the faculty-student relationship so vital to the college experience.

4. Adapting the Curriculum to Meet Market Demands

The advent of AI threatens to alter not only how subjects are taught but what is taught. Emerging market realities could result in major changes to the college curriculum.

The World Economic Forum projects AI will create 97 million jobs by 2025. That's the good news. The bad news? It also anticipates 85 million jobs lost thanks to AI.

As the market goes, so goes the college curriculum, generally speaking. What are the implications for journalism education when news outlets can use chatbots to generate content? The same goes for the field and academic study of graphic design.

Do we need musicians and music majors if AI can create music? We know it can deepfake Paul McCartney and John Lennon singing "The Sound of Silence" and Freddie Mercury singing "Yesterday."

How will nursing and medical schools fare in an era when AI provides virtual nurses, diagnoses illnesses, and prescribes drugs?

As language translators become increasingly sophisticated, will we need faculty to teach French and Spanish?

Patricia A. Young, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County foresees a "future that will involve a drastically reduced role for full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty who teach face to face."

Others see a heightened role for disciplines that foster the creative thinking AI applications lack.

"In tandem with AI's growth … would be the re-emergence of the humanities in feeding it new knowledge as well as determining the ethical framework behind its usage," Swarthmore College's Long Tran-Bui told The Wall Street Journal. "AI doesn't diminish the humanities' importance. It reinvigorates it."

At the same time, the burgeoning AI industry presents almost unlimited opportunities for jobs and degrees. Universities already have responded to market demands and student interests with MBA concentrations and undergraduate programs in AI.

As the curriculum shifts to embrace an AI world, what disciplines will prosper and which will languish? With finite resources, colleges will face choices of where to invest in academic programs and where to cut back.

5) Streamlining Operations to Gain Efficiencies and Lower Costs

College costs, critics claim, are out of control.

Over the past 50 years, college tuition has nearly tripled. Over the past 30 years, it's more than doubled.

What's driving up tuition? Administrative bloat, for one.

Could AI help stem tuition increases through greater efficiencies?

By streamlining administrative functions across admissions and financial aid, marketing, student health services, IT, tutoring centers, and career services, AI could enable universities to pare down staffing and reduce costs. It may not be the silver bullet higher education seeks, but it could move the needle in that direction.

With public confidence in higher education waning, costs and student debt loads rising, and ROI return-on-investment concerns driving students toward alternative credentials, colleges and universities are at a tipping point.

Elon Musk claims colleges are "basically for fun and to prove you can do your chores."

In turn, higher education must embrace the potential of AI, not fear it, using the technology to enhance student learning and the college experience — before it's too late.