How will artificial intelligence change admissions?

“The country that controls artificial intelligence will control the world,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hardly a day goes by without some reference to the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) in our lives. I believe that universities around the world will also experience significant change brought about through AI.

AI was founded as an academic discipline in 1956. It is defined as the development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally done by humans. AI uses algorithms that can predict everything from picking stocks to diagnosing diseases. Higher education administrative processes will not be immune from the impact that AI can have on how students are recruited, admitted, enrolled and graduated.

Alana Dunagan, a higher education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, envisions AI as a powerful tool fostering innovation and entrepreneurship in colleges and universities.

According to the report, Artificial Intelligence Market in the US Education Sector 2018-2022, AI will have grown by 57.5% between 2017 and 2021. Several technological and educational powerhouses, including Google, IBM, Pearson, Content Technologies and Carnegie Learning, are committing substantial resources and personnel to develop digital platforms that use AI to provide testing and feedback for students from pre-K to college and university.

How will AI influence national and international recruitment, admissions, retention and graduation? The examples are many; too many to list in one article, but let’s focus on a few.


AI has the potential to change how colleges and universities recruit domestic and international students by creating algorithms that can predict the applicants most likely to be accepted and enrol, from which states and countries, and the enrolled students most likely to progress and graduate and become engaged alumni.

AI has the potential to customise and personalise the admissions process, speed up administrative processes for domestic and international students, including admissions decisions, visa processing, student housing selection and course registration.

AI also holds out the promise of assisting retention and student success deans by identifying students who are most likely to struggle academically in the first semester and year. Early warning signs and red flags will allow progression and retention plans to anticipate, rather than react to, students’ difficulties.

The implications for an institution’s financial bottom line are obvious. Also obvious is the anticipated fear that AI may replace recruitment, admissions and retention staff.

AI may also assist college admission deans in dealing with the phenomenon of the ‘summer melt’, a term used to describe the group of students who although they have paid a deposit in May to secure a place in the incoming class, do not actually enrol in September. The financial impact of this cohort of accepted students who do not become enrolled students has caused havoc for many colleges and universities, especially several tuition-dependent private institutions.

AI, by providing personalised and frequent text messaging and communication, can identify accepted applicants who may fall into the ‘summer melt’ category and allow staff to create intervention strategies. Again, the implications for an institution’s financial bottom line by enrolling some percentage of this cohort, is obvious.

From admissions to retention

Then there is dealing with admissions questions. Imagine an admissions office and staff that were able to answer the thousands of inquiries received during the normal admissions cycle. Imagine a potential applicant receiving, on a regular basis, interactive website materials and answers to common admission questions asked within hours after making a request for information.

In addition to an ability to customise the process from inquiry to application to acceptance to enrolment for each potential student without additional staff or departments, the admissions office may be able to predict which applicants are most likely to enrol, allowing admissions staff to focus on this cohort of potential students, making the process more cost effective and efficient.

We are imagining an admissions office with fewer publications, fewer trips to different states or countries and fewer staff doing routine admissions tasks.

AI also has the potential to create rapid interventions for students suffering from homesickness or social isolation, thereby becoming an important tool for student engagement.

Imagine student success and retention deans able to identify, before enrolment and during the critical first semester, students who are most likely to experience academic difficulty. Imagine algorithms that enable deans and counsellors to create effective tutoring and retention intervention techniques.

Identifying and targeting applicants and students who are the best fit for a college or university and then personalising the experience from the time of inquiry to application, to acceptance, to enrolment, to progression, to graduation and to alumni engagement, will increase not only the bottom line but the reputational value of the institution.

What we are imagining is a college or university that will improve its financial bottom line by retaining more students. What we are imagining is an institution that has reduced the pressure on the ‘front end’, the admissions office, to enrol additional students to replace the students who withdrew their applications.


The implications for an institution’s financial bottom line are obvious. But what about the potential pitfalls of AI on college admissions and retention? Pascale Fung, director of the Center for Artificial Intelligence Research at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, cautions: “A high level of ethical principles cannot be integrated into algorithms.”

In 2015 Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warned about the potential negative impact of AI in making ethical decisions. In recruiting students, for example, AI information could be used to limit or control the number of students from a particular state, region or country who are admitted, not because of academic ability but because of other considerations like ethnicity or ability to pay tuition and university fees.

While computers excel at accumulating knowledge, computation and pattern recognition, they cannot replace human administrators. The data is only as good as the data sources. And we should remember that students are more than just data sets. Overreliance on AI research and applicability in the recruitment and retention of students is neither a wise nor creative administrative decision.

While there is a great amount of information on the potential of AI to reduce or eliminate jobs currently performed by humans, I believe admissions and retention functions will change, not disappear. Admissions and retention staff may perform different administrative tasks based on AI data.

In a recent article in Science, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Tom Mitchell, a Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist, wrote that jobs, in their opinion, will be partly automated rather than disappear altogether.

I agree with this opinion as it relates to the future of AI in recruitment, admissions, progression and retention plans and programmes. I also believe that administrators charged with the responsibility of enrolling and graduating students cannot ignore the role AI will play in the future.

Marguerite J Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. She is author of International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder: Practical recommendations for international enrollment managers, deans and recruiters.