Colleges and AI Writing

If a student can’t write his admissions essay, how much of his college work will be machine-made?

It’s the beginning of September, which means schools have either already started or will soon start new academic years. Most colleges and universities are back in session. So, like most Labor Day weekends with absolutely no immediately biting crises on the news cycle, editors filled space with “school stories.”

The New York Times ran one on September 1: “Ban or Embrace? Colleges Wrestle with AI-Generated Admissions Essays” [link here]. Artificial intelligence meets college admissions. The gist of the story is that admissions offices are getting more and more applications with “personal essays” written by machines. Since AI “learns” by receiving more and more examples of a particular genre and computers can cut-and-paste discrete pieces of data faster than people can, enough examples of, say, a successful Columbia essay “teaches” the machine to spit out writing that combines a student’s “personal story” with all the buzzwords Columbia likes to see.

Is that gaming the system?

I think that’s the wrong question.

College admissions is a difficult business because of competing goals. A college wants to fill a freshman class. For tuition-driven private institutions (read, “most Catholic colleges and universities”) that demand is existential: they need to meet certain numbers to be able to pay their bills. Most Catholic institutions of higher learning are like many American families; they live on a cash-flow basis, whether that be paycheck-to-paycheck or tuition-payment-to-tuition payment. They don’t have fat endowments like the Ivies or rich relatives (read, “state legislatures”) from which public colleges can always try for help.

In most schools, admissions is made of five components: (1) Application and application fee — general administrative information you need to begin a file and a nice source of side revenue, even if you ultimately reject the applicant; (2) transcripts, i.e., records of student grades from high schools and any previous colleges; (3) standardized tests (SATs, ACTs), ostensibly because high schools are somewhat subjective in their grading (an “A” at Central Bilge High School may be worth a “C” at St. Dominic Academy) and standardized tests should help compare apples and oranges; (4) letters of recommendation, i.e., people who know the student as a person and can presumably say something insightful about him that the raw data doesn’t; and (5) personal essays, where the student gets his “last words” as a person to make his cause.

Now I offer an excursus on why essays have grown in importance. “Affirmative action” has affected admissions by promoting group identity as a relevant factor in admission decisions. Its opponents have attacked it because those group identities are usually “protected categories” under civil rights laws, meaning you cannot use things like “race” or “sex” against someone. Opponents argue, however, that is just what happens because, in giving extra standing to somebody because of a “protected category” (e.g., race) you have to deny standing to somebody else because of that category, which they call “reverse discrimination.” Why? Because the pool you are filling is limited. A college may only have 1,000 seats in its freshman class. If seat 741 is given to X because of his race (even if other factors qualify him for consideration), it means Y was denied that seat because of his race (all other factors being equal).

With last June’s Students for FAIR Admissions v. Harvard decision, which bars use of race in college admissions, personal essays have grown in importance. If a school can’t outright require racial or sexual self-identification, perhaps it can intuit it from the essay, which — wink, wink — “smart” students can use to inform schools about what they can’t ask. It’s a mutated form of “can’t-ask-do-tell.”

If you think this situation is complex now, just wait for the “enrollment cliff” coming to a college near you. It starts in 2025. Students that will be college freshmen then will have been born in 2007-08. Except they weren’t. Birth rates plummeted during the 2007-09 Recession and did not subsequently recover. The class of 2029 entering college in two years was contracepted and aborted out of existence. So, lots of colleges are going to be chasing fewer kids.

Circling back to AI in college essays: I am not against the use of technology. Technology is a tool and tools are good things insofar as they are tools and the right tools. But tools are subordinate to persons, which means the person should be the ultimate voice evaluating what the tool enabled him to do, fixing it as demanded.

Let me give two illustrations. Spell Check — a valuable tool.  I wasn’t sure last night how to spell “arrythmia.” Spell Check fixed my error. Great! But how often have you seen something like, “Its clear their is a Miss Spelling in this sentence!” Except it wasn’t clear to the student who turned in that paper. Another great tool: Google Translate — good for a down-and-dirty gist of a text. But if you know the language, you know Google Translate often mistranslates and rarely captures nuance. That requires you to know the language. I catch weird things from Google Translate of Polish. When I wanted to see local reporting on Pope Francis’s trip to Ulaanbaatar, I had to put my faith in Google Translate Mongolian. Traduttore traditore!

The same goes with AI. As a tool to tailor to one’s audience’s needs, it’s fine, just like I have no problem with a good imaging device taking measurements of my suit. It’ll help the tailor be more accurate than maybe even his tape measure. But a good tailor still has to decide whether he should nip where the picture says tuck.

That means that if the student can judge AI, then the student himself knows how to write. And that is the lost skill not being taught in elementary and secondary schools. If that skill is not acquired, you can prate all you want about forming “lifelong learners” and “critical thinkers,” but they are slaves, not masters, of what’s put in front of them, be it by doctrinaire teachers or AI technology.

I want to read a student essay in which the student speaks. No 17-year old’s essay is going to be “perfect,” even though the closer it is to that the better it recommends him. Ceilings can rise, but I do expect a floor: No “Miss Spellings” need apply.

And if a student can’t write his admissions essay, how many of his subsequent writings in college — papers, essays, even theses — will be machine products? Should we then pretend that graduate is “educated?”

Use your Spell Check and maybe even AI, but the product should still show me you, not what the computer spit out. That’s especially true for Catholic higher education. We are not just vocational schools. We educate the whole person, not just the worker. We (should) inculcate a vision of life. We have usually done that through a robust core curriculum in the liberal arts, something still differentiating Catholic higher education from its secular counterparts. And that vision of life puts the person — not his fancy tools — first. Because, as American writer Gretchen Rubin observes, “technology is a good servant but a bad master.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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