The Rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data in Enrollment Management

higher ed communications

June 27, 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) and big data are currently front and center for evaluation and implementation in higher education. 

At a recent PACAC session on the challenges, trends, and technologies that are influencing enrollment management, leaders in the field opened up about what big data and AI will mean for enrollment teams. While someone described higher education as a slow moving beast, participants agreed that many colleges will embrace the technology and some will neglect it, but all enrollment teams are going through a transformation where technology and data roles are of growing importance.

Why are AI and big data becoming relevant now?

There are a number of external factors in higher education that are putting significant pressure on enrollment teams. With fewer high school graduates coming from increasingly diverse backgrounds, the rising cost of college tuition, and pressure from college presidents to increase net tuition revenue, enrollment leaders are asking themselves: How can I do more with the resources I already have?

That question is precisely the reason why artificial intelligence and big data are top of mind.

However, it’s not just a challenge in higher education. Many industries are using AI to meet the on-demand expectations of consumers. Some of this technology is invisible to users, but the customer service field has embraced AI. According to CCW, 64% of businesses are considering AI-driven call center technology, while 30% are committed to investing in AI this year.

While consumer customer service is a different operation than that of an admission office, some colleges get hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of the same questions from students each season around processes and their status. These are the questions that commonly flood the inbox of counselors or can cause a wait time on the phone of up to three hours! Some common questions that colleges receive over and over again include:

  • What is the cost of tuition?
  • Do you have a nursing program?
  • What do I have to do next?
  • When will I hear back if I get accepted or not?
  • How do I send in my test scores?

Having someone manually answer these questions every time they’re asked presents some challenges. First, it’s expensive using valuable staff time to answer questions that are on the college’s website or were recently emailed to the student. Secondly, this takes time away from the real reason why admission counselors entered the profession in the first place: to help students through this transformational time in their lives.

Before artificial intelligence, it was impossible to have 1:1 conversations with thousands of students, but now AI-powered virtual assistants and chatbots are having instantaneous conversations with students that are rivaling even human conversations. Together, chatbots can work in tandem to handle process and status-related questions, and loop in a counselor when needed.

Why wouldn’t a college just wait?

With companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and most Fortune 500 companies betting big on AI, there are likely to be larger and more frequent advances in this technology. However, artificial intelligence is unique in that it possesses a flywheel effect. This article from Jim Collins excellently describes the flywheel effect, but AI uses momentum on it’s side to become smarter and more effective the more it is used.  

When you start training an AI, it starts off knowing the basics, but just like an actual employee, it will learn more about the specific nuances and how to reply to unique questions with experience. With each new interaction, new behaviors are introduced and learned so that it continues to get smarter.

The end result is that colleges that start using AI now can introduce more complex processes later in order to reach a wider audience to benefit not only the increased knowledge growth, but also the operational efficiencies of the institution. This is the reason why enrollment teams see the promise in AI and big data; there are already great solutions that can increase the efficiency of teams, but they could be used to solve more challenges in different areas in the near future.

We’re excited to be working with enrollment teams to help overcome their communication challenges utilizing the power of AI, and to end this post I’ll leave you with a video imagining what an AI student experience could look like:

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