By Mike Meotti and Drew Magliozzi
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the fact that American workers at all levels are at a crossroads due to the relentless improvement of technology. The World Economic Forum in 2020 found that, amid “the largest experiment in mass remote-working in history,” more than half of businesses have accelerated automation in response to the crisis. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the path to economic opportunity in the United States was, in many ways, less clear than ever as workers’ careers have taken increasingly non-traditional routes with technology carving new tracks and creating new ways of working.
Technology has always been a disruptive force. But can it also be employed as an accelerant? How can we help current and incoming students, recent graduates, and working learners navigate a fragmented landscape of education and work?
Against a backdrop of unprecedented volatility, policymakers and technologists must harness technology and utilize some of the very forces that are causing this upheaval to build new routes to economic mobility for all students.
While Artificial Intelligence (AI) and related technologies are often seen as disruptors, these same technology-based tools can redefine what’s possible and guide students through the challenges of college and careers.
Defining the Problem: Three Inflection Points
As we see it, there are three primary inflection points on the journey to and through college. We’ve made the focus of our work to address a set of pervasive, pernicious challenges that are keeping too many people from accessing the sort of educational opportunities that can be a path to economic mobility for all. AI is a powerful tool to address these very challenges.
- College Access. We’re focused on addressing the increasing inequities around college access, including so-called “summer melt,” in which promising students apply and are accepted to college, but never show up in the fall. Each year, summer melt affects an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the more than 2 million students who plan to attend college -- the rates are higher, sometimes up to 40 percent higher, among low-income and first-generation students. In addition, today’s students are making key decisions about their education and careers amid an unprecedented pandemic that has already taken its toll on college access, particularly for students of color.
- College Completion. Unfortunately, simply enrolling in college is only the beginning of a postsecondary journey that is too often bumpy for students who don’t receive enough support. As a result, we’re also focused on challenges with persistence and completion, and working to ensure that colleges and universities have the resources to help students not just get in but stay in and graduate. At open-admissions colleges, which are open to virtually all applicants with a high school diploma or GED certificate, the persistence rate is just 62 percent. And at any institution, open-admissions or not, completion rates are worse for low-income and first-generation students than for their peers from higher-income or more-educated households -- leading to persistent and substantial disparities in graduation rates between white students and their Black and Latinx peers.
- Career Entry. Of course, the journey doesn’t end at college graduation either. For recent college graduates,underemployment has become a “pervasive problem,” according to the Strada Institute for the Future of Work. Researchers found that 43 percent of college graduates in 2018 were underemployed in their first job -- that is, they were employed in a job that didn’t require the skills and credentials they had earned, which has dangerous downstream effects for their long-term career prospects. At the same time, automation threatensworkers in both blue- and white-collar professions: a 2017 white paper from economists at McKinsey & Company predicted that roughly 60 percent of jobs might see about 30 percent of skills automated. An earlier paper from Oxford University concluded that AI, robotics and other developments would likely fully eliminate 47 percent of jobs. Recent surveys of business leaders suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is hastening this process, with about six in 10 businesses saying they need to develop “new processes” in response to the realities of the pandemic. And the Education Trust found that focusing on racial gaps in college graduation rates may actually mask even bigger disparities in post-college success for Black and Latinx students, as they navigate a labor market that is rife with discrimination and systemic bias.
In short, the path to and through college is not an easy one -- but if history is any guide, the degree will only become more important as automation and technological change reshape the labor market and demand constant retraining. In the wake of the last recession, for instance, workers with college degrees were spared from the worst declines in employment and wages, while those with less postsecondary education experience bore the brunt of the economic downturn. Our determination to ensure that more students don’t just enroll in college, but graduate and enter into fulfilling careers has been the catalyst for us to look to AI for ways to address these challenges.
AI in Education
A decade ago, we would have had to exponentially increase the number of college counselors in schools to exponentially increase the number of first-generation college students. With technology, we can have a bigger impact at a smaller cost, elevating the people who do the work and finding ways to put them in the highest-leverage situations.
When a student gets a text from Otter, they reply directly to the message. Students can also query Otter by text at any time. If the app receives a question it can’t answer, it will send the message to a financial aid expert or other college admission staff member from the Washington Student Achievement Council.
While it’s still early, results from the program suggest that it’s making a difference. In the first year after Otterbot’s launch, students who interacted more frequently or received more messages from the chatbot were also more likely to have better outcomes (e.g., higher high school graduation and Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates). More specifically, among students who asked Otterbot five or more questions, over 86% graduated from high school and over 60% completed the FAFSA.
It’s not hard to paint a rosy picture of AI’s potential as an engine to drive better connectivity between education, work, and economic opportunity. But it’s also important to consider what we give up in exchange for a more accurate navigation system.
By this point, we’re all used to Google knowing everything about us. There’s no better way to understand real-time traffic patterns, or tell riders when the subway is going to arrive, than to be constantly sending and receiving data from every car on the road or train on the track. Technology, much of it powered by artificial intelligence, is following us wherever we go and whatever decisions we make. Does it know too much?
The truth is, of course, that it’s never black and white. Artificial intelligence has rightly been the source of significant skepticism throughout the education world -- from its role in student data privacy to the invasiveness associated with online test proctoring and the opportunity cost of not having human interaction in spaces that may be uniquely human and collaborative. Accusations of algorithmic bias have brought to the forefront a very real, and very dangerous side effect of our enthusiasm for technology: if not designed intentionally, and with empathy, it runs the risk of perpetuating -- if not exacerbating -- the endemic biases that are the foundations of inequity in our society.
What does an ethical, empathetic, student-focused approach to AI look like in practice? It’s a question being considered by a growing number of companies, and the answers are still taking shape. But our work helping facilitate communication between schools and students may point to some promising practices, including these:
- Be transparent. Take data security seriously. Be up-front about both the potential risks inherent in any new technology, as well as the clear steps being taken to address those risks, which goes a long way not only to just assuaging users but also to cultivating a company culture that prioritizes responsibility and integrity.
- Know your limits. AI is a vitally important tool for communicating key information -- like filing deadlines, reminders, and admissions tips -- to thousands of students at once. But it can’t do everything. Constant monitoring by human advisors, and the ability to quickly elevate serious issues to those advisors, is as important as continuing to advance the capabilities of the technology itself.
- Strike the right tone. The DC-based think tank New America’s groundbreaking report “How You Say It Matters” should be mandatory reading for any college (or institution of any kind) hoping to communicate using artificial intelligence. The report’s thesis stresses the importance of both encouragement and clarity: “Be sure to balance a positive tone with a realistic approach so that students are both encouraged to continue their education but are not set up with false hopes for their success.” In our case, that’s meant a lot of coaching with Washington’s statewide AI tools to ensure that they are striking the right balance of clear guidance and positivity.
- Measure what matters. When implementing a new tool or technology, institutions should set clear metrics to ensure that both the institution and the technology developer are held accountable for results. Whether the goal is to help more students enroll, boost persistence and completion, or increase rates of FAFSA filing, setting objectives, and regularly measuring progress will ensure that you aren’t just implementing technology for its own sake. Georgia State’s randomized controlled trials are an example of an institution’s intensive efforts to ensure that technology was being applied with measurable and distinct results.
It may be fair to say that we’re in an interim period, one that has been the subject of far less apocalyptic speculation, wherein AI and other new technologies are beginning to demonstrate their utility and potential when applied to solve pressing societal problems. That’s what we’re beginning to see in Washington state and at colleges around the country: artificial intelligence that, far from eliminating the role of human workers, actually supports their work and enables them to help more people more effectively. In a world that is -- often rightfully -- skeptical about the transformative impact of technology in society, we hope examples like these can cut a more hopeful path forward with many opportunities to help people move from learning to earning faster and more effectively.
About the Authors:
Mike Meotti is the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), the state’s higher education agency. He has served as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Higher Education and executive vice president of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education.
Drew Magliozzi is co-founder and CEO of AdmitHub, a ground-breaking communication platform that uses AI to help students navigate college admissions, enrollment, and completion processes.