Can AI make college counseling more equitable?

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The College Guidance Network (CGN), an information resource center for counselors and students, held a virtual roundtable last week to introduce AVA, a state-of-the-art artificial intelligence-powered college counseling assistant. .

Thousands of people attended the demonstration, many identifying themselves as high school counselors and independent admissions counselors in the sidebar chat. Before long they were flooding the chat with questions and concerns.

Brennan Barnard, director of college counseling at the Khan Lab School and moderator of the roundtable, seemed pleased and a little nervous about the demo’s turnout.

“It speaks to a moment of critical potential,” he said. “And also, I believe, some trepidation. But I’m really hoping for one.”

Students have been using ChatGPT and other creative AI tools to write essays for over a year now, a trend that has raised alarm bells but is largely unstoppable. Even some college admissions offices have started using AI to ease their workload, however.

AVA, which will launch in pilot this fall, is a state-of-the-art AI counseling tool that aims to replicate the work of a high school counselor or private admissions consultant. Proponents of the technology say it can ease the burden on overworked counselors and give students 24/7 access to skills and information during application pressures. Critics fear it could be seen as a cheap alternative to high-impact counseling for students who need more human contact.

Angel Perez, president of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC), partnered with CGN on the launch of AVA to make the project a significant benefit to his organization. He spoke about NACAC’s role in helping admissions professionals train bots at the roundtable.

“I think a lot of our members are burying their heads in the sand about this problem. The truth is, we have to engage with the technology. It’s already here,” he said. Within Higher Ed. “It’s true that we’re stepping into the unknown, but I’d like to be involved in the evolution of this technology as well as awareness of it. If we don’t, someone else who’s for-profit, With less than ideal goals this will work.

Katie Cameron, a high school counselor and assistant executive director of the Nebraska School Counselor Association, attended the roundtable out of curiosity. She has a caseload of 300 students and was intrigued by the idea of ​​helping AVA better serve them.

“As counselors, we do more than college preparation,” he said. “I like the idea of ​​it, especially if it saves us time on simple tasks.”

Equity hopes and moral concerns

CGN CEO Jon Carson first began building what will become an informative college advising resource for students and families in 2019, after he had a “terrifying experience” helping his son apply to colleges. “Had gone through

“We were flying without instruments,” he told attendees at the virtual roundtable. “There were terrible inequities: side doors, back doors, expensive counselors; it was hard to get the advice we needed … The expectation seemed to be that our 17-year-old would navigate this alone.

AVA’s goal, he said, is to “democratize counseling.”

Currently, students in well-resourced public high schools and private boarding schools get frequent help from counselors with only a few dozen students on their caseloads, while students in cash-strapped public schools are lucky to have that year. I schedule a meeting. Carson argued that AI chatbots could serve families with limited access to counseling services, helping to close the large equity gap in college counseling.

AVA, the latest AI-powered college counseling tool, can answer questions on 110 topics related to college admissions.

Screenshot from the College Guidance Network Webinar.

AVA is also trained in multiple languages ​​— Carson said it will launch with one or two dozen options — making it a potential game changer for immigrant families who may struggle with language barriers in the application process. are

Royal Johnson, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Rosier School of Education, said he sees potential upside to introducing a tool like AVA to low-resource high schools, especially if it’s done by districts and families. Offered as a free resource for

But he also cautioned against entrusting AI with being involved in its advising and being sensitive to students’ lived identities.

“These tools, when you try to colorize them, often show some form of racial bias,” he said. “They need to be trained in racial sensitivity, which is a very difficult task.”

More than anything, Johnson worries that AI chatbots could exacerbate existing disparities in college counseling, especially if students who are less engaged in the admissions process are routinely sent to bots. While higher-income, highly motivated students are given access to more in-depth human counseling. .

“Students who AI counselors are meant to serve are also those who need contextual, high-contact counseling,” he said. “There are many risks and promises here.”

Ethical concerns also loom over the enterprise. A frequently asked question at the CGN Roundtable is related to the privacy of student data, an issue the hosts are actively working on. The underlying concept of AI’s place in the admissions process is also hotly debated.

NACAC is partnering with several universities to create an AI ethics committee, which Perez said will address ethical questions, including, “Should advisors use AI to write letters of recommendation? ” (His answer—”They already are!”) and, “Should students use AI to help them outline their admissions essays?”

CGN is recruiting consultants to help further develop AVA through the practice, Carson said. The nonprofit wants to build a “community of action” with volunteers who will test the tool and send feedback.

“We don’t have all the answers, and this is the best way to create something that people feel they can trust,” he said at the roundtable. “Because that’s who it’s for.”

More than just a chatbot?

AVA, Carson noted, is not a substitute for counselors. It is not intended to validate individual college listings or to reassure first-generation students that they belong in a lecture hall. This is human work, he said, and cannot be replicated by any AI, no matter how trained.

But AVA can answer basic questions about financial aid and application requirements, or help a student find the right framing device for an essay. In that way, AVA is like a streamlined, reliable resource for frequently asked questions, Barnard said — a way to steer students toward college and free up counselors’ time.

On CGN’s website, AVA is called “the first and only AI counseling assistant for students and families.” But there’s also Ivy, a comprehensive, creative AI consultant at education consulting and technology company CollegeVine.

CollegeVine co-founder Vinay Bhaskara drew a fine but important distinction between AVA and Ivy: The former, he said, is essentially an “expert chatbot,” a feature he said meant less. Didn’t have to, while Ivy is a “personal consultation”. system.”

At the roundtable, Carson said the AVA was trained on the knowledge of hundreds of experts on 110 topics in college admissions. Ivy was also developed with input from admissions experts, but it primarily takes its cues from student members’ individual college wine profiles, said Bhaskara, who works with deadlines and tasks during the application cycle. Keep track of lists and record their interests and desires. Ivy is also trained to be communicatively intelligent. It will remember previous conversations with students, and bring up the essentials.

Within Higher Ed The Ivy was given a private demonstration last fall, and this reporter can say that, based on demos of both the AVA and the Ivy, the difference seems accurate.

“Because [Ivy] Integrated into the network, it knows you better,” Bhaskara said. “It’s completely different from ChatGPT. It’s offering something unique.”

It sounds an awful lot like what a human counselor offers: personalized service, emotionally intelligent advice, a relationship that deepens over time. Bhaskara, like Carson, insists that his tool is meant to assist advisers, not replace them. But he said it’s not a bad thing that AI can duplicate the most essential parts of the job.

“AI must be part of the future of this sector,” he said. “The system has been demanding more capacity for 20 years. But it’s not going to be solved with chatbots. It’s going to be with comprehensive tools like ours.”

A counselor from Cameron, Nebraska, tried Ivy when she received an ad in her inbox last fall, amid a particularly tough application season. She faced dozens of requests for letters of recommendation, which she said often took an hour to write each. Ivy, he said, only cut it by a few minutes.

But Cameron isn’t too worried about AI taking over, and neither are the members of the Nebraska Counseling Association she chairs. Anything to ease the counselors’ workload and help her students is worth trying, she said.

The rest is just static.

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