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College Application Essays: Redefining Equity

A recent New York Times article, titled “Ban or Embrace? Colleges Wrestle With A.I.-Generated Admissions Essays,” justifiably questions whether students should be allowed to use ChatGPT or other A.I. to help write their college application essays.

What this question ignores, however, is that A.I. detectors have been rendered useless by the newest version of ChatGPT (version 4.0). So asking whether or not students should be allowed to use A.I. when colleges know that students will use A.I. is irrelevant. As Rick Clark, the executive director of undergraduate admissions at Georgia Tech whom I have high respect for, acknowledges in the article, “Students on some level are going to have access to and use A.I.”

But Clark’s subsequent argument is tenuous: “It’s free, it’s accessible and it’s helpful. It’s progress toward equity.”

That it is free, accessible, and helpful is absolutely true.

That it is “progress toward equity” is doubtful.

Banning ChatGPT has been likened to banning calculators: only a Luddite would oppose the use of A.I. Maybe. But I think it’s doubtful that ChatGPT and calculators are an accurate comparison. With a calculator, students still need to know how Math works. With ChatGPT, students do not need to understand writing. At all. Every student can produce a top 1% essay in minutes.

The better comparison then is that banning ChatGPT is more like banning access to Google on a multiple-choice History exam. Of course if you give students access to the internet, they will ace the History exam — they will not need to know anything at all. The same is true with ChatGPT.

However, Clark’s point about equity still has some ring of truth: previously, only the children of the wealthy had access to highly paid admissions consultants and essay “editors” (who would write the essays for students if need be). Now everyone has access to an essay “editor.”

But is that equity?

It depends how you define equity. Yes, it is more fair in a relative sense that all students, not just the wealthy, can now cheat the system on college application essays. But allowing everyone to cheat is a far cry from what I think most of us would define as equity. Shouldn’t an “equitable” outcome be a desirable outcome? Why would it be desirable in an absolute sense for everyone to be able to cheat?

More equitable and desirable solutions, it seems to me, would be to mandate 1) that everyone writes their Common App essay in a proctored setting without A.I. or 2) to remove college application essays from admissions consideration. The first option (proctored essays) would be preferable: there is value in learning about a student beyond their resume. But the second option (no essays) still seems better than never knowing if a student’s work is their own, which leads colleges to make decisions about an individual that quite literally may not reflect the individual in any way at all.

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