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Navigating the AI Wave in Higher Education and the Workforce

AI is here to stay, but in applying it in higher ed settings, institutions must focus on using it to free up time for uses to which humans are better suited.

With adoption of the technology accelerating in the workplace, it’s time to prepare students for the fast-approaching future.

The recent advances in—and commercialization of—generative artificial intelligence have launched thousands of predictions for how the burgeoning technology will reshape higher education and the workforce. The jury may still be out, but it’s clear that AI isn’t going anywhere. That means it’s time to put any residual AI angst behind us, educate ourselves and focus on applying the technology in a positive way.

In the whirlwind of recent headlines, many are missing a key point: It’s up to colleges and universities to teach students how to use AI ethically, efficiently and effectively, and it’s up to employers to create guidelines and procedures to govern its adoption in the workplace.

More than 15 months after ChatGPT catapulted AI to new heights, many questions remain about the technology’s full potential. At the same time, students are already expecting higher education institutions to prepare them to use AI in the workforce, and employers are already expecting students to understand how to responsibly use it.

Ushering in a Brave New World

For most employers, AI remains a new concept. And many continue to wrestle with the idea that it will become a permanent part of the workday, as its infiltration of companies across the country ramps up.

In the latest annual report from McKinsey & Company on the state of AI, 30% of respondents said their workplace already uses AI regularly for at least one business function, and 40% said their company expects to increase investment in it. However, just 21% said their organization had established policies governing AI use at work, even though respondents widely agreed that AI adoption will reshape many roles in the workforce in the next three years alone. That adoption only continues to accelerate: A recent survey from Slack found AI use in the workplace jumped 24% just in the final quarter of 2023.  

The AI wave in the workplace won’t be receding anytime soon. With massive productivity gains and cost efficiencies on the line, companies in every sector across the country will be looking to tap into the technology while avoiding its inherent pitfalls such as biased datasets, inaccurate information and security concerns. Teaching students how to ride the wave, particularly after they graduate, is where higher education leaders come in.

Guiding Students on Ethics, Practical Applications

According to a recent Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey, 72% of students believe their college or university should take an active role in preparing them to use AI in the workplace. That number was even higher for newer students, with 81% of those in the class of 2027 saying their institutions should be helping prepare them, compared to 66% of the class of 2024.

The survey also found that more than 70% of students said their number one priority is learning the ethics of AI, with core skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving and an understanding of AI’s practical applications rounding out the top three. 

At Villanova University, we’ve quickly ramped up teaching students how to use AI ethically and effectively in an academic setting, with an eye toward how they’ll use the technology in future job hunts—and eventually actual jobs. At this point, AI isn’t capable of providing responses that users can just copy and paste, no matter how simple the task. As a result, an important skill set students need when entering the workforce is being able to determine whether the information they’re receiving is correct.  

That’s why Villanova is leaning into teaching AI proficiency skills. Through real-time exercises, we show students the drawbacks of relying on AI entirely by highlighting how the technology hallucinates, inserts bias or spews out misinformation. We also teach how to write effective prompts to get more useful responses, while placing heavy emphasis on not copying and pasting whatever ChatGPT provides.

Where we’ve found AI to be the most helpful with students is in the job application process. By using it as a tool to help with resume-writing and organization, thank you letters and similar lower-order tasks, we’ve found that AI actually frees us up to spend more time talking to students about the important parts that no machine can ever fully understand: their passions, experiences, leadership and career choices.

Harnessing AI in Higher Education

It’s clear that AI is making inroads with career services professionals in small but meaningful ways. In a 2023 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey, more than 40% of career services professionals said they used AI for work tasks over the past year, with writing emails and letters among the most common applications of the technology. Fewer professionals, however, tapped into AI for student-facing work. Those who did used it primarily to help draft resumes and cover letters, similar to how we’re proceeding with the technology at Villanova.

If AI is going to revolutionize higher education and the workplace, it’s critical we start working with it—not against it. AI’s potential to remove some of the transactional parts of career services could be just the launch point we need to meet students where they are and connect on a deeper level. But first we must push any fear aside, educate ourselves and focus on harnessing AI’s potential for good.