IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Opinion: Automation Can Be a Useful Disruption for Higher Ed

With the U.S. college-age population poised to drop after 2025, automation might help universities improve student-facing functions such as course and exam scheduling, facilities usage, registrar and career services.

According to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of 94,000 undergraduate students between 2021 and 2022, continuing a trend of historic decline from the past several years of more than a million fewer students enrolling in college.

This is stark data for university and college leaders, especially considering it is compounded by an increase in employee turnover, rising costs and decreased funding. At the same time, universities must keep pace with digital transformation to meet the evolving needs of students, faculty and administrators. Artificial intelligence (AI)-powered automation can help the higher education industry tap into greater efficiencies to help address these acute challenges. Automation of time-consuming, repetitive and routine work at universities and colleges can free employees from mundane tasks and allow them to focus on higher-value work that leads to meaningful improvements.

Many higher education institutions are already applying automation to improve speed and accuracy of functions, such as financial reporting, human resources and payroll. More advanced automation and AI platforms are being used to address employee- and student-facing functions, such as admissions, grants administration, financial aid, student services and information technology department functions, allowing for an improved experience.

Automation across the student life cycle, from admission to graduation to alumni engagement, is a critical factor in improving engagement. Automation combined with AI also learns and improves over time, providing institutions with more opportunities to meet student success criteria in a complex academic landscape.


The higher education industry began facing a decline in enrollment and staff retention before the COVID-19 pandemic and has suffered even sharper drops in the last few years. Industry research by economist Nathan Grawe of Carleton College in Minnesota, for example, predicts a 15 percent drop in the college-going population between 2025 and 2029. Some of the decreases in enrollment can be attributed to a rise in mental health challenges across the primary age group of those seeking higher education. A 2022 survey by the business intelligence company Morning Consult found trust in U.S. colleges and universities by young adults needs to be earned and not taken for granted, with 35 percent of Gen Z adults reporting that they do not trust higher education institutions.

This is why, despite challenges, institutions have continued moving forward with digital transformation. Students, faculty and administrators are taking a more holistic look at what defines success and adjusting campus support to match that definition, according to a 2022 report released by learning management system developer Instructure and Hanover Research. Achieving academic success is still important, but so are work/career readiness (82 percent), skill competency (87 percent) and student advancement (83 percent).

Automation can help universities focus on student-facing functions and enhance the overall student experience, and by extension academic success, by interacting directly with data that is inputted or used by students. The most common use cases are in the admissions office for course and exam scheduling, facilities usage, registrar, student services and career services.

For example, Georgia Southern University (GSU) recently used automation technology to transfer articulation test scores into the student information system. Articulation is the transfer of earned college credit from one university to another based on Advanced Placement tests or comparable courses from community colleges or other four-year institutions. Reviewing and entering test scores from the report was a manual process for the enrollment division, which experienced high staff turnover. On average, admissions personnel at the school view 5,500 test scores a year, and automation technology took that burden off an overwhelmed and reduced staff.

Additionally, AI-powered automation within GSU’s academic advisement office help streamline recruitment efforts and continue to help students on their journey through higher education, not only providing insights before their in-person meetings with advisers but also checking in on their mental health.

Some use cases in other universities where automation helped drive efficiency in student services include:

  • Student reimbursements: An automation validates student reimbursement data with the school’s internal systems to confirm reimbursement payments.
  • Student stipends: An automation validates student stipend data between different internal systems to ensure that data is accurate and that payments can be issued.
  • Department of Education inbound/outbound file processing: An automation downloads essential files from the department so that student loans and grants won’t be missed in the process.

Institutions should be thinking about how to use automation on a higher scale. For example, a university might be dealing with a decrease in endowments or gifts. An automation specialist within the IT team would ask the head of the endowments division how they receive money. One way is having a connection with people who have graduated. The automation team could then develop an automation that scans graduates on LinkedIn. If they move to a new job, the bot could send an email or LinkedIn post congratulating them. As a next step, the automation could send a follow-up email inviting the graduate for dinner or a roundtable discussion with the university president or other high-level officials. Afterward, another automation could engage graduates again, reminding them of the importance of giving back to the university.


Universities and colleges are being asked to enhance many aspects of student life, from academics to social interactions to mental well-being, while undergoing continuous digital transformation that impacts employees’ work as well. Automation is helping this transformation at leading institutions around the world, typically through cross-collaboration between leadership, IT and individual departments. With AI-powered automation, the student and employee experience can be drastically improved, which can result in greater engagement, student retention and employee satisfaction. Implementing automation can be a catalyst of disruption for the betterment of higher education.

Todd Schroeder is vice president of public sector at UiPath, an international software company based in New York that makes automation tools.