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It's Electric

Colleges and universities are finding that an electronic admissions process can improve efficiency while still making students feel unique.
University Business, Mar 2007

Just to drive home the fact that the current class of traditional students is more tech savvy than adults, Beloit College's (Wis.) Mindset List, an annual measure of pop-culture relativity, points out they use text messaging as their e-mail. In response to the next generation's digital obsession, many institutions of higher education have added online admissions applications only because it is expected of them, but they don't take advantage of the inherent benefits. The IHEs benefiting from offering online applications are the ones that have truly embraced electronic admissions processes and the digital back office that goes with them.

Consider the experience of Columbia College Chicago, which began an electronic initiative three years ago. "We are now processing 50 percent more applications than we used to and the staff feels far less burdened," reports Murphy Monroe, executive director of Admissions.

And at Bergen Community College (N.J.), a 1997 effort to smooth the application process led to a technologically advanced and streamlined back office, with one result being a reduction in the number of internal review steps to admit a student to the veterinary technology program from 43 to 23.

The reasons institutions launch an electronic admissions initiative are as varied as the methods they use. "The kids are just assuming you have the capability," says Raymond H. Brown, dean of Admissions at Texas Christian University. To meet that expectation, an online application was introduced at TCU four years ago, and use has grown from 10 percent the first year, when it wasn't advertised, to 83 percent last year, when it was.

The decision to eliminate paper applications entirely was made last July after the institution sent out 50,000 paper applications and received only 600, around 1.2 percent, back the same way. So Brown informally surveyed some high school guidance counselors in "tiny Texas towns and poor areas" and learned that they supported TCU's plan.

California Polytechnic State University (often referred to as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo) has been all digital, all the time since 1996. James L. Maraviglia, assistant vice president of Admissions, Recruitment and Financial Aid, explains that surveys done in the early 1990s indicated students didn't want to use paper. So they launched a DOS-based electronic application in 1992. From there, the university has developed an entire electronic admission strategy that now includes personalized web portals, streaming video, e-mail, and phone messages. Communications are tailored depending on which stage of the process a student is in. There are even special messages for parents and alumni. "You can't just have a portal," Maraviglia says, "You have to have drivers in place. It has to be systematic."

After taking the first step, IHEs often find it easy to jump right in and expand their overall online offerings. An online application from CollegeNET was available for 10 years for prospective students of Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.), but admissions leaders switched to Datatel's ActiveAdmissions product a year ago for all but international student applications, says Lynne Boehne, director of Admission Services. The new system allows the institution to offer a personalized web portal, improved e-mail communication, and online application status tracking for students and guidance counselors.

At Bergen Community College, when administrators realized back in the 1990s that their students were frustrated with the application and registration process, the president challenged senior management to solve the problem.

"We got the technology right," says Michael Redmond, executive vice president, "but we didn't change policies and procedures." So he and his department teamed with SunGard Collegis, and two years and 100 pages later, they had mapped every process involved in enrolling a student.

Along the way, Redmond says they discovered a lot of shadow systems and duplicate efforts. Although they had Datatel Colleague in place, some staff members still tracked applicants with paper and pencil lists, for example. During the workflow redesign they learned to trust the technology.

A similar thing happened at Columbia College Chicago. When Monroe arrived three years ago, aggressive new recruitment goals had just been implemented. He realized he had to maximize his staff's productivity, but "the majority of their time was spent on back office duty," such as data entry and filing. The college teamed with Hobsons EMT to review business processes and ways to better utilize technology. Now staff have more time to spend with students, who receive faster responses to inquiries. "Having everything digital is a timesaver," Monroe says. The institution has also reduced application to acceptance time-from three to five weeks down to two weeks.

But processes don't always have to be totally revamped. At Cal Poly the workflows have been in place for years; the tool sets may change, but the workflows remain the same, says Maraviglia. Staff at Mount St. Mary's College (Calif.) have actually added steps to the school's admissions process, explains Dean Kilgour, dean of admissions, because now an automated response goes out when an application is received electronically.

Bergen's Redmond suggests that institutions considering a switch to electronic admissions have a plan in place. If the application process is changed without taking into account the impact on Financial Aid and other departments, roadblocks might just be moved from one department to another.

Just don't underestimate the general stress such a major organizational change can cause, Redmond adds. To make sure nothing was overlooked and no department was left out at Bergen, everyone from collective bargaining units to the Financial Aid staff was involved in the redesign process. Now that the staff thoroughly understands the policies and procedures, they can continue to offer ways to improve, notes Pricilla Klymenko, director of Enrollment Services.

When Columbia College's staff began to rework business processes, Monroe explains, a new strategic plan was being launched, which helped get everyone on board with the changes. He also made an effort to be clear and consistent about why changes were necessary. At the beginning, there was some resistance because people were afraid the technology would make the admission process less personal, but the opposite has proven true, because the staff has more free time to respond to student inquires. "Today's teenagers are more and more used to having personalized communications directed at them," Monroe says. "It's incumbent upon us to communicate with them the way they want, rather than make them conform to our older processes."

Having a good partnership with the IT department in place is crucial for institutions embarking on electronic admissions. Rob Durkle, director of admissions at the University of Dayton (Ohio), says his institution's Enrollment Management Division (which includes admissions, financial aid, and the VP of Enrollment) has its own five-person IT staff. This made the transition to electronic smoother and allowed them to build custom systems in-house.

And in the end, integrating the technology is the key to a successful change. Having an online application made TCU look like it had up-to-date technology, but Brown points out that "students didn't know what we had to go through." A common major stumbling block is an online application that does not feed directly into the student information system-meaning staff must print out and rekey the application information. It's a process Brown calls "absurd." Now applications feed directly into the SIS, and it's none too soon. "We just barely made it last year with current staff levels," he says. TCU's applications have increased greatly from 4,800 five years ago to more than 10,000 this year.

Of course, when application data feeds automatically, errors can't be introduced during the rekeying process, and the data is more accurate. Another benefit to the electronic system, points out Maraviglia, is fewer incomplete applications because applicants can't move to the next step until each previous step is completed correctly.

"It's incumbent upon us to communicate with [prospective
students] the way they want, rather than make them conform
to our older processes." -Murphy Monroe, Columbia College Chicago

Another beneficial feature, also a growing trend, is that information captured by the system-either what a prospect enters online or information gathered from college fairs or the SAT-can be prepopulated on the person's application.

Some schools use scanning and digital imaging to get around the lack of communication between systems, and the fact that transcripts and other supporting documents still come in as hard copies. At Columbia, the online application feeds directly into the SIS, and paper applications and documents are sent to Microsystems, an outside vendor that performs data entry and scanning services. The firm also uploads new information directly into Columbia's database. All admissions mailings have also been outsourced.

At Suffolk University (Mass.), documents are imaged using technology from ImageNow. Bob DiGaurdia, director of administrative computing, explains it was the offer that best interfaced with the existing Datatel Colleague system. "Screen scraping" technology allows them to link any document or electronic media to a student's record, even the person's ID photo.

Dayton's in-house system uses a combination of automatic uploads and scanned and linked images of transcripts. This has kept the data entry load about the same, Durkle says, but the process enables admissions counselors to see an entire application packet, including the original online application, transcripts, and letters of recommendation, from the office or home, or from the road.

Having everything digital and automatic not only saves the staff from the tedious task of data entry, but it frees time so they can concentrate on more important matters. An example of the efficiency of the system: In one day Gustavus Adolphus received 102 applications, and all the records were updated within five minutes, shares Boehne.

Students and guidance counselors can also check the application's status online, which has cut down on inquiries of that nature. Although the department is processing 30 percent more applications this year, staff levels have remained the same and staff time is better utilized.

"The kids are just assuming you have the capability." -Raymond Brown, Texas Christian University

Bergen officials have combined registration and admissions into one department, Enrollment Services. Staff members have been cross-trained, and Klymneko says there is more of a team atmosphere because they can all pitch in during busy times.

Redmond says another benefit of the improved technology and workflow at Bergen is that the staff members are now free to work more closely with students. The institution has also experienced a rise in applications. In 2005, total applications increased by 15 percent; online applications rose by 114 percent.

Electronic Transcripts-The Next Step

Online applications may seem old hat compared to a new revolution that prospective students and institutions find valuable-electronic transcripts.

North Carolina officials have worked with Xap Corporation to set up an online statewide resource and college planning tool for high school students. Brian Williams, director of technology and internet services at the College Foundation of North Carolina, says 1.4 million students have created accounts and 588,750 online applications have been processed since July 2001. One-third of the state's high schools have been equipped to transmit transcripts electronically, and 11,600 were processed from August 2005 through July 2006.

"We're seeing not only sustained growth every month, but since 2001 every month has exceeded the previous year's growth for that month," Williams says. So far the systems only work in-state, but Williams says they use Electronic Data Interchange as defined by Postsecondary Electronic Standards Counsel ( to be ready for when a national method for electronic transfer of transcripts is developed. Some other states have similar web systems for high school students, as well.

The University of Michigan, using a ConnectEdu product, recently began accepting e-transcripts from high schools. Data is uploaded into Connect! after each grade period, and then downloaded into a college's student information system once the student requests a transcript. Like the Xap system, this one crosses state lines. Michigan State University; University of Connecticut; Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey; and Missouri State University have all signed on.

Students expect an institution to have an online application, but does that mean they'll actually be able to use it? After all, certainly not every student owns a computer. Cal Poly's Maraviglia says that, during the last application cycle, 13 students didn't have computer access, so admissions staff worked with them one-on-one.

For this reason, some schools aren't ready to make the leap to all-electronic applications. Mount St. Mary's College is maintaining a paper application because the admissions staff knows a good percentage of its target population does not have access to technology. "We're at a crossroads with our population," says Kilgour.

But for the school's nursing program, which has high interest for a limited number of seats, an online application is the only option. The Bergen redesign team also carefully considered how a paper and online application would work together, with computer access not being universal. Although admissions staff at Gustavus receive more than 60 percent of applications online, paper applications remain available. "We believe in giving students a choice," Boehne explains.

While Dayton went all electronic in 2002, Durkle says they are actually considering bringing paper applications back in some areas. High school guidance councilors have told him that although students have access to computer labs, they might not have enough time in their schedule to complete an entire application online.

Durkle says having the application online has led to a higher number of applicants, and better applicants in general. One indication of this: Average SAT and ACT scores are higher than in the past. Dayton's new goal is to begin increasing diversity. However, having the application exclusively online has not hampered diversity. In fact, Durkle says some of the largest classes of African-American and Hispanic students came during the initial online launch.

Because Cal Poly might receive 34,000 applications but only have space for 3,800 to 4,000 freshmen, the institution has systems in place to screen and rank applicants based on the number of spaces available in a program. "Obviously you have to have a very strong data management team," Maraviglia says. Cal Poly has Hobsons EMT Connect, PeopleSoft, Oracle, and a homegrown database in place to manage it all.

Whether the goal is to meet student technology expectations, streamline the process, or remove burdens from staff and students, an electronic process certainly has its advantages. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which put Talisma's Strategic Enrollment Management CRM system in place four years ago to help in recruiting, has found it a valuable tool for planning and recruiting. But Deanna Reynolds, coordinator of information management, cautions administrators to know what they are getting into. "Some people think the software will save them, and it can-if you know what you want."

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