Streamlining Admissions: Opening the Front Door
THE ADMISSIONS OFFICE IS THE FIRST STOP for any student entering a higher education institution. A smooth process can not only instill confidence and reassure students they made the correct choice, but it also can make the lives of staff members better as well.
Consider implementing some or all of the following 10 tips for smoothing out bumps all along the admissions road.
IHEs are still discovering the value of this solution. Administrators at Widener University (Pa.) decided to build one after a student survey showed dissatisfaction with service from the registrar's, financial aid, and bursar's offices. The one-stop office's location, in a former Oldsmobile dealership, was not big enough to include the admissions staff, but the workflow processes do, says Larry Lesick, associate vice president for enrollment management. One big change--notifying students about incorrect information on the ISIR (institutional student information record) generated from the FASFA--has gone from taking 27 days to six hours. Another effort, no longer requiring essays with applications, reduced the reading time from 27 minutes to two minutes. And complaints about the three offices funneled through the president's office during the first two weeks of the term dropped 95 percent the first fall the center was open (in 2006). Lesick says the goal now is to get as many transactions as possible online. "We want to be a no-stop shop."
The process of matching student recipients to endowed scholarships used to be a manual, two-month process at Ohio Wesleyan University. In the spring, students would be sent a letter saying they had received an "Ohio Wesleyan Grant," and then the staff would check the criteria for all 200 endowed scholarships and in the fall send a new letter with the scholarship name. Students frequently thought they were receiving additional funds, explains Lee Harrell, assistant vice president of admission and financial aid, and because of the delay between receiving the funds and receiving the notice, they had no motivation to send thank you letters to donors. A student intern and an IT staff member built a comprehensive database of all the scholarships with qualification criteria and a program to automatically match and rank students to the funds. This spring students received a letter that already included the endowment name.
"We anticipate our workload in the fall will be eliminated," Harrell predicts, adding that they built the program in-house because they couldn't find a commercial product that would work with their systems. Once such a database is built, he says, "it's just a matching process."
There are a number of points in the process where this can be applied. At Fielding Graduate University (Calif.), the staff commandeered an existing in-house system and now scans all the relevant application materials. The documents are then posted in a secure location online where members of the review committee can access them. As for the three-to-five-day time it used to take to prepare materials for the review committee, it has been reduced to a day or two. The new system also saves postage, in addition to being more secure, says Lillian Simmons, admissions operations manager, since the materials aren't being mailed to multiple locations.
George Hudacheck, director of Admissions at the University of Minnesota, says using a scanning solution from ImageNow allows for better service to students. Now staff members can deal with questions that are called in immediately because all the records are available online. Previously, they would have had to track down a physical folder and perhaps had the applicant wait for a call back. An online application further streamlines the process.
Not just PDF images of high school transcripts, but actual digital versions that import directly into an SIS are gaining popularity. Through a service provided by ConnectEdu, The University of Iowa is currently receiving transcripts from four in-state high schools, says Michael Barron, assistant provost for enrollment services and director of admissions. Barron was recently part of a committee to help select a statewide vendor. He says electronic transcripts speed up the process and reduce errors because no one has to re-key information. Students are also able to sign in and see whether their records have arrived, reducing the number of calls the office receives. Pointing out that institutions have been receiving applications and tests scores electronically for years, Barron says academic records have been the missing link. (Xap Corporation is the other major service provider of electronic transcripts.)
As Barron said, corralling all the material required for an application is hard for the IHE and the student. Staff at Fielding Graduate University saw a big drop in phone calls and e-mails from students attempting to verify receipt of their application, transcripts, and letters of recommendation after implementing WebAdvisor from Datatel.
Applicants can access the service over the internet, which links directly with campus databases, to get up-to-the-minute information on their materials. The financial aid office also uses the system.
Students call about more than just their application. To help address other admissions and enrollment related questions, Hudacheck says staff at the University of Minnesota built an online, interactive FAQ page using software from RightNow Technologies. When students visit the website they see a variety of previously asked questions they can explore. If they still choose to submit a question, the system will search existing answers for possible matches and present them.
"We've found that upwards of 80 percent of people don't finish their question because they find the answer they need through those matches," Hudacheck says. When a new question is submitted, administrators can track it internally, see which staff member received it, and see when a response was sent. The question is automatically escalated to a supervisor if it isn't answered in one business day. Hudacheck explains it took about three months to determine which questions and answers to include and to standardize the text.
Institutions are trying to find ways to deal with "stealth applicants," those students whose first contact seems to be their application. Admissions staff at Binghamton University, State University of New York, added Google Analytics to their website as a way to see where these "mystery" applicants are located so they could target marketing efforts appropriately. "This tool offers us a way to be stealthy in reverse," explains Cheryl Fabrizi, director of enrollment management marketing.
If staff members attend a college fair, Fabrizi can check website traffic the next day to see whether there was an increase in traffic from the geographical area of the fair. She can also see what pages were visited and how long readers spent on a page. They recently saw an increase in traffic from New Jersey and were able to plan a recruitment trip in response. "We can more effectively deploy resources," she says.
Constituent relationship management technology can be used to track an applicant through the process and tailor communications. "We're using Intelliworks Orion for total management of our funnel," says Jeffrey Handler, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Empire State College, State University of New York. The software helps staff determine where a prospect came from by allowing them to see how a visitor navigated to the college's website. It also helps move applications through the admissions process by allowing staff to alter e-mail communication based on the applicant's status. Besides tracking the effectiveness of an e-mail by showing who opened it and what links were accessed, Handler can find out how many people signed up for and then attended open houses and other events. But he says his favorite part is the variety of real-time reports he can generate on a moment's notice. "We don't shudder when the president walks in and wants a report."
Administrators at the University of Michigan are using CRM from RightNow Technologies to a similar end. "We just e-mailed 130,000 rising [high school] seniors and it took about 10 minutes," says Sally Lindsley, senior associate director of undergraduate admissions. The goal was to let students know the written response questions for their application were available online and to remind them to get letters of recommendation. "Before, we would send an e-mail and we didn't know if it was effective," she explains. Now they know e-mails sent from Tuesday through Thursday between 2 and 3 in the afternoon are most likely to be read. The system is also used to customize communications based on a student's interest and status. Lindsley says that in addition to saving time, the department has saved money on printing and postage by switching to e-mails.
With any of the CRM systems currently available, administrators can track all contact with prospects and provide them a personalized experience on their way to matriculation.
When a student in Minnesota wanted to compare offerings at colleges and universities in the state, he or she had to visit each campus or website. Now students can do their preliminary research through Minnesota Online. Originally developed to address the needs of online students, the service has morphed into a front door for the entire Minnesota State College and University System. Students can start their research online and then either enroll in online courses or be handed off to the brick and mortar campuses. Student records are tracked using CRM from RightNow. Linda Thompson, a Minnesota Online representative, says the service even handles the entire admissions process for some campuses. She says other IHEs have called to find out more about them and suggests their model would work best for large institutions with a number of academic colleges, but even smaller institutions have found a takeaway from their structure.
Administrators at Seton Hall University (N.J.) found that administering placement tests during orientation took up too much time for both staff and students-time that students could have spent becoming familiar with campus. In addition, students could not register for classes because their scores weren't available. Wendiann Sethi, director of the Department of Developmental Math, addressed the problem by implementing the Maplesoft-MAA Placement Test Suite. Staff time and effort is saved because the test suite has a variety of questions to choose from when building a test, and scoring is instantaneous. Student time is saved because students can take the test online from home so that when they arrive on campus they can be assigned courses and participate in orientation activities, rather than be stuck in a testing room.
The Maplesoft Test is valid for any course with a math component, including science and engineering courses. Other companies provide tests for reading comprehension and writing skills, such as Compass from ACT, Accuplacer from The College Board, and Aleks, which has a tutoring component.
From revising policies and processes to using modern technology to keep in touch with prospects, college and university administrators are finding creative ways to assess, automate, and adjust the admissions process to make it more efficient. For staff and students alike, the process can be painless. Now someone just has to figure out how to keep students calm while waiting for their acceptance letter.