It's Electric: Colleges and Universities Are Finding That an Electronic Admissions Process Can Improve Efficiency While Still Making Students Feel Unique

Article excerpt

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.

Driving Force

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.

A Real Commitment

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. …