Colleges see competition in streamlining data

Many campuses have seen student applications spike.

Legions of filing cabinets have become casualties of higher education’s war for students.

Computer-based admissions and financial aid systems are not nearly ubiquitous in higher education, with many schools shuffling reams of paper from office to office, costing precious time and staff hours while competing colleges process their decisions as many as several days earlier.

Campuses with paper-based admissions and financial aid processes are at a distinct disadvantage in their always-heated competition for students applying to many schools every winter and spring.

Streamlining thousands of student applications and financial aid requests and using programs that automatically fill out large portions of student forms hasn’t just put college decisions in applicants’ hands earlier, but also has avoided inevitable typing and data entry mistakes that can bring the application process to a grinding halt.

Craig Williams, manager of enterprise document imaging services at Northern Illinois University (NIU), said before the campus switched to an electronic admissions system, admissions officers had to make a paper file for every applicant. If the application wasn’t complete, campus employees had to constantly check for the proper paperwork in a student’s folder.

In short, the university’s admissions process was inefficient and antiquated.

And to house this paper-based system, Williams said NIU’s admissions offices took on a distinct look.

“We had rooms full of filing cabinets, entire cubicles made of cabinets,” he said. “They were everywhere.”

NIU’s undergraduate and graduate admissions officials moved their operation to Hyland Software’s OnBase system along with the campus’s dining services, general counsel, and information technology services, among other departments.

“It’s so competitive out there in higher education. We know we have to get the information out there to the students faster and process their documents as fast as possible,” Williams said. “We know other schools are going as fast as they can. … Everyone wants to get that information in the students’ hands as quickly as possible.”

Changing NIU’s financial aid processing has saved the university upwards of $90,000 annually. Streamlining data entry has slashed the number of overtime hours needed during peak application seasons.

National statistics reflect the growing pressure on campus admissions officials to process applications as quickly and accurately as possible. The University of Southern California (USC) this year received more than 46,000 student applications, an increase of more than 9,000 from 2011, according to U.S. Department of Education records.