College admissions officials turn to iPad to streamline applications

The ratio of applicants to enrollments has dropped every year since 2003.

What once took a week to collect, organize, and collate has been reduced to a few clicks on an Apple iPad in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s admissions office.

Matchbox, a startup company launched by former and current college admissions officials, announced Dec. 19 that MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the MBA program at the UCLA Anderson School of Management are among the first schools to use an Apple iPad application that stores reams of student information usually kept on paper in filing cabinets.

Using the cloud-based Matchbox iPad app could save admissions offices up to 75 percent of the time it takes to collect, review, and process student application forms, which are often more than 30 pages.

Stephen Marcus, founder and CEO of Matchbox, said higher-education admissions departments ”live by the 70-30 rules,” with 70 percent of the office’s time spent on the onerous logistics of application reviews, and 30 percent spent on recruiting prospective students.

“One of the hopes is definitely that we’ll recruit more students,” said Jennifer Barba, associate director of admissions at MIT, where 35 admissions officers have used the Matchbox iPad app since last year. “If we’re able to see an increase, we’ll know that it worked.”

The Matchbox app has allowed MIT’s admissions office employees store student information electronically that could only be kept on paper before iPads were distributed in a 2010 pilot program.

Barba said summary notes of applicants’ information were jotted on paper and stored away in filing cabinets. Only numeric scores assigned to prospective students were kept online.

“The idea was to create an app that completely mimicked the handwritten process,” Barba said. “It’s really streamlined the process.”

The dramatic move from paper to a cloud-based iPad app made for the UCLA School of Management’s largest-ever pre-Christmas admittance batch. The school sent out 125 acceptance letters this month, about 50 more than usual.

Craig Hubbell, associate director of admissions at UCLA, said Matchbox’s tabs allow admissions officers to move pertinent student information into categories that determine admittance, including academics, focus, leadership, interpersonal skills, verbal skills, and community contributions.

“We feel like we jumped a generation,” he said. “It’s made our evaluations more thorough and faster because we can really cut to the chase.”

Matchbox isn’t the first cloud-based college application software used in higher education. Schools also use ApplyYourself and Common App – among others – to move application data to the web.

Most campuses’ applications material, however, remain paper-based.

Marcus said he designed the iPad app as an alumni member of the MIT Sloan Admissions Committee in part because admissions offices were scrambling to keep up with a mounting workload.

Applications to colleges and universities increased by 41 percent between 2003 and 2009, according to U.S. Department of Education statistics. In response to the flux of applications, colleges spend about $11.7 billion annually on recruitment-related staff and expenses.

And the ratio of college applicants to successful enrollments has dipped in recent years, reaching a low of 46 percent in 2009.

“The pain in this market is palpable and extends into many other areas of recruitment that we are determined to solve,” Marcus said.

Moving massive amounts of application data to the web and making the information accessible via computer tablet could prove a shrewd long-term budget strategy for admissions departments, said Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise, a New York-based counseling company.

“Certainly there is a benefit to anything that reduces expenses of the use of paper,” she said.  “From a sheer volume perspective, admissions officers may often be tasked with carrying around large volumes of reading, either to and from home, or on the road. The Kindle has allowed book readers to carry multiple volumes on a small, portable device, and this same approach can be used in admissions files.”

If an iPad from the admissions office is lose or stolen, student data stored in the tablet can be wiped clean from the Matchbox back end. Student data disappears from each iPad once a student is accepted or rejected.

Having prospective student data on a single screen – instead of a stapled collection of loose papers – will encourage more recruitment events at schools that use Matchbox’s software, said Rob Weiler, assistant dean at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management.

UCLA and MIT held more than 100 recruiting events around the world during the 2011-12 application year.

“We thought that Matchbox’s native iPad application and cloud-based infrastructure could provide the battery life, security and mobility that our highly mobile Admissions team required,” Weiler said.

Ridding UCLA’s admissions office of the piles of paper that poured in every admissions season has made application reviews a much simpler process, Hubbell said.

“There’s definitely flexibility in instant retrieval,” he said. “That’s been a godsend.”

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