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.

The University of Chicago processed more than 25,000 applications this year, an increase of 4,000 over last year. Even campuses that didn’t record application increases from 2011 to 2012 – like The George Washington University and Boston College – still had to evaluate 34,000 and 21,000 applications, respectively.

Williams said that the campus’s old protocol, which included mailing student admissions packets back and forth, has been ditched for scanning and storing student data that can be accessed by anyone with database permission. Updates to a student file can be seen instantly across NIU’s campus.

Colleges and universities also can eliminate redundancy in students’ financial aid paperwork. No longer do admissions employees at NIU have to fill out every part of every application form, thanks to an OnBase automation feature.

“We’re eliminating fat finger data mistakes,” said Tom von Gunden, higher education industry manager for Hyland Software, which specializes in enterprise content management for colleges and universities, as well as industry. von Gunden was referring to inevitable clerical errors in the financial aid application process that could cost campuses tens of thousands of dollars at the height of application season.

Updating a school’s Student Information System (SIS), von Gunden said, isn’t just an ongoing concern for admissions offices. Evaluating which course credits will and won’t transfer from one school to another is a process that can be bogged down by systemic inefficiency, he said.

“One thing that causes errors is when people are in a hurry, just plowing through stuff,” von Gunden said. “And colleges know now that shaving off as much time as possible is the only way to compete for students in this market.”

Automatically populating parts of students’ applications and updating applicants’ status in real time, he said, has reduced time spent on each application from 90 minutes to 10 minutes on some campuses.

Cutting down on application processing has helped colleges send admissions decisions a month ahead of schedule.

“That is huge in the competitive environment,” von Gunden said.

Finding funding for data storage

Penn State’s Center for Enterprise Architecture (CEA) was running out of data storage space – a major problem for a program that prides itself on its technology-focused research agenda and educational programs for students learning the ins and outs of massive data storage.

Brian Cameron, executive director of the CEA, said like many institutions looking for funding in the down economy, outside help proved the only way to boost the center’s storage capacity and allow the program to continue its research objectives.

NetApp, a data management and storage company, announced in August that it would give about $300,000 to Penn State’s CEA in the form of hardware and some software. The donation expanded CEA students’ opportunities to experiment with data storage, Cameron said.

“It would’ve taken several years to get to this level data storage, if ever,” he said. “In today’s budget environment, I don’t know if we would’ve ever gotten there.”

The funding, in part, will support the CEA’s Professional Masters in Enterprise Architecture Program, which offers students hands-on laboratory learning experiences.

If left to rely on campus funding, Cameron said students and faculty in the CEA would have been at least partially limited by the data storage crunch. He said that thanks to the NetApp donation, the center has plenty of storage for the foreseeable future, although at some point, the CEA will need more data storage capacity.

“The tough economic times are the main driver behind what we’re doing,” he said. “We started this in the middle of the financial crisis, and now we’re in the new normal of austerity that’s sort of rippling through colleges and universities. … Being able to virtualize our data storage is tremendous cost savings.”

Data management from the iPad

Higher education has also seen a shift in the way data is managed on mobile devices now prevalent on college campuses.

Matchbox, a startup company launched by former and current college admissions officials, announced in December that MIT’s Sloan School of Management and the MBA program at the UCLA Anderson School of Management would be among the first schools to use an Apple iPad application that stores 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.”

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.

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