Flexible Framework

Application increases challenge admissions professionals and software vendors.

GUEST COLUMN | by Bob Burke and Arthur Mahoney

CREDIT FolderWaveThe mandate that every applicant receive a fair and comprehensive evaluation is at the core of higher education. Benefits accrue to both student and institution when a class is shaped to meet institutional goals. Students have a higher chance of success and institutions see an increase in student retention, a key factor not only in reputation, but financial stability. Given that, the pressure on software vendors to enhance their offerings in the admissions arena has never been greater.

Today’s admissions operation demands a model that can quickly accommodate the specific—and often unique—needs of an institution.

It is widely recognized that technology will never replace a comprehensive review by admissions professionals. The challenge to higher education—as well as the vendors and services that support it—is to maintain equity and consistency in the face of an ever-increasing tide of applications. Web-based application services have expanded options for students while transforming the nature of College and University admissions. There are benefits to such offerings: Students may engage with additional schools and find opportunities they might not have considered. For the schools, the electronic import of application data has diminished data entry, and a certain degree of data standardization has been gained.

As one would suspect, the number of applications that colleges and universities are receiving has increased significantly. In the operations area, electronic data transfer and other enhancements have offset that increase to a certain extent. Employees who struggled to encode application data in a timely manner now deal with exceptions, missing credentials, and incomplete submissions. In the case of those schools who make use of sophisticated, cloud-based scanning and indexing services, beleaguered staff who once toiled in a room filled with manila folders have seen their roles transformed into student service representatives with hardly any paper in sight.

At the same time, challenges remain. Admissions cycles unfold within a relatively fixed period. They begin in late summer or early fall, and are bounded by deposit deadlines in the spring. These deposit dates (typically around May 1) drive final decisions by students and families. Given the time needed to prepare for fall enrollment, these deadlines cannot be extended for large numbers of students. Colleges and Universities are also under significant financial constraints as they attempt to hold down ever-rising costs. Additional staff to handle increased volume is not always the answer. Faced with difficult budget choices, institutions tend to fund services for enrolled students. What’s more, most schools cannot readily increase class size to generate additional revenue. Facilities, faculty, residence halls, and classroom utilization can all be impacted by over-enrollment. In something of a paradox, more students can often mean significantly more expense, in some cases exceeding additional revenue. Therefore, processing must take place within the same amount of time with the same amount of resources. Often, the only mitigating factor is increased efficiency.

Applicants run the gamut of ability, which necessitates a fair, balanced, and inclusive evaluation. Many admissions departments are augmenting quantifiable metrics such as grade point averages, test scores, class rank, etc. with recommendations, examples of leadership, and details of extra-curricular activities. This holistic review is an extremely important development intended to ensure the “fit” between student and institution—and well worth the extra effort. Documents such as essays, resumes, and interview notes enable these assessments. As beneficial as these extra items may be, they all must be associated with the individual application. This makes for even more to get through in a short evaluation period—particularly when ratings and evaluations must be applied in a consistent manner. Higher Ed has brought a number of solutions to bear on this particular challenge: multiple reviewers whose ratings are averaged to more equitably rank applicants, extensive mentoring and training of admissions staff, spot checks, and more recently, managerial reporting that track the consistency of ratings and rankings across the application pool.

There is a certain degree of irony that the very technology making the application process easier for students has created a situation where they could get lost in the crowd. The new and effective methods to offset this and ensure a balanced evaluation have demanded ever greater flexibility from individuals and technology. Admissions processes and measures are often recalibrated from one cycle to the next, and it is not unusual for new rankings and evaluations to be introduced or refined. It’s not unreasonable to observe that today’s admissions process is constantly developing new data sources, expanding metrics, and refining targeted communication.

Just a few years ago, admissions systems were places to store data. Today, the best ones are more like “flexible frameworks” that not only capture inputs from many sources, but make use of workflow engines to constantly assess the status of applications, track the completion of requirements, and monitor caseloads. Most significantly, they must adapt and evolve quickly. The days of system upgrades every second or third year are rapidly fading.

Today’s admissions operation demands a model that can quickly accommodate the specific—and often unique—needs of an institution. It is unlikely this scenario will change in the near future. It is more likely that demand will accelerate as technology evolves. Enhancements to the submission process will continue to create needs “downstream” that must be quickly and creatively met. Bounded by time and constrained by resources, the admissions process will constantly evolve new ways to sustain equity. And that is exactly as it should be. The systems that support these efforts must be adaptive, flexible, and responsive to ever-changing demand.

Is yours?

Bob Burke is president of FolderWave, Inc., a cloud-based company offering products and services designed to significantly improve complex, high-volume time-dependent process and data management operations in many areas of higher education.  Bob can be reached at bob@folderwave.com.

Arthur Mahoney is the former Director of Enrollment Services at Northeastern University where he implemented numerous administrative systems and was a major contributor to the design of their strategic enrollment research efforts. Having worked both in Information Technology and Administration at Northeastern for more than 25 years, he is now the principal of HomePort Consulting, providing support for higher education in the areas of enrollment technologies, analytics, and business processes.

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