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Admissions Process
Transformed with Technology

Lavon R. Frazier
Washington State University
Pullman WA

Washington State University has completely revamped its student admissions process with strategic objectives of self-service information, paperless processing, and enhanced enrollment. The prospective student can apply for admission, view transfer credit reports, and track his/her admission status on the Web. All application material is stored in imaged form, and admissions staff process applications electronically using the stored images and automated workflow. Letters notifying applicants of admission decisions or missing information are automatically produced. Each studentís virtual file is immediately available to academic advisors and others as needed. Use of the Web, imaging, and automated workflow has transformed the admissions process in ways not even imagined just a few years ago.

Introduction

Washington State University (WSU) is a Research I land-grant institution. Over 21,000 students are served from the main campus in Pullman, three branch campuses, numerous learning centers throughout the state, and an extensive distance education program. WSU was ranked the #1 wired public university by Yahoo Internet Life magazine this year. This ranking is relevant to the topic at hand because the excellent backbone network in place on our main campus, the educational network throughout the state, and high-speed access to the Internet helped make the implementation of Web, imaging, and workflow systems for admissions possible.

Strategic Administrative Objectives

The transformation of the admissions process with technology was carried out in the context of three strategic administrative objectives. One objective is to enable our students and other "customers" to get information from and/or conduct business with WSU as much as possible in self-service mode. With todayís technology, this translates into putting information on the World Wide Web for easy, anywhere, anytime access. It also means collecting information and conducting business transactions on the Web. Several Web services were developed to aid the prospective student prior to and during the admissions process. These were directed at the prospective student learning more about WSU, planning an academic program, applying for admission including payment of the application fee, and tracking admission status. These services will be discussed in more detail below.

A second strategic administrative objective is to move to paperless processing as much as possible. The inherent problem with paper is that unless multiple copies are made, it exists in only one place at any one point in time and is not easily shared. The Admissions Office filing cabinets stuffed to overflowing, the stacks of paper application documents piled high on desks, and the need to locate a file to answer a studentís question on the phone all pointed to a paperless admissions process as a great improvement in both processing efficiency and customer service. The solution explored and then implemented was a document imaging system with automated workflow. This is also discussed in greater detail below.

A third objective for the university is enhanced enrollment, i.e., improvement in both quantity and quality of students enrolling at WSU. With the younger generation having grown up with technology, high-school students now expect to gain information and do business with colleges and universities on the Web. Some do not even bother to apply for admission to an institution where the application form is not available on the Web. A similar situation exists for potential transfer students. They need to know information about transferring their coursework and expect to have an easy way to apply for admission. Ease and convenience for the "customer" is essential for any university to compete for todayís prospective students. Customer services on the Web is the answer. Another factor in competing for high quality students is how long it takes to process applications and offer admission. A student is more likely to enroll at the institution that responds quickly with an admission decision. Our document imaging and automated workflow processing systems address this issue as well.

Web Services for the Prospective Student

Informational Pages: The Office of Admissions put a great deal of effort into revamping their Web home page and accompanying informational pages. These now include links to video clips describing a range of student services, information on campus visit programs, as well as everything a prospective student would ever want to know about applying for admission to WSU. An Information Request Form is available on the Web for those who would like information sent to them about specific programs.

Cougar TRACS: Cougar TRACS (TRAnsfer Credit System) is the winner of the EDUCAUSE Best Practices in Higher Education Information Resources award for 1999. Featured on WSUís prospective student page, it helps the potential transfer student to plan his/her transfer to WSU. The student has real-time access to degree program planning tools and Web reports to see how the courses he/she has already taken (or plans to take) apply toward any of WSUís degree programs. This system makes available to prospective students the same transfer articulation rules and degree program requirements used by the student records offices and currently enrolled students.

The Cougar TRACS site asks first-time users for a limited amount of personal information. An "Access ID" is assigned programmatically based on the studentís last name, and the student then selects his/her own password. The main menu provides button selections for the student to enter course work from any institution in the transfer course database or to update personal information. The student can request individualized degree program requirements reports for any degree offered by WSU, and these reports will be returned immediately to the Web. The degree program requirements reports can show courses that the student still needs to take either by WSU course numbers or by course numbers at the studentís transfer institution. The student may enter additional course work at any time and use the site for ongoing planning during his/her entire academic career prior to enrolling at WSU.

An additional feature of the web system is access to the prospective studentís transfer information by an academic advisor. Once the student makes contact with a WSU advisor, the advisor can request the studentís Access-ID (not password), then (using the advisorís password) view the studentís course work and receive the same degree program requirements reports for advising purposes. Another web site, Transfer Course Equivalencies, can be used by prospective students, advisors, and others to determine equivalencies for individual transfer courses, or sets of transfer courses, from hundreds of different transfer institutions. Behind the scenes for both Cougar TRACS and Transfer Course Equivalencies lies WSUís implementation of DARS, the Degree Audit Reporting System from Miami University of Ohio. Cougar TRACS may be viewed on the Web at www.wsu.edu/transfer/TRACS, and Transfer Course Equivalencies at www.wsu.edu/advise/transfer-courses.

Application for Admission: Prominently displayed on the WSU home page as well as the Admissions Office Web pages is the link to the online admission applications. Two options are offered there. Each application form is available in PDF format to be printed off the Web and mailed in together with a check for the application fee. The second and much preferred option is for the applicant to fill out the form online and pay the application fee by credit card.

Seven different application forms may be filled out and submitted on the Web: freshman, transfer, international, former WSU student, non-degree, post-bachelorís degree, and graduate school. The six undergraduate applications are designed with a preliminary section where the applicant enters information that both assures he/she is using the correct form and determines the remainder of information asked for. For example, the freshman applicant is asked if he/she is currently attending high school or has completed high school. Those that are still attending high school will be asked for their senior year coursework, as that will not yet appear on their high school transcript, whereas those who have finished high school will not be asked for that information. Also, the preliminary form asks which campus the applicant is planning to attend, so that the appropriate list of majors and interest areas offered at that campus is shown.

In addition to using a preliminary form to determine the content of the actual application form, two other major decisions needed to be made concerning the Web design. One design decision was whether the applicant would complete the form all in one sitting, or be able to start the application, save what had been done, and return at a later time to complete it. The "one sitting" alternative was chosen, with additional web pages developed to tell the applicant what information was needed to complete the application before he/she started filling it out. A similar decision was reached over whether the application form should be presented in sections, with the applicant advancing one section at a time, or as one long form. The decision here was to present one complete form, with the exception of the preliminary information page, so that the applicant could see all of it and get a feel for what he/she would be asked for. An extensive help page is available when filling out the form, and may be read ahead of time if so desired. These design decisions have held up very well, with many favorable comments received from Web applicants about their experience in filling out the form.

Several policy decisions also had to be made early in this project. WSU requires the applicantís signature on the standard paper admission application form. Student Affairs sought and gained approval from the Attorney Generalís Office to display a certification message and request the applicant to type his/her name and the date following that message. As long as that information is entered, the form is considered "signed".

Another policy decision involved payment of the application fee. WSU requires that a $35 application fee be paid before any processing of the admission application is done. If we allowed the applicant to fill out the Web application form but then send the application fee payment by mail, there would be the added staff burden of holding the application and matching it up when the check arrived, all before any processing could be done. It was decided instead to require payment by credit card on the Web at the time the completed application was submitted. This way Admissions staff could begin processing Web applications immediately with assurance that the application fee had been paid. This was accomplished very easily by using the credit card service that was already in place for student account payments. The application fee payment section precedes the certification section on the application form. An additional page describing the secured network communication environment used at WSU helps alleviate any concerns about entering credit card information on the Web.

With very little publicity, online Web application forms have been an outstanding success. The graduate application was first made available in August 1998, with the undergraduate forms rolled out between November 1998 and March 1999. Looking at undergraduate applications for Fall term of 1999, 20% of the applicants filled out the form on the Web and paid by credit card, while another 8% printed the PDF form off the Web and sent it in the mail with a check. We expect these percentages to grow quickly as WSU advertises that Web applications are available. Web application forms and instructions can be found at www.wsu.edu/admissions/apply.html.

Advance Tuition Payment: WSU encourages admitted students to make a nominal advance payment on their tuition as a confirmation of their intent to attend WSU. Another link on the Admissions Office Web pages takes them to the Student Payments page where they or their parents/guardians or someone else on their behalf can make the advance tuition payment by credit card. This page also provides for payment of any tuition, fees, and other charges on a studentís account, WSU child care payments, payments against student loans, or prepayments and regular payments for housing and dining services. Student Payments, as well as the other Web services described below, can be found in the Student Information Center, available from the menu at www.wsu.edu/wsuinfonet.

Admission Status:

In order to use the Web admission status inquiry, the applicant must first obtain a WSU Network-Id. The Network-Id, together with the personís network password, provides the "key" to access oneís own information from WSUís integrated database. After the applicant is assigned a student number, by entering that student number and other identifying information, the applicant obtains his/her Network-Id and network password using the Web. The applicant can then look up the status of his/her application at any time.

Financial Aid Status:

Using his/her Network-Id and password, the applicant can also track the status of his/her application for financial aid. This allows the student to find out right away if there is missing information which is holding up processing of the financial aid application. Other financial aid Web inquiries are available after the applicant has been admitted and/or enrolled to track financial aid awards.

Address and Telephone Changes:

Applicants, as well as admitted and enrolled students, use their Network-Id and password to update their address(es) and/or telephone number(s) on file with WSU. This is also the mechanism for students to restrict release of their directory information under FERPA regulations.

Imaging and Workflow Processing for the Staff

In the spring of 1998, WSU engaged in a project to identify a university solution for document management, and, in particular, a solution for the Admissions Office to get rid of their mountains of paper. After an ambitious vendor and product evaluation effort, a selection was made in the fall. The eMedia Integrated Document Management product from Optika Imaging Systems Inc. was selected, together with a third-party document management integrator, Integra Information Technologies. Working with Integra, WSUís admission document scanning, indexing, and workflow rules were defined and programmed. Optikaís newly released eMedia imaging and workflow system with the addition of Integraís scanning and indexing modules was implemented in the Admissions Office in January 1999. This implementation brought about many changes.

The first major change for Admissions is that the piles of papers are gone from everyoneís desk. With the new system, application forms, checks, transcripts, and other paper documents that arrive in the mail are sorted and scanned into the system each day. As soon as a set of documents has been scanned, a staff member proceeds with indexing them. This process assigns the applicantís student number, name, campus, and other identifying information to each scanned document so that its image may be retrieved from the system in various ways. Once the scanned documents have been indexed, the images are stored in the imaging system and are immediately available for staff in the Admissions Office, or any authorized person at any location, to view. This has been a tremendous help in answering applicantsí questions of whether documents have been received, etc. The person taking the call need only look up the documents in the imaging system on his/her own workstation to answer the question, rather than trying to locate that particular applicantís file in the piles of paper on any of several desks.

The second major change is in the way an application is processed. One of the reasons for the piles of paper was that all the necessary documents to process an application did not arrive at the same time. An application form was held until the application fee was paid and all required transcripts were received. With the new system, the type of each document is also captured as an index in the indexing process. Workflow rules then automatically route the application form to a holding queue until all other necessary documents have arrived and have also been indexed into the system, at which time the virtual package of documents is released for processing. Workflow rules can be set to automatically inform a staff member that an application has been held for a specified length of time, so that a letter can be sent to the applicant asking for the missing documents. At the click of a button, the letters module is launched (this is an additional feature programmed by Integra) and the staff member selects the appropriate letter. The letter text is merged with data already in the system and sent to the word processor on the staff memberís workstation for review. Then, with another click, the letter is printed and is also transferred to the imaging system to be stored and viewable as part of the applicantís virtual folder.

Another case of manually holding paper documents occurred when a transcript was received ahead of time and needed to wait until the application form and check arrived. With the new system, a transcript or other document arriving before the studentís application form is held in a "suspense" file until the application comes in. Transcripts or other documents held in "suspense", however, do not have any action taken on them other than to match them up to the application form when it arrives. Documents left in suspense longer than two years are purged.

Once the applicantís package is complete, workflow rules route it to the appropriate electronic queue for review and action. A staff member selects a package from the queue by using one of his/her predefined profiles. Based on package characteristics such as status, campus, or queue, profiles select and present workflow packages to staff members to be worked on. In this way, work is sorted for the individual staff member, and, when several users have the same profile, work is also spread out across the staff. Yet, behind the scenes, the packages can be in the same work queue. A staff member "locks" a package into his/her in-box before starting to work on it so that only one person is working on a package at a time.

After "locking" a completed application package, the staff member checks for complete information on the imaged application, enters specific data from or about the application into a workflow form, and checks off that the first-level review is complete. The package is then automatically "unlocked" and workflow rules route it to whatever queue is required next, perhaps for evaluation of high school course work or for entry of transfer courses into the automated transfer articulation system. The package flows into and out of various queues as determined by actions taken by staff members and workflow rules applied against data entered into the workflow system. If the applicant needs to supply additional information before an admission decision can be made, the letters module is launched. The appropriate letter is selected, data merged, reviewed, printed, and automatically transferred to the studentís virtual folder in the imaging system. The workflow package is then routed to another queue to await the arrival of additional documentation. When all required information has been supplied and an admission decision is made, the staff member selects the appropriate admission or denial letter from the letters module and continues through the letters process described above.

Automated workflow processing has made a tremendous difference to the Admissions Office. Gone is the passing of student files from one staff member to the next, or copies of files from one office to the next. Each staff member can see what other staff members have done by the data entered or checked off in workflow, by reviewing package journal entries, or by looking at package history. Staff members also have the ability to make and view annotations of different types added to the images themselves. In some cases, staff members outside the Office of Admissions are involved in admission decisions. For example, the Student Advising and Learning Center (SALC) is involved in reinstatement decisions for returning students. They are now part of the automated workflow process, so that the package for an applicant that requires reinstatement is routed to a queue worked on by SALC staff at their own workstations.

Gone is the sending of paper documents from the branch campuses to the central campus for processing. One branch campus uses the fax facility in eMedia to fax application documents directly into the system. The other two branch campuses scan and index application documents for their campus into the new system from their own location. They then use the same workflow to process applications in the same way that the main campus does, with user profiles selecting only the application packages appropriate to their campus. When a package requires special processing done at the main campus (e.g., entry of transfer courses into the automated transfer articulation system), workflow processing automatically routes the package to that queue. When that work is finished, the package goes on to the next queue which can again be accessed through user profiles to see only those application packages appropriate for each campus.

Also gone (well almost gone) is the copying of transcripts and other admission documents for academic advisors and departments. Staff in other areas who need to review application documents, e.g., Athletics, International Programs, Multicultural Student Services, and the colleges, can now access the images from their own desktops rather than waiting to receive paper copies in interdepartmental mail. We expect the number of departments accessing admission documents directly from the imaging system to grow. This will result in huge time and cost savings for all concerned.

Future Enhancements

While we are extremely pleased with the Web services, imaging, and automated workflow systems that have been implemented at WSU, we also have a growing list of ideas for enhancements.

Already underway is an automated method of matching the data from an application form to existing student records to determine if the applicant already has a student number or if one needs to be assigned. From preliminary testing, we expect to match to an existing record or to create a new student number without manual intervention at least 95% of the time. For paper applications, this will ease the staff burden of looking up each individual person. For the Web applications, the match/assign software will enable an automated load into the imaging and workflow systems, along with a direct upload of applicant data into our student records system. Since we expect the number of Web applications to grow rapidly, the automated load enhancement has top priority.

In addition to Web applications, we expect to receive high volumes of transcripts electronically via EDI (Electronic Data Interchange). A second enhancement is planned to automatically load these transcripts into the imaging, workflow, and transfer articulation systems.

We plan to implement Web access to images and documents in the imaging system. This should be a straightforward matter of installing client software on a new Web server, as Optika actively supports the Web as an interface to the eMedia system. Web access will remove the need to install client software on the casual userís workstation. This will make it easier to open up use of the imaging system to the academic departments throughout WSU, to academic advisors in any location, and especially to those graduate coordinators and committees who make admission decisions for applicants to the Graduate School.

We are also considering the use of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to "read" information from many of the paper forms and translate that information into electronic data. Data from a scanned document could then be automatically loaded into our student information and/or transfer articulation systems. It will also be useful when the Financial Aid Office joins in using the system, because they process forms generated by WSU with barcodes containing encoded data that can be read by the OCR software.

Perhaps the most exciting enhancement is the plan to return a preliminary admission decision to the Web applicant in real-time. Although technically interesting, the real challenge here is the policy issues. If we donít already have high school records or test scores for the freshman applicant, will we accept self-reported GPA and test scores? Can we fully automate the admission processing rules to reach a reasonable decision? How can the decision be worded to the student so that it can be reversed later if necessary, or will the preliminary decision stand unless it can be shown that the applicant falsified information? As we work though these and other policy issues, it will become apparent if an automated real-time admission decision is possible.

Conclusion

Web, imaging, and automated workflow technologies have enabled a major transformation of the admissions process at WSU. From student bewilderment to easy access Web information, from uncertainty of transfer status to Web degree requirements reports, from paper application forms and checks in the mail to Web forms and credit card payments, from batch generated letters to real-time student letters, from student phone calls to Web status look-up, from piles of paper to clean desktops, from multiple paper copies to electronic images, from passing files on to the next person to electronic workflow in-boxes, from different procedures at each campus to a common electronic procedure, and from one person having a file to any number of people having simultaneous access, are all more than we thought possible just a year or two ago. With continued enhancements and exploiting other features of the technologies, we expect to realize even more improvements in the future.