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Forms Commerce Streamlines College Admissions

College admissions is a two-way courtship. While the student waits anxiously for acceptance letters to arrive, the college conducts a more subtle courting, wooing potential applicants through a variety of marketing materials and strategies. High-profile universities carefully manage their images, luring the best students partly by playing hard to get.

Through it all, the number of forms and records required to complete the admissions process is staggering, requiring students and parents to stay organized and colleges to employ a small army of staff members to manage it all.

The development of companies that build and manage Web-based forms processing has enabled admissions offices to increase their online applications substantially. The online process helps colleges manage the flow of documents and reduce the load on staff. Going digital also opens up new opportunities to reach out to applicants in a proactive way.

Several companies offer such forms commerce products in the higher education market, including CollegeNET Inc., whose Intelligent Connections technology creates a two-way conversation between the institution and the applicant.

Based in Portland, Ore., CollegeNET focuses its business on the nonprofit world: academia and the not-for-profit business sector. They have more than 600 higher education subscribers and dozens of nonprofits on their client roster, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Simply put, CollegeNET builds custom forms. Any form that a student would traditionally send via paper, CollegeNET can create online.

The company works with each school to create a custom forms management process, building each form from the ground up, not from templates. The school directs the process of choosing the forms needed and detailing the look and feel of the final documents. Once the forms are online, all data received—even personal essays—become part of the CollegeNET database. However, CollegeNET d'es not share the data with anyone other than the specific college or university in question. According to Paul Casey, the company’s director of corporate communications, CollegeNET has led the way in advocating data privacy. Says Casey, “We don’t touch the data and don’t share or sell it. Everything a student sends to us is entirely confidential.”

Institutional branding is an essential part of maintaining a college’s identity. After all, every college is unique, whether due to its academic status, athletic prowess, desirable location, or innovative online degree program. CollegeNET works with institutions to maintain their brand integrity. Also, recognizing that students are more comfortable applying directly to a college rather than going through a third party, CollegeNET has made itself virtually invisible to the user. Users won’t find any advertising or company logos on the admissions application page. The only indication that a third party exists is a tag line with the company’s Web address and phone number for users who are having trouble completing the forms.

Online forms commerce has several advantages for clients. First, CollegeNET manages the entire process and ensures that forms are complete and error-free. Data validation technology guarantees that applications are complete by sending error messages that prompt students to go back and fix mistakes, such as filling in missing numbers from fields. They also can guarantee the institution 100 percent “hard apps”: No application is accepted without attached payment or a qualified waiver of fees. In contrast, admissions offices often deal with dozens of paper “soft apps,” applications that arrive with no checks attached.

CollegeNET’s technology easily pairs related documents sent from various sources. For instance, its Transcript Manager automatically matches the application to the transcript. These two related documents from separate sources used to travel separately to the institution. With Transcript Manager, both documents travel to the admissions office together, saving staff time in tracking and pairing them. CollegeNET forms also feature PDF printing capability and the ability to interface with campus student information systems.

Intelligent Connections software gives the client a universal view of all communication between a prospective student and the university admissions office. The software tracks visits, inquiries, applications, incoming and outgoing e-mail messages, and other correspondence. It routes appropriate parts of the application packet to other campus departments as needed, making the connections automatically without further data entry.

The online process also enables colleges to proactively market themselves to candidates via tailored communications, including CollegeNET’s so-called human forms. Data triggers built into the technology prompt the software to send customized e-mails and requests for letters of recommendation. These triggers can also send students more information, encourage them to explore an interesting facet of the college’s programs, or update them on the admissions process.

While completing forms, students may encounter a button embedded with a tailored message, based on data they have entered. For instance, a student who clicks on “No” in response to the question, “Have you visited the school?” may get an invitation to visit, a virtual tour, or a list of resources for arranging a visit.

Students also are discovering a number of benefits to applying online. First, they can apply for a free user ID before filling out the college application. With that user ID, any time a student fills out a CollegeNET application, standard information—such as name, address, and intended major—is automatically filled in. Also, with the user ID, a student can finish filling out the form over a period of time, and from more than one computer, without having to input data again. He or she can start the application at home and finish it in the guidance counselor’s office.

Students also have access to an administration screen that notifies them that their applications were received. They can go to the screen for updates throughout the process. Counselors and parents stay in the loop as well; CollegeNET e-mails them automatically to thank them for referring and supporting the student.

By keeping in constant contact with all constituencies, CollegeNET helps manage the complex courtship between colleges and students with less stress on both sides.

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