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Putting Admissions Data to Work

The smart use of business intelligence has turned around graduate admissions at Wayne State University.

It takes mere minutes for a prospective student to apply to graduate school at Wayne State University (MI).

But the process hasn't always been that easy. Back in 2008, applying to the Detroit-based institution was confusing at best. A candidate would submit an application, only to find out that additional (and sometimes duplicate) steps were required for a given college or school. Also, the process might require multiple sessions as the candidate tried to figure out whether specific questions were relevant to his or her situation.

On top of that, internal processes were often convoluted due to administrators' frustrations with the legacy admissions software. "We found that to get around those pain points, [colleges] often had another shadow process in their departments," recalled Kathleen Lueckeman, senior director of customer relationship management and director of graduate admissions, in a session at the Campus Technology 2012 conference this past July in Boston. For instance, to generate an admissions letter, one person would pull the data and give it to another person who would do a mail merge, print out a letter, scan it, and e-mail out the digital copy. "That process could take months," Lueckeman said, "and it made no sense."

Those kinds of hurdles impaired communications to candidates; if somebody called wanting to know the status of an application to a graduate school, it was difficult to provide a quick answer because multiple people were involved in the process and the application could be on anybody's desk awaiting attention. The decision process took so long, by the time many candidates had learned the status of their application, they might have already accepted admission into another institution.

Losing those prospective students had real consequences. At the time, new student registration was dropping precipitously; state appropriations were being reduced; and Michigan's economy was depressed--all with a drastic effect on Wayne State's bottom line.

To tackle the problem, Lueckeman teamed up with Rob Thompson, director of academic and core applications in the Computing and Information Technology Department. The two set up a customer relationship management unit to help the university do a better job of communicating with prospects and current students, and built an admissions system in-house to streamline application processing and support data-driven decision-making on campus.

Wayne State's CRM IT team (left to right): Joseph Sawasky, CIO; Eric Bowman,
lead applications technical analyst; Daren Hubbard, senior director of
enterprise applications; Vijayasree Sastry, applications project manager;
Robert Thompson, director of Academic and Core Applications; Jeff Dunn,
senior applications technical analyst.

The pair couldn't have predicted the outcome of their efforts: Over the course of the next three years, applications rose by 81 percent (from 5,538 graduate applications in 2009 to 9,800 for fall 2012) and admissions increased by 25 percent. International admissions grew. The amount of time required to process an individual application decreased by two months. In addition, the university saved $150,000 annually in recurring software costs related to graduate admissions.

One Form for All
Wayne State has more than 200 graduate programs. Up until 2009, many programs had custom admissions processes and application forms--and administrators were convinced that a cookie-cutter approach wouldn't work. Those distinctive applications used for all of the different programs needed to stay unique to accommodate the variety of requirements.

At the same time, the university desperately needed a unified application process. Rather than create a monster application full of "if applicable" questions, Thompson and his team came up with a mechanism that creates a single application on the fly that accommodates every type of incoming student, no matter what the academic major or applicant citizenship requirement.

The application has three layers, each represented by a screen displayed to the applicant. At each layer, the candidate reveals just enough additional information to determine what questions needed to be asked in the next layer.

The first screen asks three questions: What term are you applying for, what is your country of birth, and what is your country of citizenship? From that information, the custom program can determine what additional paperwork--such as a visa--might be required.

Screen two asks what program the candidate is applying to, and requests address information and details about previous education. The data is automatically scrubbed with a global address verification utility from Runner Technologies. Wherever possible, the application takes steps to prevent the user from entering extraneous data. For example, when the candidate is asked to enter previous college experience, dropdowns are presented from which the applicant can make selections. These steps ensure that the data saved to the Banner database is clean and precise.

The third and final screen lists everything candidates must upload or provide for the specific school or college they're applying to. This is the point at which user accounts are set up. Although the candidates receive admissions notifications by e-mail, they can also check their admissions status on this screen in self-service mode. "That has eliminated a lot of calls and help desk inquiries," notes Thompson.

Thanks to the new application, the process of applying to graduate school has dropped from 30-45 minutes down to 5-10 minutes. And the benefits extend behind the scenes: Because the application runs on a single code base, modifications can be made centrally and are thereby reflected in every application where appropriate.

Perhaps most important, the streamlined application delivers easy access to clean, usable data about admissions.

The Power of Data
Before the new admissions application, management decision-making was hampered because the data was inaccessible. Pulling together reports that would reveal historic patterns or trends required painful manual steps that few people could do. "We just had no idea how many applications we had on a daily basis [or] how long the process was taking," said Thompson.

On top of that, departments were protective of their data. "They didn't want to let other departments know their application numbers, i.e. the number of denies, how many [applications] were waiting to be processed, etc." Thompson explained. "All these things were mysteries."

Now, admissions reports are automatically pushed out to administrators and other users on a daily or weekly basis. That same data is also available through a dashboard, "so anybody can see it at any time," said Lueckeman. "That means if I'm behind in processing, everybody will know it. How often would you think I'd be behind anymore?" In other words, transparency has led to accountability.

In addition, users have been armed with drag-and-drop tools that allow them to drill down into the data on key admissions criteria. All in all, the system has led to an improvement in the caliber of students admitted to the graduate programs, because the data enables more effective decision-making. "We're seeing more registered students--and more importantly, students who will succeed," said Lueckeman.

Additional Management Tools
Besides introducing a richer set of reports, the development team also created management utilities that work on top of Banner, to make the data within the ERP more accessible and meaningful.

For example, a checklist rules maintenance tool allows the graduate admissions staff to set up rules for various program requirements. That checklist in turn generates the questions that a given applicant will receive as he or she goes through the admission process online.

Another utility, the Application List & Report Tool (ALeRT), offers a web-based, annotated view of data culled from the ERP system. "Our staff no longer have to go into Banner to process applications or make decisions," Lueckeman said. "We've put the power back with the schools and colleges."

ALeRT allows the user--typically a member of the admissions staff or a faculty member in an academic program--to search, filter, and view applications and add public and private comments. Users can also "tag" applications, which is like adding a Post-it note. The person who tags an application can also manage who has permission to view the tag. The tag allows applications to be selected and sent to specific users in digital form for review. "We did this because colleges needed a way to manage their internal workflows electronically," Thompson explained.

Application data is automatically "pushed" into Banner four times a day. Applications with errors are held back and flagged for review. Admissions staffers only need to take action on those applications that need attention, dramatically reducing the amount of time staff spends manually interacting with applications.

When a decision on a particular application is made, it's tagged and the system automatically sends out an admission letter in electronic format and updates the status of the application online.

The re-engineered processes and user tools have eliminated most of the manual work involved in admissions, and reduced numerous expenses. The graduate admissions office used to employ 30 people, including full-time and part-time staffers and student workers. Now, even though the number of applications has nearly doubled, the crew is down to 10.

A Data-Driven Culture
Wayne State is now making a push for predictive analytics--something that would not be possible without the improved admissions data and processes.

"We needed data to be able to understand trends and drivers, to understand what behaviors would be reflected in our successful students, so we could use predictive analytics to understand who Wayne State's ideal student is," said Lueckeman. Armed with that kind of information, she noted, program leaders can better select, mold, and shape their incoming classes. "They can spend their time and resources on those applicants who are the best fit."

Lueckeman observed that the culture of university operations at Wayne State is beginning to shift. "We're bringing this attitude with us that access to data is important to everybody," she noted. "It's starting to permeate the institution." Not completely, she added--after all, organizational transformation is tough--but that's the direction Wayne State is headed.

"I like to say that service is the new marketing," Lueckeman concluded. "By using a combination of business intelligence tools on our application data, as well as our CRM for prospect and student data, we have greater insight into our prospective and current students' needs and concerns, and we are able to truly get a 360-degree view of them for continuous improvement."

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