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4 Reasons Why Admissions Should Be in the Cloud

For schools taking their first steps into the cloud, the admissions department may be the perfect place to start. Here's why.

For schools wanting to test the cloud without committing to a campuswide solution, the admissions office may be the best place to begin. For starters, it promises the biggest bang for the buck. Second, as any admissions officer will attest, it's the campus department under the most pressure other than the finance group. Applicant pools continue to expand, even as budgets remain flat--or even shrink.

The growth of online courses and certifications doesn't make the situation any simpler. With little to no expansion of their brick-and-mortar infrastructure, colleges are admitting larger student bodies than ever before. In the long run, these expansions may lead to higher revenues and lower tuition costs. In the short term, however, they entail a whole new set of headaches for everyone who deals with applicants. For those of you facing daunting admissions calendars, here are four reasons why a cloud-based admissions system may be your saving grace.

1. Admissions Office Efficiency
Redundant workflows and disorganized records are all too common among on-site and paper-based systems. According to Michael Statmore, CIO at Post University (CT), the school's old on-premise platform led to "a very siloed process, with multiple people doing the same things." Post has since partnered with cloud-based CRM provider Oracle for its online student admissions, a move that's made it far easier for the staff to "unify process and methods." With the ability to map out tasks and objectives on a central hub, they've freed up hundreds of hours per year.

Schools can save even more by automating or outsourcing repetitive work. Bob Burke, president of SaaS company Folderwave, said that his higher education clients save the most money on "tangibles": data entry, temporary employees, and the floor space required to hold them. Third-party document management also helps schools "turn information that might have sat in buckets into information that gets into the system in hours to days," he noted. With the increasing importance of data mining in recruitment and admissions, it's an opportunity that's hard to pass up.

The anytime, anywhere access offered by the cloud is also a boon for traveling counselors. Cloud-based services are perfect "from a business-continuity perspective," explained Statmore, adding that remote access is particularly helpful for online schools with nationwide students. Cloud solutions are also becoming increasingly important at schools that are expanding internationally. Burke cites the case of Carnegie Mellon (PA), which uses Folderwave to handle all of the admissions and transfers between its campuses in the US and Qatar.

2. Broad Options for Customization
It's hard enough processing piles of formulaic undergraduate admissions essays and forms. What do you do when faculty are overloaded with information-rich graduate applications? Jason Kahabka, assistant dean for graduate admissions at Cornell University, has implemented CollegeNET's Admit application-evaluation system. By moving to CollegeNET's cloud, Cornell's professors were able to handle 20,000 applications in more than 100 fields in 2012, saving a quarter-million sheets of paper and countless administrative hours in the process.

Admit's strength lies in its ability to centralize disparate, complicated applications systems. Prior to the switch, Cornell's faculty used a variety of processes "that weren't tightly integrated," said Kahabka. Some departments used only paper, others developed their own electronic systems, and nothing was tied to a central SIS or CRM. Now, although the 100 graduate departments still use 100 different application models, they're all deployed centrally through one easy-to-manage platform.

Of course, customization doesn't come without its challenges. Kahabka, for example, ran into a "chicken-and-egg sort of problem." It was tough to train faculty to set up custom applications, yet their setup required training. To streamline the Admit implementation, Cornell appointed 100 graduate field assistants to work with department heads in developing their applications. Each field now has one faculty "power user," who handles high-level administrative tasks. Everyone else can simply log in and process applications without fretting over technical details.

3. Improved Data Security
Given the vulnerabilities of virtualized servers, many schools are still leery of third-party cloud solutions. While their concerns are certainly valid, most admissions offices that have made the switch have seen tremendous improvements in data security. "You're only as secure as your weakest link," said Kahabka, noting that Cornell's formerly disorganized systems were clearly open to attack. Now they're all tied to a single authentication, Cornell needs to worry only about breaches at one point of entry. Even application PDFs can now be rendered and edited in browsers, rather than downloaded to local machines. "To the extent that we keep things in the cloud," Kahabka concluded, "that's the best step we can take to keeping things secure."

Cloud solutions can also prevent a litany of headaches over misplaced data and late applicant communications. Statmore highlighted a common scenario: A student needing help with his FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) contacts an admissions officer, who then sends an e-mail to a financial aid counselor. That counselor doesn't reach out to the student for days, if at all, and the original correspondent is none the wiser. With a central CRM, all these communications are visible to all parties.

4. Better Applicant Engagement
Ultimately, the greatest benefit of the cloud is more frequent and effective communications with applicants. Erin Ervin, director of admissions at Florida Southern College, reported that the school's Hobsons' Connect Education Suite allows admissions personnel to track all contacts "from point of inquiry to point of enrollment, which really allows the admissions counselors much more opportunity to know where to focus their time and energy."

It's an experience with which Folderwave's Burke is familiar. He recalled clients that feared they would "lose touch" with applicants if they couldn't hold paper documents. To their surprise, however, they found they had much more time for in-person meetings and phone conversations.

Even if students don't communicate directly with their counselors, centralization makes it far easier for them to check the status of their applications. At Northeastern University (MA), for example, more than 40,000 applicants used Folderwave's Web Status Check to view their materials in 2012 alone. As admissions become ever more competitive, applicants are clearly demanding constant access to their data.

"There's an increasing expectation of cloud-based services, not just from our admissions faculty and staff, but from our students," confirmed Kahabka. "They expect a simple, streamlined, real-time experience." The overburdened admissions office may be just the place to start.

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