College admission enters digital age with online forms
URBANA — Urbana High School senior Michael Chen wasted no time filling out his application to the University of Illinois last month.
Officially set to debut Sept. 1, the new online application for the UI's Urbana-Champaign campus went live ahead of schedule, on Aug. 28. Within two days, Chen was ready to hit "submit."
Once he did, his application was complete — no more waiting for his transcripts to be sent in.
The application includes a "Self-Reported Academic Record," in which students fill in their own courses and grades. The campus only requires official transcripts from students who accept its offer of admission.
"It took me about 5 to 10 minutes to finish that part. It's pretty simple, and convenient," said Chen, an aspiring pre-med biology major.
This will be the third year the UI uses the Self-Reported Academic Record. So far the process has worked well, with just a handful of students caught fibbing about their grades each year, according to Stacey Kostell, UI director of admissions.
It's just the latest example of how the college admission process has embraced digital technology.
Online applications are now the norm. And more and more schools are joining the Common Application Consortium, which allows students to apply to numerous universities with one application.
The Urbana campus has resisted so far, as the Common App currently can't accommodate everything the UI wants to do with its own application, such as the Self-Reported Academic Record. But the UI Chicago joined last year, and the number of schools in the consortium now exceeds 500.
"This is really evolutionary. It's not revolutionary anymore," said Kevin Browne, vice provost for academic and enrollment services at the UI Chicago, likening it to the standardization of financial aid forms.
Kostell said the goal of the new UI application, created by the admissions office, was to provide a better "user experience" for applicants. The hope is that will improve recruitment and "yield," the percentage of students who accept the UI's offer of admission.
The types of information collected by the UI hasn't changed — the two essay questions are still included — but admissions officials hope they've made the process easier.
For one thing, the questions are dynamic. If a student answers that he or she has been a resident of Illinois since birth, the application skips additional residency-related questions.
Also, the Self-Reported Academic Record is now built in to the application itself, rather than being a separate form based on the old Banner system, she said.
"It'll still take some time for students to fill out," Kostell said, but "we spent quite a bit of time making sure that it's more user-friendly."
Another new feature is a portal called "My Illini," a short profile students fill out as the first step in applying. It will retain all of a student's relevant information for the next time they log in, she said.
Eventually students will access the portal as high school juniors, when they schedule their first visit to campus. Then, when they fill out an application, the form can be "pre-populated" with information they've already supplied, she said. That's one of the things the Common App can't provide, Kostell said.
The UI can also use the portal to contact applicants who need to file additional information after being admitted, for example, or let high school students know when the UI is doing a college fair in their area.
"We see that as one of the bonuses of having this application. We already have a relationship with students," Kostell said.
Plus, it's what Internet-savvy students and their families expect, she said.
"A college application should have the same technology as when you're going to buy a book. We should know you when you log in," she said.
Almost no cheating
The Self-Reported Academic Record requires a bit more work from students up front, Kostell said, but "they see the advantages down the road. Once they submit the application to us, if they've already listed us on their ACT or SAT, their application will actually be complete," she said.
Urbana High School counselors gave seniors an unofficial printout of their transcripts at the beginning of the school year, so they could have them in hand when they applied, Chen said.
The obvious question: How does the UI know they won't cheat?
Students are told up front that the campus will check on anyone who decides to attend the UI, Kostell said, and there are other checks and balances. If a student fails several courses in high school and still gets admitted over a better student, a counselor will notice, she said, especially at the UI's "feeder" high schools in the Chicago suburbs.
"It's about honesty," Chen said. "There's no reason to lie about your grades. You still have to send your transcript in."
This year, the UI rescinded just three offers of admission because of discrepancies between the students' Self-Reported Academic Records and their official transcripts, out of more than 7,300 who enrolled, Kostell said. Last year the total was six.
More admittees get rescinded for poor performance during their senior year — about a dozen this year — than for transcript discrepancies, she said.
Students aren't rejected for minor omissions (i.e., listing a "B" instead of a "B minus") but for serious misrepresentations, such as reporting a "B" when the grade was actually a "D" or leaving out a course in which they didn't do well.
"These are typically pretty blatant," Kostell said.
Kostell said the UI examined the track record at other universities that have used a self-reported academic transcript before adopting it, including the University of California, the University of Washington and the Georgia Institute of Technology. The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and Rutgers University are also adopting a self-reported transcript, she said.
"We weren't the first. The (California) system gets far more applications as a system than we do as one campus," Kostell said. "I felt like we had some good peers."
The California system has used self-reported grades since 1920, and audits have repeatedly shown the information is "above 99 percent accurate," said the UI Chicago's Browne, who previously worked at UC's Santa Cruz campus.
The system uses a common application for all nine undergraduate campuses, and students can apply to five at once, he said. Browne would typically get 40,000 applications for 2,700 freshman spots, so it made no sense to collect paper transcripts from all of them, he said.
Sam Furrer, a guidance counselor at Urbana High, said the UI's system seems to work well.
"I think that the students take it seriously. We impress that on them. And it's nice for the university because it helps them be paperless and keep things together. When the grades go with it, there's no mismatching," he said.
It also saves students from paying for the transcripts and waiting for high schools to produce them, he said.
The campus hasn't dismissed the idea of the Common App, Kostell said. The admissions office will listen to its constituents — students and parents — and if they feel the Common App would make it easier to apply to Illinois, "obviously we'll listen and change. So far it looks like this is working for us," she said.
The Common App's requirements differ from Urbana's, and it would create more paperwork and require more staff, officials said. For instance, the Common App requires letters of reference, which are not used by the Urbana campus, as well as official high school transcripts for every applicant.
"We're at a different place technology-wise," Kostell added. "Until they can accommodate that, I think it is less of an option for us."
Schools also pay the Common App a fee of $4 to $4.50 per application, a cost exceeding $132,000 for the Urbana campus.
A university review committee concluded that any potential benefits would be offset by the cost — estimated at more than $500,000 a year — and could disrupt Urbana's recruitment process.
It's clear Urbana's admissions office is functioning well without the Common App, as applications are up 43 percent over five years ago, said Christophe Pierre, UI vice president for academic affairs. Applications totaled 33,203 for this fall, a record, and rose in every category — Illinois residents, out-of-state students and international students.
The quality of applicants also rose — the average ACT climbed from 28.92 to 29.09. And 7,936 students were accepted, up from 7,562 in 2012, Pierre said.
Pierre said the newest version of the Common Application may give schools more flexibility, addressing the UI's concerns. The university will continue to watch enrollment trends, monitor its peers, and keep the Common App review committee in place, he said.
The decision likely won't be made before November, which is the deadline to join the Common App for fall 2015 applications, but "we won't wait three to five years," Pierre said. "It has to be very thoughtful, and certainly right now the (UI) system is absolutely not broken."
Among Urbana's national peers, only three public universities have adopted the Common App — Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia, Pierre said. Purdue also joined this year, and several other Big Ten schools are planning to join, Browne said.
Furrer is glad the UI hasn't made the jump to the Common App. Writing letters of recommendation for every UI applicant would be "a huge burden," he said. "It is not a quick and easy thing to do."
Many of Urbana's top students apply only to the UI, or perhaps just to one other in-state school that also doesn't require recommendation letters, he said. And since they're not applying to any Common App schools, the UI's application is simpler for them, he said.
Chen has an account with the Common App, as he may apply to the UI Chicago, but he hasn't used it yet. The UI is clearly his top choice.
The Common App has made it easier for students to apply to more colleges, and "that has changed the process," Kostell said.
"It encourages more applications to more schools," Furrer said. "Schools like it because their numbers go up, admissions stay the same, and their selectivity number goes up a lot."
But their yield also usually drops, Kostell said, because fewer of the new applicants tend to choose that school.
Browne argues that students are applying to more colleges because they want more choice, not just because of the Common App. The consortium says students apply to an average of 4.4 schools.
Online applications have also changed the relationship between students and counselors, according to Furrer, who's been a counselor for 25 years.
Students used to bring in their applications or essays for Furrer to review, and he'd correct errors or suggest improvements. Or they would discuss schools that a student may not have considered.
These days, counselors sometimes don't even know where students are applying, Furrer said.
"We talk to the students, but I had more conversations when they were coming in with their applications they were filling out on paper," he said.
The Common App
517 member schools from 47 states and seven other countries.
Founded in 1975-76 by private colleges, with paper applications.
Launched first online application in 1998-99.
Illinois schools using it include Augustana College, Blackburn College, Bradley University, Columbia College, DePaul University, Illinois College, Illinois Institute of Technology, Illinois Wesleyan University, Knox College, Lake Forest College, Lexington College, Northwestern University, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Trinity Christian College, University of Chicago, UI Chicago.
Admissions at UIUC
Fall '12Fall '13Applications31,45433,203Admitted19,95420,738Acceptance rate63%62%Enrolled69327,320*Yield34.80%35.3%*
* Projected; 10-day enrollment figures not yet available; yield is the percentage of those admitted who enroll.
Source: University of Illinois Office of Admissions