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UC’s undergrad application website in peak performance as deadline nears

Remember when you applied to college? Most of us were knee deep in pages of forms, letters of recommendation and transcripts, then rushed to get them out via snail mail.

Today, only about 15 percent of applications to U.S. four-year colleges still arrive in paper form. No exception to the trend, UC phased out paper altogether in 2010 after receiving just 24 paper applications the previous cycle.

Since then, a dedicated 10-person team of programmers in ITS has been developing, implementing, testing and refining the completely overhauled and user-friendly UC online undergraduate admissions system to replace the one designed back in the ’80s.

By 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 30, the priority filing deadline for fall 2012, that system will receive about 140,000 undergraduate applications, more than 75 percent of them in the final three days.

“We had a record 142,000 applications last year, and the number goes up incrementally each year,” says Jane Meyer, manager of admissions systems in ITS and project lead. “Applicants tend to wait until the last minute to push the button, so we needed a system built to withstand that stress.”

Now in its second year, the project is part of UCOP’s Working Smarter, the 2010 administrative efficiency initiative that has already saved UC more than $157 million and aims to save a total of $500 million by 2015.

The online application has contributed to that savings by consolidating, automating and upgrading the centralized, systemwide admissions function that serves all nine UC undergraduate campuses.

By next year, the new system will also enable UC to bring several key functions in house that are now outsourced to private testing and assessment organization Educational Testing Service (ETS), generating additional savings.

It is an ongoing and collaborative effort: UCOP’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions in the Student Affairs Division sets admissions policy for all the undergraduate campuses and provides the business requirements for the application. UCOP Communications does the wordsmithing, translating policy into student-friendly language and design.

But it is the tech team that makes it all happen, cranking out code, doing quality assurance testing, and ensuring that, come crunch time (which always coincides with the Thanksgiving holiday), all systems are go. Within hours of receiving applications, the team quickly batches them for transmission to each campus, where final admissions decisions are made.

Think TurboTax

“A critical success factor for us is data quality,” says Programmer/Analyst IV Erika Hom, one of the team leads. “Of course we want to provide a good user interface and experience, but the first priority is accurate data.”

Each year about 60 percent of undergraduate applicants are California high school seniors applying as freshmen. But the pool also includes out-of-state students, transfers, some who went to several colleges, others who went to high school 20 years ago, international students, military personnel, and many others.

To accommodate the hundreds of possible applicant profiles, the system works like TurboTax, posing dynamic questions that guide you down different paths and provide checkpoints in case you leave something blank. Prospective students simply complete one online application and check the campuses they’re interested in applying to.

In addition to providing a one-stop shopping experience for the applicant, the system does the same for administrators — including Meyer’s team, Student Affairs and campus admissions officers — providing a platform where they can view and manipulate records and gather user and reporting data. And the team continues to make improvements.

“There will continue to be changes, new features and enhancements on the administrative side,” Hom says. “This system is robust enough to last for another 25 years, but technology is always changing.”

This year the project will move into its final phase, ending the long-term contract with ETS, which was hired to create and operate UC’s first centralized admissions system in 1985.

ETS still handles some functions, like obtaining test scores and matching them to student records, and supporting the referral process that places qualified applicants at another UC campus if they didn’t get admitted to any of the campuses they originally applied to.

Although an outside vendor will still be required to handle core ancillary services like the application help desk, Meyer and her team will take over many of ETS’s current functions, for an estimated savings of $1.7 million annually.

“I feel like I have the best job in ITS,” Meyer says. “It’s a great conversation starter, because everyone has either been a student or knows one. And I’m very proud that we’re helping the university fulfill its mission of providing access to a quality education for everyone in the state who qualifies.”

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