Time to automate the universities admissions process?

July 05, 2021

NTG - Automating the admissions procesS

Automation everywhere

In the digital era, automation of processes and tasks is growing exponentially. Organisations are implementing automation solutions for an ever wider range of repeatable, predictable or rules-based tasks – saving time and money, increasing accuracy, and enhancing the end-user experience.

Whether it’s end to end robotic process automation (RPA) or automation of just a subset of steps within a process, significant gains can be made. Overlay that with the potential of machine learning in which the technology teaches itself from the patterns of previous tasks, and related AI technologies such as natural language processing (NLP) and optical character recognition (OCR) for the rapid analysis of texts and images - and the potential to drive improved outcomes is clear.

The case for automating university admissions

Every year, universities and other higher education institutions receive tens of thousands – even into the hundreds of thousands - of applications from undergraduates and postgraduates. Admissions teams have to record, assess and process every application received, interacting externally with applicants and internally with faculties, all within very specific timeframes. It’s an enormous workload for what are usually small teams. They work with huge professionalism and skill to ensure that, every year, the process runs successfully and, ultimately, the ‘best-fit’ students are offered places.

But could it be improved?

As of today, few universities are utilising automation at any kind of scale. Front-end portals ingest application information into a central database, but thereafter many processes rely on manual data entry or transfer (often between different databases, depending on what legacy systems the institution has), while subsequent communication with and from applicants usually reverts to email. If an applicant raises a query that is quite bespoke to their own circumstances, this may need to be manually distributed to a relevant colleague, setting up a further email chain and taking up staff time and resource.

With application numbers rising year on year, and increasing competition between institutions to attract students, there seems little doubt that there is room for automation to unlock some significant gains.

The customer expects it

Before we set out some of the key areas in which we believe automation could help, it’s worth also reflecting on how the nature of a university’s customer base makes the argument even more compelling.

At undergraduate level, today’s applicants are digital natives used to instantly communicating and responding through their smartphones, apps and social media. Responsiveness and trackability are key. Based on their experience elsewhere (online shopping for example), once they have filed their application they expect to be able to track it, understand what’s happening with their case and receive critical updates when needed. If they submit a query, they expect an answer almost by return. If they don’t receive one, they may contact the university through multiple channels – email, text, WhatsApp, social media – putting additional pressure on the admissions team and other colleagues.

As students are now paying customers with tuition fees of more than £9,000 a year, their expectations of service quality and responsiveness have risen. At postgraduate level, where fees are considerably higher, many applicants are also international students – and are likely to look to UK institutions as world-leading centres of excellence that set the standards for others to follow. These expectations begin from the very first time they interact with an institution right through to the actual education they eventually receive.

What to automate?

There are a number of aspects in which automation can free up time so that admissions staff can focus their efforts on more value-adding and judgement-critical activities. In addition, an overarching system will also bring benefits across departments.

We see some of the prime applications of automation as being:

  • Chatbots for FAQs – as the answers to most common questions are standard, this could be a relatively straightforward option for reducing the workload of the admissions team as well as improving the experience for the applicant. Bot query handling solutions can be integrated on top of a variety of communications channels (WeChat, WhatsApp etc) – and can work 24/7, providing instant responses to students no matter what the time of day or night. Solutions can be designed to pass the chat to human operators when needed. Trend analysis can be run over the queries received and new scenarios added to reduce the number of hand offs to human operators
  • Clear check-box/status summary for applicants – using RPA, backend updates to the portal could be used to create a clear checkbox summary for applicants of where they are in the process and what more information they need to supply. Giving them a clear and instant picture of their status would improve the student experience (and also reduce update queries to the admissions team)
  • Automated assessment of UCAS and other grades – with specific predicted grades required for almost every course, an automated solution could analyse the grades in a student’s application and determine whether they meet the requirements. They could then accept the student into the next stage of the process or provisionally reject them. All rejections could still be reviewed by a member of the admissions team before being issued
  • Scoring of personal statements – after the first stage of assessing predicted grades, a common second area that admissions teams spend significant time on is reading and scoring an applicant’s personal statement. AI-based software could help speed up the process by providing an initial scoring and assessment, giving an admissions officer a head-start
  • Automated data entry – it can be a time-consuming task for admissions teams to enter data from one system to another. Errors can also creep in. Solutions can be built for the automated transfer of data between systems – this will happen instantaneously and be 100% error-free
  • De-duplication of applications – a further issue that can cause significant complications as well as taking up considerable admissions team time is that of duplicate applicant identities. If an existing (or previous) applicant applies again with a different email address, most systems will not pick that up and will create a new applicant ID. Staff will have to intervene to address these duplicates. Intelligent automated software could identify these duplicates instantly and merge the accounts

Incremental steps on the journey

As is clear from the above, there are many options when considering automation – and it doesn’t have to be a ‘big bang’ scenario. Automation does not mean a complete overhaul of underlying processes and systems. It can be brought in incrementally, for specific self-contained tasks, and be built over time. It’s a journey that institutions can take as quickly – or as slowly – as they choose, remaining in control at every step.

One example of a self-contained piece of automation is a project we are currently working on with a leading UK university to create an automation tool to scan transcripts of students’ previous education achievements to capture image level information such as curriculums scores and number of hours, and convert the information to data object level. This means the university will be able to reduce the amount of time and cost involved in manually checking transcripts submitted by prospective students and calculating the grade point average (GPA) scores. This not only speeds up the time to decision for students but also frees admissions staff to work on other activities.

One common misconception about automation is the cost. RPA is ‘light-touch’ – processes can be re-designed without changing existing systems, and so it is relatively inexpensive compared to more fundamental system overhauls. An automation idea can be developed in a standalone proof of concept (POC) solution, tried out in a test environment to advocate change among teams and iterated quickly to a production environment. There is flexibility over the route through which it is implemented too – through a cloud-based platform, an on-premise server or even at a desktop level.

Direction of travel

It has been estimated that losing a student during the application process costs universities an average of £27,000. Developing smarter, smoother, more joined-up processes is a matter of commercial significance as well as customer satisfaction.

With competition for students increasing and with consumerisation of higher education on the rise, the student experience is crucial to protecting revenue streams. For this reason, Gartner listed cross-life-cycle CRM – supporting student journeys from pre-application to alumni – as one of its top ten strategic technologies for higher education.  It can also drive down the cost to serve through administrative efficiencies, improving the admissions team’s performance as a cost centre.

The days of an entire end-to-end application taking place through a single mobile app may still be some way off – but that is surely the direction of travel in our digitally transforming world. Covid-19 has massively shifted the student body to virtual learning environments and put a far higher emphasis on the quality of universities’ digital environments.

We believe the time has come for the sector to begin scaling automation within admissions for better outcomes and improved student experiences.

At NashTech we deliver solutions using our agile, solution-focused approach, leveraging mainstream and emerging technologies to build custom software products that are robust, scalable and secure. Whether it is your admissions process, onboarding journey or bringing virtual learning to the fore, we are here to help. Get in touch today to find out more. 

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