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May 29, 2003

On-line admissions here increase dramatically

The number of on-line applications to both Arts and Sciences (A&S) graduate programs and Pitt undergraduate programs is skyrocketing, reflecting the national trend away from paper applications.

But because graduate applicants tend to be independent adults while undergraduate hopefuls usually need guidance from their families, electronic applications elicit different feelings among admissions specialists here.

Associate Dean for Graduate Studies and Research Steven Husted, whose office coordinates A&S graduate admissions, thinks application and promotional sites on the web are far more effective than their paper counterparts in recruiting grad students.

But Betsy Porter, who directs the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA) that oversees admissions for incoming freshmen and undergraduate transfers at Pitt, has reservations about the suitability of electronic applications for undergrads.

“Unlike grad schools, we are equally committed to engaging parents in the application and admissions process,” Porter said. “We do offer on-line applications, but as far as making them mandatory, I’m not ready to even have that conversation.”

For the 30 A&S departments, the number of on-line graduate applications is growing by leaps and bounds, according to Husted.

He said Pitt is unusual in requiring grad school applicants to apply directly to departments, instead of maintaining a central location that farms applications out to units. Departments hold primary responsibility for recruitment and initial application reviews, while Husted’s office has the final say on admissions.

One flaw in that structure is that while copies of electronic applications automatically come to his office at the time the department receives them via a URL link, paper applications are recorded by the departments.

“This is one of the things we’re struggling with right now,” he said. “I can give you a running, up-to-date count of electronic applications, but I won’t know the total figure including paper applications until the end of the summer when the departments report them.”

However, he does know that the increase in the number of on-line applications in just three years has been stunning.

“We only started getting on-line applications in fall 2000 and we ended up with about 900 the first year, which was about 30 percent of total applications across all our graduate programs in Arts and Sciences,” Husted said. “Then in fall 2001, for the incoming class of 2002, we got over 1,900, so we more than doubled. And this year we’re standing at about 3,250.”

Total applications remained steady at 2,800-2,900 for classes that enrolled in fall 2001 and 2002, and Husted estimates total applications for this fall to be up 15-20 percent — mimicking a nationwide trend of more grad school applications due to the weak economy. This means on-line A&S grad applications probably account for more than 90 percent of the total.

Husted is not ready to recommend that Pitt require on-line applications, but said that shift might come in the near future.

While the increase in on-line applications from freshmen is not as dramatic, the numbers are rising annually, said OAFA director Porter.

The latest figures indicate that on-line applications for undergraduate admission represent almost 44 percent of the total received as of this month (7,637 of 17,398).

Porter cautioned that both of those figures include “ghost applications” — applications that were initiated, but not completed, a number that usually runs about 5 percent annually.

While grad programs strongly favor on-line applications, Porter’s staff is not focusing efforts in that direction.

She said the only advantage of electronic applications is that her staff avoids a certain amount of data entry, since the data submitted by applicants is accessible for their office records.

“Is that a sufficient reason to emphasize on-line applications? I’m not convinced that it is at this juncture,” Porter said. “We’ll take a look at it every year, and if this rate [of on-line applications] gets up to 85-87 percent, then you have to take a good hard look at the paper application process.”

Moreover, Porter said, experience over 25 years has taught her that an important component of the recruitment and application process is communicating directly with parents. “I want them to know that this really is a partnership. It’s no longer that a parent packs up a suitcase and sends the kids off to college for four years and only sees them once a year. This is a true family decision, including a financial commitment.”

Years of feedback from students and parents have proven to her that this kind of personalized contact has a positive influence on recruiting, Porter said.

“But if you’re only communicating via the web, then for absolute certain you’re communicating more to the kid than you are with the parent. And there’s not much guarantee, based on what I know about adolescent behavior, and I’m a parent myself, that kids are going to share information with their parents, even with parents who ask: ‘Did you get anything from the University of Pittsburgh?’ They get the shrugged shoulder, ‘Um, I don’t know.’”

Instead, Porter said, OAFA caters to what she referred to as “the coffee-table syndrome. To see our viewbook on the coffee table, or arrive in the mail, with the beautiful picture of the Cathedral, to feel it, to touch it, to know it is real. Or if Uncle George stops by and says, ‘Oh, that’s the University of Pittsburgh. I know someone who went there and it’s a great school’ — that keeps the family in the decision process.”

While Porter wants to get admissions materials into applicant’s hands, Husted favors communication via the web. He has “begged, cajoled, everything I can think of to encourage departments [to market their programs] on the web.”

Husted added: “My office distributes funding for promotional materials for Arts and Sciences grad programs, which historically, has gone 100 percent to printed material. Since I took this position in 1999, I have been a firm believer if I’ve got a dollar to spend, I want to spend it on the web. Mailings are costly, bulky and the information goes out of date. On the web you can do more things, as well as many of the same things a brochure does.”

The two different recruiting strategies have implications for web site construction and use.

Husted said, “The numbers strongly suggest to us that students by and large are shopping for graduate schools on the web, and I think not to have the application, prominently displayed, on the web site while they’re shopping would hurt us.”

He said A&S has purchased the ApplyYourself software allowing individual departments to customize their on-line applications, which often vary in what programs are asking from candidates. The software package mirrors the traditional form of processing applications, so that very little departmental staff training was required.

The software does not eliminate all paper, Husted acknowledged, such as forwarding exam scores from the Educational Testing Service, which has a different software package. “Somewhere down the road we will work that out,” Husted said.

But ApplyYourself can accommodate letters of recommendation and writing samples, he said. “In most cases, the person who would be writing the [material] is sent an e-mail from ApplyYourself with a URL on it, that says you can fill it out or cut and paste from a Word document, and then it gets embedded into the application itself at the department’s URL.”

(Both Husted and Porter agree that an innovation this year on their respective on-line application forms allowing applicants to pay the required application fee by credit card is a boon to expediting the admissions process, which otherwise required paying by mailed check.)

Husted and his staff have reviewed the web sites of all 30 departments, relying on advice from the Arts and Sciences Graduate Council, a group of 25 administrators, faculty and grad students. “We evaluate the sites for ease of navigation, so you find things like financial support, information about the faculty, strengths of the department, the most updated information,” Husted said. “I’ve encouraged departments to make sure that senior graduate students have their own web pages as links, so people from the outside can see what these graduate students are doing. The idea is that this is the external face of the department, and we want external people to see what it looks like.”

Husted said he further evaluates departments for use of meta-keywords, the HTML technique of linking important specific terms to reach search engines. “So, if I’m sitting in Beijing and don’t know anything about Pitt and I’m interested in cell biology, if I go to Google and type in ‘cell biology’ then one of the hits will be the bioscience web page at Pitt,” he said.

Although Porter’s office isn’t pushing on-line applications, they too have devoted a lot of attention to their web site. “I think we have a pretty robust site,” Porter said. “First, our viewbook is also linked to the OAFA home page. And we’ve taken advantage of the links to the various University web pages. In our view [those pages are] less in the form that we think would be appropriate for recruitment of high school juniors and seniors, but we want them to have access, if they just want to do some surfing.

“Not all students are going to know what they’ll be majoring in, but if, for example, they know they’re interested in international studies or health fields, we give them an entry point, and if they want to go learn about clinical dietetic nutrition, we’ve made it easy to get there.”

Other links include a virtual tour of the campus, a link to regional campus admissions offices, a link for guidance counselors and a link to the Pitt Pathfinders, a group of undergraduates who assist in recruiting by leading campus tours and otherwise pitching the virtues of the University. Applicants can chat on-line with Pathfinders from their geographic area, to get more of a peer-to-peer feel for the University, Porter said.

In keeping with parental involvement strategies, the web site has a link for parents’ frequently asked questions.

“We’re very interested in gauging the interest of parents who are web-savvy,” Porter said. “They might ask, ‘How’s the food?’ And we tell them the food’s quite good. If they want more information, they click and get to food services and the various restaurants we have, and the meal plans, and so forth.

“We’re in a transitional time,” Porter said. “We are decreasing printed applications and sending fewer of them out to guidance counselors and we’re sending fewer viewbooks in the mail. But we’ve very cautious about those things that we know are working,” she added. “They say of lawyers, never ask a question you don’t know the answer to, and we sort of feel like that with regard to our recruitment and admissions process.”

—Peter Hart

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