Education

Few college-bound students use Iowa's $290,000 application tool

Just 66 applying to regents' schools this fall used the 'common portal'

An Iowa Board of Regents meeting takes place in March 2015 at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
An Iowa Board of Regents meeting takes place in March 2015 at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

In the name of efficiency, Iowa’s Board of Regents spent $290,000 on a project to help prospective students submit just one application to be considered at all three of the state’s public universities, but few have used it — including just 66 for this fall’s semester.

The “common application portal” is an outgrowth of a 2014 efficiency study ordered by the regents, for which they paid Deloitte Consulting more than $3.3 million to facilitate.

The Deloitte review produced other recommendations across the universities in the areas of sourcing and procurement, human resources and information technology, and the board has said those suggestions have saved millions.

The application portal — which lets prospective students wanting to apply to more than one regent university provide just once the information that all three request — was among the few recommendations not expected to trim costs but rather save time and paperwork.

But most of the more than 50,000 annual applicants don’t use it, and none of Iowa’s three public universities promote it on their websites or offer a link to it from their application pages.

The University of Northern Iowa provides a link on its website to a “common application,” but it’s not the one the regents created. UNI’s link connects users with a nonprofit organization allowing students to apply to more than one school using one application. The nonprofit has more than 800 college and university members nationally, including UNI, the University of Iowa and 11 private colleges and universities in Iowa — including Coe College in Cedar Rapids and Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

Of the 66 students who applied through the regents’ common application portal for the upcoming fall semester, 31 applied to all three of the public universities, 16 applied to the UI and Iowa State University, and just a handful applied to both UNI and the UI or UNI and ISU.

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That 66 represents a sharp drop from the 137 who used the portal for fall 2018. Only 97 completed applications came through the portal for fall 2017, and there were 111 completed applications through the portal for 2016, its first year.

The regent universities haven’t yet disclosed overall application numbers for the fall — although UNI and ISU have said they expect enrollment to be down from last year. UNI is projecting a 600-student drop, despite efforts to bolster its student body.

In a campus message earlier this summer, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said her institution’s expected drop “reflects the shrinking pool of high school graduates and potential community college transfers, more aggressive recruiting by neighboring states to keep their students in state, and lower international enrollment, which is a major issue nationwide.”

ISU last week reported a dip in summer enrollment below 11,000 for the first time since 2012. The 10,806 summer Cyclones — including 7,612 undergraduate, 3,053 graduate and 141 professional students — is more than 500 below last summer’s 11,330 enrollment, a 4.6 percent drop.

The UI didn’t provide The Gazette with an enrollment projection, but spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said that “we are pleased with both the number and the quality of students who have applied and been admitted for the fall.”

For fall 2018, the three universities combined for a total 50,778 new freshman applicants. If that holds steady for this fall — or stays in the neighborhood of that total — the 66 common application users would account for just 0.1 percent of those who applied.

Part of the low use could be related to the board’s “Regent Admission Index,” which guarantees admission to any Iowa public university that an in-state applicant chooses as long as he or she earns an index score of 245 or higher. The score is based on a calculation of GPA, ACT score, class rank and core courses taken.

That guarantee takes the guess work out of in-state admission — meaning many Iowa applicants don’t have to submit multiple applications as a backup, should they receive an unexpected rejection from their first choice.

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“There’s almost no wait to whether you’re in or not. There’s very low uncertainty or stress,” Jason Pontius, the regents’ associate chief academic officer, told the board earlier this year. “There’s a lot less need to hedge your bets by applying to lots of colleges.”

The College Board — an admissions organization representing more than 6,000 schools — has suggested college-bound students apply to five to eight schools. Others have suggested 12 to 15, according to Pontius.

“I think most students in Iowa don’t need to go quite to that extent,” he said. “In lots of cases, they don’t even apply to multiple regent universities. They know which regent university they want to go to. They know if they’re automatically admitted. And that’s it. They’re done.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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