Expensive Iowa University Portal Sees Little Use After Lack of Publicity

A portal designed to make the student application process easier reached just 104 students, but cost $290,000.

by Vanessa Miller, The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa / July 29, 2016 0
Screenshot of the Board of Regents website

(TNS) — The Iowa Board of Regents spent $290,000 to launch a new "common application portal" last year expected to save the thousands of prospective students who apply to more than one of its public universities time and paperwork.

But instead of thousands, just 104 people used the new portal since its launch July 1, 2015.

Although total application statistics for the upcoming fall aren't yet in, University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa combined for 50,779 new freshman applications for fall 2015, and officials say receipts are on track this year.

That means about .2 percent of the total applicants took advantage of the new tool that -- as part of the board's "transparent, inclusive efficiency review" —  aimed to make it easier for student prospects to apply to more than one university.

The dismal use could be tied to the fact that none of the three universities link to the new portal from their application websites, and the portal isn't easily accessible from the Board of Regents home page. Prospects can find the portal through an internet search.

"We can always do a better job of advertising so the students know that it's available," said Mark Braun, chief operating officer for the Board of Regents.

The board spent a combined $90,000 to develop the portal and then about $200,000 to implement it in its first year, according to a 2015 report on the new portal. That means -- for each of the 104 prospects who used the portal in year one —  the regents spent $2,788.

Annual ongoing costs for the portal are anticipated in the $100,000 range, according to the board report.

"These are pretty shocking numbers," said Bob Downer, a former regent who was on the board when it agreed to move forward with the proposed application portal.

"What this does, is it seems to me to highlight a need to take a step back and evaluate some of these things that have been touted in the name of efficiency to really see if it's worthwhile spending additional funds to complete," Downer said.

The new portal, which was among numerous projects launched through the board's sweeping efficiency review, combined application questions common to all three universities so prospects applying to more than one school would only have to answer them once. Students using the portal still must answer some questions unique to each institution and still must pay application fees for each school to which they apply.

Board documents indicate the upfront cost of creating the portal was directed primarily toward information technology needs and web changes. Yet none of the universities changed their websites to include the portal.

And Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy at Iowa State, said in his institution's recruiting and mailing efforts direct prospective students to the ISU application site.

"I don't know if the Board of Regents Office put out any type of a promotional campaign," Caffrey said. "Iowa State did not send out any promotional things to encourage students to utilize the application portal."

The 104 people who have used the new portal include 66 who applied to all three universities, 25 who applied to ISU and UI, seven who applied to UNI and UI, and six who applied to UNI and ISU.

The dismal use doesn't necessarily mean fewer people are applying to more than one Iowa university, although those figures are not yet available. It just means they didn't use the new tool to do so, according to Caffrey.

"In a way, I'm not surprised," he said. "When we send emails to students encouraging them to apply, the link goes to the Iowa State University application link."

University of Iowa officials confirmed the portal isn't available on the UI website, but Kirk Kluver, UI director of admissions, said in a statement to The Gazette, "We're pleased there's another option for students to apply that helps make the process easier for them and their families."

Kluver said UI looks forward to more students using the portal in the coming years, and former Regent Downer said the low usage could simply be tied to its newness.

"But it would certainly appear that it hasn't been very well publicized," he said. "It seems to me that this is existing in a sort of vacuum, and it can't be worthwhile to spend $100,000 a year for 100 applications.

"There is nothing economical about that."

©2016 The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.