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Bursting the Bubble: The Move to On-Line Housing Submissions for Incoming Student Preferences

By Jen Richardson, Coordinator of Housing Services, Ithaca College

The Office of Residential Life at Ithaca College moved from bubble sheets and scanning to on-line form submission for incoming student housing preferences during the 2002-2003 year. This was a venture involving collaboration with a number of offices on campus and ended in a different direction than we originally intended. Let me explain…

During the summer of 2002, our office decided a more comprehensive housing brochure as opposed to a mailing that was comprised of 12 separate pieces of information all describing different types of housing we offer was needed. Members of the department worked to design a brochure that was approximately thirty pages in length and included our specialty housing applications as tear-out inserts.

Once the brochure was designed, we approached the Office of Marketing and Communications to find out how to go about getting our “masterpiece” printed and what the cost of such a project would be. When I met with the representative from Marketing and Communications, she explained that it would really be in our best interest to move away from doing a publication such as this and move toward a web application, especially because the cost associated with this project would be great and it would need to become a yearly expense since there would be dated material in the brochure.

This left us in a very tough position because we were unable to design an interactive housing preference form that interfaced with our Student Information System (a necessity since our housing assignment program for new students pulls information from here) on our own. This meant approaching the staff of the Office of Information Technology Services, who were already stretched extremely thin. Moving in this direction, however, was now becoming a necessity because of the cost that would have been associated with the brochure.

Our Director, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs & Campus Life and I met with two of the Programmer Analysts from ITS to learn what it would take to proceed with this project. The Programmer Analysts explained to us what would be necessary and agreed to take the project on.

It was now November and the web application needed to be functional by mid-February – the time when students who had already begun paying their deposit to attend Ithaca College would begin to be notified about how to submit their housing information. I worked very closely with the Programmer Analysts to create the web form based on the bubble sheet we had previously used. This included the design of the form, the access we wanted students to have to the form, the specialty housing applications, and how we would receive a student’s preferences once they were complete. I spent additional time updating our website to incorporate all of the information that had previously been included in the mailing. We planned to include links from the web form to our site to provide students the opportunity to learn about the types of housing we offer.

While the web application was being created, I worked with Marketing & Communications to create a postcard for our incoming students that gave them the necessary information to submit their housing preferences. The Office of First Year Programs and Orientation agreed to include the postcard in the mailing they send to all students who pay their deposit to attend Ithaca College. This was an ideal arrangement because the information students needed to log in and gain access to the site was included in this same mailing. We struggled with what information needed to be on the card. We finally decided to place some basic information including the link to the preference form and the deadline for their information. We were also challenged with the design for the front side of the postcard. We wanted pictures with groups of students in or around the residence halls, but were disappointed to find very few pictures of diverse groups of students in this setting existed in our archives. Since time was running short and we were unable to obtain the “ideal picture”, we settled on a picture of one of the residence halls for the front.

We made a decision during the planning stages of this project that for this first year we wanted to maintain control over changes to a student’s preferences. In other words, students would need to contact us in order to change their information. We allowed for this to occur in a variety of ways – phone call, email, fax, or a visit to our office (if they were in the area or attending Orientation). We did not allow for any changes to occur after the last day of the final Orientation session in July. There needed to be a cut-off point for changes and knew that students tend to change their minds once the arrive on campus and especially when they start meeting fellow students who they want to request as roommates.

In early February, we were able to start testing the web application to see how it worked. After some minor changes, we were up and running. The postcards were sent out in the beginning of March and we were ecstatic when we began receiving housing preferences by the end of that same month! The responses came in much earlier than we ever had received in the past.

As the spring progressed, we received information from all but 100 students (out of 1700) by the deadline. In June, we completed our annual phonathon for the Office of Admissions and called students who had registered for Orientation but had not submitted their housing information. The number of students we needed to call decreased dramatically from over 300 in the Summer of 2002 to 50 for the Summer of 2003. It was absolutely amazing and we were both excited and grateful that all of the hard work by so many individuals had really paid off.

The change that was made to this process impacted our incoming students in a number of positive ways. One such way was we were able to provide them with information about their housing options sooner than years past. Not only did the students receive the information about how to access the information in a much more timely manner, they also had all of the information at their fingertips through the internet. They were then able to identify the areas where they wanted to live and submit the information all at the same time. Over the summer we took advantage of the time we had with the students during the residential life session at Orientation and asked students to provide us with their thoughts regarding this new process. We only had a small pool of students take the opportunity to respond, but their feedback was helpful. Of the students who took the time to respond, 75% felt that the on-line form was user friendly and 68% found the links back to our site to be helpful as they were filling out the form and had questions.

While it was obvious that this change had an impact on our general student population, one group of students specifically benefited – our international students. In the past when our housing mailing had gone out, it would take weeks, sometimes months, for them to receive the information and then send it back. Since the postcard was mailed so much earlier and they only needed to access the internet, it made it much simpler for them to submit their information in a timely manner. There were still some challenges for them – including actually getting onto the internet – but all in all it was a positive move to help them submit their preferences. In situations where students were having problems, we took their information over the phone.

Moving to on-line submissions meant a drastic decrease in the manual labor of our Summer Housing Assignments staff. We did not need to spend the hours as we had in previous years calling students and completing new forms because their bubble sheet was incomplete or incorrectly filled out, i.e. they used ink instead of a #2 pencil. Once a student completed the on-line form, the information was stored directly into our Student Information System. If a student selected a specialty housing area requiring an application, the student was prompted to complete the application upon submitting the preference form and the application was sent to our housing@ithaca.edu email so it could be printed and reviewed by the appropriate individuals. We also did not spend the quantity of time that typically had been spent contacting those students who didn’t submit forms. By the middle of July, we had received information from all of our students. The time that our staff used to spend on the phone was tremendous and most times resulted in additional phone calls because messages we left were not returned. This decrease in time spent on the phone meant that our staff could focus their attention on other items; specifically, since they were Residence Directors, they could spend time preparing for the return of their RA staff and reviewing the condition of their area prior to opening.

By receiving housing information earlier than usual, we were able to run more tests of our housing program than we have ever been able to in the past. This allowed us to track our current housing situation and make decisions regarding the number of students we anticipated to be in temporary housing and if there was a need for additional off-campus approvals (Ithaca College has a 3-year residency policy and all non-seniors must apply and be approved by our office to move off-campus).

Now that we have gone through the process for a year, we have had the chance to look back in retrospect and identify changes for next year’s incoming class. There are some minor modifications that need to be made to the applications for the specialty programs to help the individuals reviewing the applications. Additionally, we received feedback from the students requesting a confirmation email when their information had been received. In working with ITS, this is a change that can be made for the upcoming year and once a student has submitted their information, a confirmation message will be sent to the email they provided the college with upon applying. We will also allow students to make changes to their preferences on-line and not require them to contact us to request these changes. Students will then receive a confirmation email when their changes have been received. We will allow for changes to take place up through the last day of the final Orientation session in July just as we did this year to provide our incoming students with the same opportunity.

As I look back on the journey we made during the 2002-2003 year, there are some recommendations I have for anyone thinking about pursuing a project such as this.

  1. Know your timeline. This is not a project that will typically be able to happen overnight. Be sure that you know what constraints you are working with and who else is involved. This includes knowing what is coming up in the future (i.e. system upgrades, and server downtimes) as they could potentially have an impact on your project regardless of the phase it is in at the time these events occur.
  2. Know what you are looking for to be able to accurately communicate this information to the necessary individuals when the time comes.
  3. Create a list of the potential offices you will need to work with to see this project through to the end, i.e. Admissions, Information Technology, Marketing and Communications, Vice President, First Year Programs, Registrar, etc.
  4. Gather information from your Admissions Office. Does your institution currently offer students the ability to process applications on-line? How many students apply on-line? How many students does your Admissions Office plan on accepting? How many students does your Admissions Office plan will attend? This information will hopefully help you to determine how many students will have the ability to take advantage of this service, whether or not you will need to still publish printed materials, and if you see the project through, the information will help in determining the method you use to let students know how to submit their housing information.
  5. If your office does not have a staff member devoted to technology, speak with your Information Technology department immediately to determine the feasibility of this project.
  6. Be prepared to spend a great deal of time collaborating with the offices you listed. You will work with some more than others, but they will become your greatest allies in this project.
  7. Communicate these changes to the pertinent offices on campus that may experience questions regarding this process. By providing these offices with this information, they will better be able to assist you in working with the students to complete their forms.
  8. Dream big, but be realistic. You never know what can and will happen. Have an idea of what you want from the beginning but be willing to modify that plan if it isn’t all possible to happen at once.

In the Fall of 2002, it seemed as if a very daunting task lie ahead of us. We were very fortunate to have the support of a number of offices – Information Technology Services, First Year Programs and Orientation, Marketing and Communications, the Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Life and the Treasurer/Vice President for Business Operations. This project was a huge undertaking that propelled our residential life program further ahead than we had ever hoped in an extremely short period of time. We were able to burst the concept of using the bubble sheet and produce a product that made a huge difference to our students and staff.

About the Author:

Jen Richardson is in her second year as the Coordinator of Housing Services at Ithaca College. Prior to that, she was a Residence Director for 2 years at IC. She can be contacted at jrichardson@ithaca.edu or at (607) 274-3141.