Changing the Way the College
The impact of technology is everywhere
By Alex Sachare
addition to helping students learn and teachers teach, digital
media technology is changing the way the College conducts its
operations in fundamental ways. From the methods used to attract
and evaluate prospective students, to the way their needs are met
during their years on campus, to maintaining their connections to
classmates and the College as alumni, the impact of technology is
admissions office is one that has changed dramatically,
incorporating new technology into every aspect of its operation.
"Remember that our primary cohort is 17 and 18-year-olds, and they
are on the Web every day," says Director of Admissions Eric Furda.
"We had reached a critical juncture. So many students are attracted
to the Web to start their college search, it has become
increasingly important to have a first-class Web site."
that's what the College is developing, thanks to an effort that has
included all units of the College and been coordinated by Columbia
College Information Technology, under the guidance of Sue Mescher,
associate dean of administration and planning. "The Web site is
rich with information, written for all levels and all
constituencies," says John Grogan '99, who brings the perspective
of a young alumnus to his position as director of information
technology. He is assisted by Helen Chu, associate director for Web
development and strategy, and Jeffrey Woodbury, associate director
for infrastructure, and they are supported by a number of
tech-savvy undergraduate and graduate interns.
Revamping and expanding the College Web site (www.college.columbia.edu)
is just one of the ongoing responsibilities of the IT office. In
addition to servicing the day-to-day computer needs of on-campus
College units, the IT staff works closely with each unit to plan
strategies for using technology to achieve goals and carry out
also provide a computing infrastructure for student groups within
the Office of Student Development and Activities, like the Columbia
College Student Council and NSOP (New Students Orientation
Program), to succeed in their respective missions," says Grogan.
"The goal is to assist in SOA's mission with the student body - to
assist the groups in their success and to provide an infrastructure
that promotes continuity. If a group has entered good data, five
years from now that group's leaders can look back and see a program
that worked well and replicate it."
Nowhere has the impact of technology been more striking than in
admissions. As applications have soared and the College has become
more selective, Columbia finds itself competing with other leading
schools for elite high school students. To meet this challenge,
admissions must play a more proactive role in identifying and
recruiting these students, and technology is crucial in this
effort. Throughout this fall, 14 admissions officers have been
traveling the country meeting students, parents, teachers and
guidance counselors - connected to the campus office by laptop
"We've turned them into road warriors," says Grogan. "It's a
culture change. We're moving from a stationary office to a mobile
office. With laptops, admissions officers can do just about
everything they could do in the office - e-mail, scheduling, access
files, prospect data, applicant data, data analysis."
by being out in the field, meeting top prospective students
face-to-face, admissions officers have a better chance of
convincing prospects that Columbia is where they ought to be. "This
allows us to maintain a competitive advantage over the schools we
compete with for distinguished students," says Grogan.
Furda says technology "impacts how we can recruit students, how
students send us information and how we evaluate the student
dossier. We can break down the demographics of applicants online,
which provides a great opportunity to manage our applicant pool.
It's becoming more efficient for us to do the processing side of
our jobs, so the less time we have to spend on the initial process
and procedure, the more we can spend evaluating and counseling,
which will help us better shape an incoming class."
case in point came last summer. "Students who at some point had
indicated they were interested in majoring in the sciences were
invited to campus on August 4 for a new program called Science at
Columbia, which was a great success," says Furda. More than 300
prospective applicants and their parents heard presentations by
faculty members from the science departments and attended a program
in Lerner Hall that featured a two-way interactive video conference
with faculty at Biosphere 2 in Arizona.
Since November 1999, candidates for admission have been able to
file applications online. "What that means is that anything the
high school student is responsible for filling out can be done
online," Furda explains. "They can fill it out, stop, go back to it
and make changes, and when they finish, it's just click and submit.
But there is still some paper involved in the process. Students
still have to have letters of recommendation done." As of
mid-October, Furda estimated that 30-40 percent of the applications
for the Class of 2005 had been submitted electronically, a
percentage he expects will rise over the next few years.
Technology is also changing ARC, the Alumni Representative
Committee, whose members across the country interview prospective
students and file reports with the admissions office. "The goal was
to move from a paper-based system that was manually intensive for
volunteers and especially for staff to one that is online," says
Grogan. "For alumni who want to be involved, within one or two days
of signing up for ARC they can be working. Regional chairs can log
on, see who their reps are, who the applicants are, and assign
applicants to reps. Reps can log on and contact their prospective
students right away, so applicants feel we are more responsive to
them. Reps fill out their interview reports online, and they can
also see decisions three days after they are made. It brings much
more immediacy to the program."
site plays an important role in the process, as a place where
prospective students and parents can get basic information about
Columbia and have many of their questions answered. "This does not
replace visits," says Furda. "We are still encouraging students to
physically visit the campus and get a personal feel for it. But by
the time they get here, prospective students can be a lot more
informed than they used to be."
Without tipping his hand to rival schools, Furda says he wants
to expand the site and make it more dynamic. "It's going to be a
tool not just for students but for people of all ages. We want to
represent the school, to counsel students and parents about what
the school has to offer. Technology is great, but fortunately
Columbia has great content."
David Charlow '85, associate dean for student affairs and
director of undergraduate student financial planning, echoes one of
the key points made by Furda about the impact of technology. "The
more families can answer the simple questions or perform the simple
tasks online, through the Web site and by e-mail, the more staff
time we can free up to work with families on the more complex
issues. It's a matter of enhancement of service delivery.
Everything we do online is not instead of personal service, but in
addition to it."
financial aid part of the College Web site includes information
about Columbia's need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid
policies, the cost of a College education and financial aid options
for students and parents, including application forms that may be
have a lot of information to convey, and we find the Web to be one
way to do it," says Charlow. "It expands our office hours to 24
hours a day. People can ask questions at their convenience by
sending us an e-mail, and get information when it's convenient for
them. And as more people use the Web and e-mail, it makes it easier
for other people to contact us directly by phone. There's still a
lot of paper involved, there are still forms to fill out and we
still need a tax return. But more and more we're getting
you log onto the College's Web page at www.college.columbia.edu,
you will find news headlines and key upcoming dates, plus links to
five areas customized for constituencies: students, parents,
alumni, prospective students and about Columbia College. "It's a
very different approach, thinking in terms of communities rather
than subjects," notes Mescher.
College alumni home page links to everything of interest to alumni,
from upcoming events to back issues of CCT to ways to get
structure is set up to meet the needs and desires of the users,"
says Chu. "For example, all programs that involve mentoring are
grouped under one link. If an alumnus wants to get involved but
doesn't know the name of a specific program, he or she can click
onto this button and see the entire list."
Grogan, "We want to make it easy for people to find what
they want, who to contact and how to get involved. We don't
want to make them jump through hoops."
Clicking on the alumni link brings you to the alumni home page,
which also can be accessed directly (www.college.columbia.edu/alumni/).
Here are 12 links to everything of interest to alumni, including
upcoming events, online searchable versions of Columbia College
Today, how to notify Columbia of a change or address and
listings of various alumni groups and offices. You can't yet make a
donation online (this process is in the works), but you can find
information about annual giving to the College Fund, methods of
giving, and donor groups such as the John Jay Associates and
also one of numerous places where alumni can sign up for e-mail
forwarding, a new University program that provides a free, lifelong
Columbia address for receiving e-mail no matter how often they
change jobs or Internet Service Providers. E-mail forwarding
also serves as a method of identity verification for other services
to be added, certifying the user as a Columbia alum.
on the alumni site are class pages with news and event information
of interest to specific classes, as well as mailing lists via which
a class member or a member of an affinity group can send an e-mail
and have it go to all from that class or group who have registered,
either in real time or digest form. There is a calendar of events
that is a live database rather than a static page, with input from
the alumni office, student affairs, the admissions office and many
Additional features are under development, including an online
directory from e-mail forwarding that will be linked to a change of
Returning to the main College Web site, there are a host of
features to benefit students, from the standpoint of both academic
affairs and student services.
example is the online Bulletin that has made scheduling classes
easier than ever, including information on academic policies,
requirements and scheduling. All available classes are searchable
by a host of criteria, including day and time, level, professor and
whether a class meets certain major or other requirements. "The
interesting thing here is that this was put together by a former
student (Grogan), using what was important to him as a student,"
for example, a student has a Monday-Wednesday class at 10 and
another at 12 and doesn't want to leave an hour empty in between; a
search provides all available classes starting at 11! (www.college.columbia.edu/students/academics/bulletin/)
students may be able to register for courses online. Student
Information Systems has launched online registration for some
graduate schools, but that system has not yet been implemented for
undergraduates, officials choosing to wait until the system is
tested and refined. So for now undergraduates must register by
phone, which is still significantly easier than waiting in long
lines (or camping out) to register in person, a process older
alumni remember not so fondly.
ability to search online is used in many ways. Students thinking of
spending a semester abroad no longer need to contact each
department to find out what suitable programs might be available.
"There now is a database that lists all Columbia-approved programs
for study abroad that can be searched by region, country or
language," says Chu.
Center for Career Services has a significant presence on the Web,
with information on its site (www.columbia.edu/cu/ccs/) for
students, parents, faculty and alumni as well as employers. To make
sure seniors don't miss an opportunity, CCS sends out a weekly
e-mail listing upcoming events and visits by employers, information
that also is available online.
Another weekly e-mail is sent from each of the class centers to
students, with announcements of upcoming academic and social events
sponsored or co-sponsored by the class centers as well as reminders
of approaching deadlines.
"It's important for us to communicate with our students in a
direct manner," says Dean of Student Affairs Chris Colombo. "For
us, the question with technology is not so much if we use it, but
how we use it."
use students can look for on the Web in the near future is what
Colombo describes as "a map of the advising system, talking about
all the pieces students can tap into to get all the information
they need." A prototype of the system is expected to be ready early
in 2001, at which point student feedback will be solicited and
incorporated into the system before it is rolled out.
is not meant to replace the advising system," emphasizes Grogan,
"but rather to complement it, serving as a resource and a tool for
both general and specific information. It will clearly define the
expectations, roles and responsibilities of all parties involved,
from students to RAs to the class centers to faculty and alumni. It
will describe the ways in which alumni can get involved in the
advising system and better it, such as through mentoring or by
providing special guidance for students of color, pre-professionals
Another site of interest to students is Mascot, which came
online in September and attempts to create an online campus
community for the College, SEAS and Barnard (General Studies may
soon be added). It features an online facebook, with directory
information and photos of all students (a student can "lock" his
photo, as well as all other identifying information except name and
e-mail address, if he or she does not want it to be viewed), and
facilitates the posting of announcements by group leaders to a
target audience. "We're hoping this will become the comprehensive
activities calendar for our students," says Charlow.