Do you have what it takes to be an Iowa Stater? Get an answer in 48 hours

AMES, Iowa - It was a dark day last December, Phil Caffrey remembers. He is only half-joking.

Caffrey, senior associate director of admissions at Iowa State, had a problem on his hands. Admissions staff members were working overtime in the usual year-end dash to process applications to Iowa State. As mightily as they tried to keep up, the crew still had about 2,000 transcripts to evaluate and applications to process right before the holidays.

"We were snowed with applications," Caffrey said.

December is crunch time in college admissions everywhere. It's the height of the busy period (from October through February) when high school seniors order their transcripts and apply to top universities, hoping to enroll the following fall. Then they wait. And wait. And wait some more - weeks or months - while they (and their anxious parents) wonder if they'll be accepted, what they'll do if they aren't, and how quickly they can plan for housing and financial aid.

A better way

Caffrey has worked in ISU's Office of Admissions for almost three decades. He's helped to enroll record numbers of students even in the current weak economy. He's been recognized by the Iowa Board of Regents, the Iowa Counseling Association, and ISU's Alumni Association and Professional & Scientific Council for his service to students and the university.

You might say this isn't his first rodeo.

About this time last year, Caffrey was uncharacteristically frustrated. He understood how the system had always worked and why it took time, but hated to see prospective students wait for an answer any longer than necessary.

Caffrey and his boss, Assistant Vice President for Admissions Marc Harding, started brainstorming. Why couldn't the process be streamlined? Automated? Demystified? With technology, why should students have to wait even a week to learn whether they're admitted? After all, how can you "Choose Your Adventure" at Iowa State when you're still waiting to be chosen?

Harding and Caffrey knew that the high school transcripts were causing the bottleneck. First, prospective freshmen had to request that official transcripts be sent from their high schools to Iowa State. Next, high schools had to verify that Iowa State's Admissions Office had received each transcript. Then, ISU admissions staff had to scan, index, enter and manually evaluate transcript information for approximately 15,000 U.S. freshman applicants - and 10,000 of them wouldn't ultimately come to Iowa State. It suddenly seemed a very inefficient way to get to the 5,000 or so freshmen who would enroll at Iowa State.

"Why not let applicants self-report academic information online?" Harding asked Caffrey.

A little radical, yet it made sense.

So much sense, in fact, that Harding says other universities, including Rutgers, Georgia Tech, and the University of California System, have been offering rapid response admission decisions for years.

From application to acceptance in two business days

But Iowa State is the first - and as far as Harding and Caffrey know, the only - Midwest school to offer such a program. High school seniors who apply to Iowa State online and meet freshman admission requirements receive email notification of their admission in two business days. Their official admission letter is mailed on the third day.

Applicants need only answer four simple questions: What's your class rank? What's your ACT composite score? What is your grade point average? How many years of English, math, science, social studies and foreign language will you complete in high school?

Those who don't meet ISU's admission requirements still get a response within two business days, but the message may indicate that their application is under further review. Those prospective students may be asked for more information.

Preliminary transcripts are no longer required. Those students who enroll at Iowa State still must submit an official, final high school transcript as soon as possible after graduation, and that transcript will be carefully reviewed to verify that the student meets Iowa State's admission requirements.

There's no incentive for students to overestimate their academic record, Harding says, because enrollment is subject to verification of the final high school transcript. Admission offers can and will be withdrawn if the final transcript doesn't reflect the academic information originally reported.

The self-reported admissions process isn't yet available to transfer students or international applicants.

"The new admissions process is dramatically faster, more efficient, and much more environmentally friendly," Harding said. "It makes perfect sense in so many ways."

A win-win

Guidance counselors are confirming that. Tom Shively has more than 40 years of experience helping students to find the right college, the last 11 as college and career coordinator at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines.

"It's a win-win deal," he says of Iowa State's new admissions process.

Yes, Shively says, today's students are accustomed to accessing information instantly, but it goes much deeper than that.

"These kids are so bombarded with pressure in getting into college. If you find out whether you're in within two days, it alleviates some of that stress. It gives both the student and parent that assurance and confidence," Shively said.

He continued, "The expenses of college have gone up considerably. It's a challenge to find the school that students can afford and that's the right fit. Students and their parents are looking at a variety of schools. Now they want to shop around because of cost, culture, and the employment success for graduates of those schools. There's a lot of stuff going on today that just wasn't there five years ago.

"I hope other schools around the Midwest pick up on what Iowa State is doing," Shively said.