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Once Sideshows, Colleges' Mobile Apps Move to Center Stage

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Ten weeks before California State University at Northridge was to enroll its largest freshman class ever, Hilary J. Baker, vice president for information technology, and her colleagues decided to take the mobile leap.

They spent about $75,000 and much of the summer working with a company called Modo Labs to create a mobile application with which students can add and drop courses. Northridge would be the first in the 23-campus Cal State system with such an app, and colleagues up and down the state were watching.

Designed to work on both iOS and Android devices and developed in tandem with the university's new mobile website, the app went live on August 21, a few days before fall classes began.

Content is king:

"What can you do with the app to actually improve certain types of student life, or certain kinds of processes that the university has to go through­—everything from registering for classes all the way to getting donations from alumni?" asks Mr. Yu, who adds that his company typically charges $20,000 to $75,000 to develop an app. "They really want to be able to integrate those core features. It is no longer just about looking up where the campus building is. It is really about the next generation."

At Cal State Northridge, Ms. Baker, the information-technology leader, expects to build additional functions into the campus app that will allow students to access photos and video and to view accounts and pay bills, among other things.

"Mobile and mobile applications—these features are absolutely center stage for us now," she says.

Her advice for other institutions looking to invest in their own apps is straightforward: Focus on selecting meaningful content. Ms. Baker also recommends designing an app that is compatible with multiple platforms but uses only one code base, so as to simplify maintenance.

Then, she says, "test, test, and then test some more."

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