12 Steps to a Better Bursar's Office
Long lines, frustrated students, and tired staff-those are the stuff that campus bursar's offices are made of. Or are they?
"On the first day of classes, it would be like standing in Penn Station in rush hour," says Dan Maguffin, bursar at the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.), of the scene that he used to see outside his office. Four years after his arrival, things have certainly quieted down. "Now when you walk through, you would think it's a Sunday morning."
Officials at RPI; California State University, Dominguez Hills; Flagler College (Fla.); and the University of Missouri have all made progress in improving the experience of students and families as well as office staff in managing student accounts-saving money, time, and trees in the process. Read on for a dozen steps bursar's office leaders can take to streamline operations.
1. Rethink age-old processes.
When Lisa Chavez arrived at Cal State, Dominguez Hills, nine years ago as director for accounting services, there "wasn't any automation at all" in the Student Financial Services office, she explains. Families couldn't make payments online, or even by phone. And with two payment deadlines per semester, the office was packed. "We'd have long lines down the middle of the campus," she says.
Four years ago, the signs of the times at RPI and Flagler were evident in the office equipment. Maguffin says that typewriters were one of the first items he spotted in RPI's bursar's office. "My skin crawled. I couldn't wait to get rid of those things." It had never been a high priority to upgrade the systems, he adds.
Around the same time at Flagler, it was the forms that irked Richard Jacobs, director of student accounts. They were printed on "the old multipart carbon paper," Jacobs explains. "Every office got two or three copies, whether they wanted them or not." Not surprisingly, those copies got physically walked to their destinations.
Chavez, Maguffin, and Jacobs were all more than ready to implement improvements.
2. Make efforts to ensure all student services departments are grouped together on campus.
RPI officials set up a one-stop shop a few months after Maguffin's arrival. With offices such as financial aid, the registrar, dean of students, first-year experience, health services, and the bursar all in close proximity within the same building, creating a better customer service experience for students was easier. Maguffin saw this move as a first step to streamlining operations in his office.
3. Cross-train staff.
With other offices handling student services nearby, what could be more logical than making sure staff can assist students with a variety of needs? At RPI, several members of the bursar's, financial aid, and registrar's offices have learned each other's jobs. "If a student comes up to pay a parking ticket and happens to have a financial aid question, the last thing you want to do is tell him or her to go stand in another line," Maguffin says.
For data security reasons, however, there is an exception to the cross functioning-registrar and financial aid staff can't accept payments at their windows.
4. Provide online access and payment options for student accounts.
It's not just the cashier's office lines that make paying in person inconvenient. Institutions offering online access for student accounts have created 24/7 operations for families forking over tuition dollars. And at some schools, such as the University of Missouri, Columbia, even more can be done online than in person, since credit cards aren't accepted in person there anymore, explains Paul Toler, director of business services.
A full conversion to electronic billing at Cal State, Dominguez Hills, has meant the office saves on paper and postage. And with fewer hard copies around, "less paperwork gets lost," Chavez says.
RPI rolled out automated clearinghouse (ACH) payments (which use the same kind of system as direct deposits) online in 2006, at the same time as the bursar's office there started accepting electronic checks and debit/savings account payments, Maguffin says. ACH has become the payment method of choice, he adds, with about 75 percent of all payments now made in that way.
Online gateways, where students and their families could check their accounts, were the first step for RPI. Maguffin explains, "We needed to see how effective e-commerce solutions were going to be with our students and parents" before e-billing was introduced. The office "went cold turkey" one day in July 2006 to e-billing, and since then his staff has much more time for other essential tasks. "We didn't have to sit and print 6,000 paper bills and stuff them ourselves," he says. "We had done everything but lick the envelopes."
5. Add self-service kiosks to the waiting area.
When there are lines, students at schools such as RPI and the University of Missouri likely appreciate the option of serving themselves. The two kiosks outside the cashier's office at the University of Missouri are also used in training parents and students on how to access their accounts online, says Toler.
6. Consider outsourcing, particularly in light of new credit card industry requirements.
With new Payment Card Industry security requirements that went into effect this year, in-house PCI compliance would have been more costly for Cal State, Dominguez Hills, compared to outsourcing its entire Student Financial Services data center, says Chavez. So all of the institution's TouchNet Information Systems (www.touchnet.com) application processing functions, including the Bill+Payment Suite's e-billing, payment plans, and student accounts, are now handled by the provider of campus commerce software and services.
As Luci Fichter, director of information technology for the University of Missouri system office, who managed the implementation of QuikPAY from Nelnet (www.nelnet.com) in system offices in 2005, puts it, one objective of the business office was to get out of the payment processing business because of PCI compliance issues. "Regulations were becoming increasingly strict, and the fine for noncompliance was increasing also. We decided to turn that business over to those who make it their full-time business to process online payments."
7. Stick with a single vendor.
RPI selected Sallie Mae for all e-commerce, online payment processing and e-billing, notes Maguffin, who remembers the hassles involved in having two different service providers for installment plans while in the bursar's office at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "For me, it's much easier for so many different reasons to just simply have one vendor that we deal with. It's almost like one-stop shopping for me. They take care of all my student financial service products."
8. Discourage credit card use by having families assume the fees.
Paying tuition by credit card may be more of a convenience than a necessity for many families-especially as the menu of payment options suits nearly every taste-so why should the institution incur the extra costs associated with this method? University of Missouri and Rennsalear officials didn't think they should.
At RPI, explains Maguffin, "like many schools, we were getting hit with the brunt of the merchant fees." So in 2005 a campuswide credit card policy was developed, with families assuming the fees that were costing a total of $800,000 to $900,000 per year. Besides, accepting credit card payments by mail, fax, and phone ate away at the department in another way. "It was all very time-consuming, and it was sucking up our staff resources," Maguffin says.
With the extra cost of paying by credit card, now many RPI families are now choosing to pay another way.
9. Speed up refunds.
At Flagler, the refund request process used to cause a lot of frustration for students, and that frustration took its toll on the business services department building, a historic house on campus.
The process looked like this: students would come in to fill out a refund request form for loans and other aid that exceeded tuition and fees costs. A clerk would print out the student's account, which got brought to the accounts payable office. After 100 requests reached A/P, checks would be cut. Each check would be signed by the executive vice president before it was put in an envelope for the student to pick up. Then the original requests were filed.
"Each student wound up having to come in two to five times a semester," Jacobs recalls. With lines out the door, a rain-drenched student at the counter was not uncommon. And with an estimated 60 to 65 percent of Flagler students getting a refund, the number of times the door to that historic building got slammed per semester was in the thousands.
Now Jacobs' office works with Higher One (www.higherone.com) to deliver rapid refunds that Jacobs says are not only more convenient for students but hit their wallets seven to 10 days earlier.
New students are issued and required to activate a Flagler One Card. All credit balances are automatically transferred to the One Card, a MasterCard debit card, when the drop/add period is over.
For students who need their refunds to purchase books, Flagler officials worked out a deal with the privately owned campus bookstore so that a student can buy books with a check that the bookstore holds. Once the refund money has reached the One Card, the student can swipe it to pay for the books and then get his or her check back.
For study abroad students, having the One Card-which grant money can be applied to-has often meant not having to bother with travelers' checks.
Jacobs says that his office is "looking at 1,000 to 1,200 staff hours saved annually." A full-time clerical position was eliminated after the staffer decided to leave the school. "We also have probably cut paper consumption on the refund process by at least one-third," he adds.
10. Re-evaluate early technologies' use.
Voice response systems may have been all the rage in the late 1980s, but campus bursar's staff have come to see them as outdated as the Apple II computer. Cal State, Dominguez Hills, has dropped payments by phone after use decreased significantly in the past two years, and Maguffin says RPI will likely eliminate it in the next year or two. While he acknowledges that setting up voice response systems wasn't cheap, the technology "is a thing of the past."
Also on the chopping block may be the lockbox. Families aren't getting much use anymore out of these off-site processing centers, which accept mail-in payments for schools. The per-item fee assessed by RPI's bank for the processing, while nominal, still adds up, Maguffin says.
11. Work toward a paperless office.
That's the goal at Flagler's student accounts office. "We think that's the proper service that we can provide for our students. They are tech-savvy. They want to do things on their time frame," Jacobs explains. Right now he estimates his office is about 85 to 90 percent paperless.
Imaging is a next step, so that forms can be saved electronically rather than filed.
ImageNow (www.imagenow.com) from Perceptive Software has helped the business office at the University of Missouri to go paperless, allowing documents to be seen by more than one office without being physically transported. Aside from the benefit of there being less paper around, solutions like this help protect against fire and natural disasters such as floods.
12. Make good use of newly found staff time.
Staff at the business services office of the University of Missouri, Columbia, have taken on less of a transactional role and more of a counseling role since the move to electronic billing, Toler says. There's time to assist with questions students have about their finances or to negotiate alternative payment plans. "Before they were unable to spend as much time on counseling priorities because they were doing the transactions themselves," he adds.
At RPI, "without a doubt we've got more staff now to answer the e-mails that come in," Maguffin says. While temps used to be a mainstay to help answer phones and e-mails in crunch times, now front-office cashiers can provide telephone support.
Maguffin also points out that there's now more time for back-office functions such as dealing with inactive billing, collections, and reconciliations.
But the most visible consequence of streamlining the bursar's office is the improved customer service. "Students are a lot happier. They're not so hurried or upset when they have to come in here," Jacobs says. "It's been a big help for them."