Financial aid offices, more than any other administrative office on a college campus, have been forced to use technology via external agencies. Federal student aid programs, as well as many state programs, can now only be administered by linking to external databases, such as the Federal Central Processing System (CPS) and the Pell Grant payment system.
Many financial aid offices, however, have gone well beyond these basic requirements to streamline operations and improve service to students through creative use of technology. In this article, we will highlight "best practice" use of technology in three very different aid office settings.
At Iowa State University, a home grown student system has been creatively enhanced to allow the university to administer almost $300 million in financial aid to over 12,000 students with only 12 professional, eight clerical, and nine FTE of student staff. In addition, Roberta Johnson, interim director of the office of student financial aid, provides the following examples of recent technological enhancements designed to improve service to students.
"Automated identification of students selected for verification, with an e-mail automatically sent requesting documentation; follow-up e-mails to students on a monthly basis regarding outstanding documentation
Automated packaging of all financial aid awards with e-mail notification to students to view the award on a secure server
Links from the electronic award letter to appropriate electronic note sites for Stafford, PLUS, and alternative loan borrowing
Implementation of third party access to Iowa State University's secure server so parents can view financial aid awards, bills, grades, and so on (at the student's discretion)
Implementation of an online student employment system that allows students appropriate access to both work study and non work study positions, and development of an electronic employment verification form which allows campus employers to input information regarding student hires which feeds directly into the university's payroll system. (This has eliminated work for the Office of Student Financial Aid, departmental payroll clerks, and the University payroll office.)
Development of an online scholarship system to streamline in-house scholarship applications and selections and an electronic check processing system to efficiently process scholarship checks from outside donors with automatic posting of the funds to student accounts in the business office.
Clearly these initiatives have made critical aid processes easier for both students and office staff and have provided a means of communicating more effectively with both students and parents.
At Hobart and William Smith Colleges (N.Y.), the College Board financial aid product PowerFAIDS has been used to significantly reduce the time and resources involved in "back end" processing. As Samantha Veeder, director of Financial Aid for the colleges, explains:
"For example, a few years ago when we automated the disbursement of both loan funds and state grants, the ease of reconciliation and the decrease in the burden of completing those tasks provided a significant return on investment. Instead of spending literally weeks reconciling over $10 million with the business office, the financial aid office can now run a report in less than 60 seconds to find discrepancies in disbursement amounts. Furthermore, data entry errors have been virtually eliminated. As a result, we immediately saw improvements to customer service and 'front end' processing."
Most recently, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, like Iowa State University, have increased electronic communications to students and reduced the number of paper letters sent. The colleges have also launched web access that enables students to review awards, missing documents, and loan statuses, any time, any day.
As Veeder notes, "We have seen a considerable decrease in walk-in traffic and telephone calls from students and only a slight increase in e-mail requests since we have empowered students to use the web tool to answer their own questions."
Finally, we spoke with Joe Bailey, director of Financial Aid at Genesee Community College (NY), who detailed the impact that technological enhancements in loan processing has had.
"Until a few years ago, we used to manually certify (with pen and paper) over 2,500 loans each year. That process would take several weeks for the application/promissory note to make it through the rounds (lender-guarantee agency-lender-school)," says Bailey. "With our Banner system and New York Higher Education Services Corporation, we certify loans with a few keystrokes and they are sent to the State every day. Students have the ability to electronically complete their Master Promissory Notes via the State web site by using their federal Personal Identification Numbers (PIN). The entire process only takes a few days." Additionally, GCC has finally embraced EFT-electronic funds transfer of loans, he says. "We used to receive paper loan checks. Upon receipt, we would notify every loan borrower that their loan check was in and that they needed to visit the campus to endorse their checks (twice a year)." GCC has five campus centers (some as far as an hour's drive away) and students would have to travel to the main campus for no other reason than to endorse their checks. "Now," says Bailey, "funds are applied to their accounts electronically. There is nothing the student needs to do. Also, if the disbursement of funds causes a credit balance (refund due to a student), our bursar's office sends an e-mail to the student, indicating they now have excess funds available to them."
Clearly, automated processing and electronic communication can significantly improve operations and service. To better assess your aid officers' TQ (Technology Quotient), review our best-practice checklist (sidebar) with your financial aid director.
Given today's technologically savvy students and their expectations for instant communication, the types of services detailed above may not place your institution at a competitive advantage. However, the lack of these services will speak loudly about just how ready your school is to meet the needs of today's students--certainly a potential competitive disadvantage.
Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, Inc. They can be reached via their website, www.scannellkurz.com.