Of all the voluminous paperwork generated by institutions of higher education, perhaps none drowns administrators quite so much as the waves of financial aid forms that surge through offices. With lending institutions and government funding agencies maintaining a keen interest in where their money is going, students and staff alike must take care to cross every “T” and dot every “I,” and such attention to bureaucratic detail requires lots of paper - and lots of human capital to process it all.
At Palm Beach State College (Fla.), 33,000 students apply for financial aid each year. The U.S. Department of Education requires all colleges and universities to verify the information on about a third of those applications. A labor-intensive and cumbersome process, verification involved contacting applicants in order to gather tax returns, proof of residency, copies of bank statements, pay stubs and the like to confirm that the information that had been submitted to the government via the online FAFSA form was correct.
“They put the onus back on the school to audit what’s done electronically,” explains Chuck Zettler, director of information technology. “We’re a multicampus institution. We have four locations around our county. Because we’re an urban county, our locations are such that students go to multiple places to take classes and get services. We’d send students e-mail or letters saying we need these three documents, and they’d bring one or two, but we had no way to capture them, and we’d send them back and say, ‘When you have all four, come and see us again.’ ”
The inefficiencies in collecting and processing verification documents could delay notification of financial aid award eligibility to students by up to six weeks. Much of Palm Beach State’s student population depends on aid arriving in the first few weeks of the term in order to pay for books and housing, so these delays had a negative impact on enrollment. And while applications and awards had nearly doubled over a two-year period, economic conditions prevented the hiring of extra staff.
The college’s solution was to turn to an enterprise content management system and begin scanning whatever verification documents students brought in, even if they had to return later with more. Using Optical Image Technology’s DocFinity product, financial aid staffers were able to store documents as they arrived and then cycle the completed set through the verification process. Electronic management of documents also enabled Palm Beach State to outsource the verification. The vendor handling that work needed nothing more than a secure internet connection to do it, and the result was reduced costs and increased productivity of on-campus staff.
Verification time was slashed to a mere two days, helping to boost enrollment, and by reexamining “the way people work and interrelate with data and information,” Zettler says, the college has greatly improved its ability to serve students.
“We can leave on a Friday and our queue will have 500 applications, and by the time we come back Monday, the queue is cleared out,” he says. “Before, our crew would have to work over the weekend or come back to a backlog Monday morning. Our staff now can be dedicated to helping those students who come into the college campus for services or who call in for services.”