Ask any taxpayer who impatiently begins checking the mailbox within days of filing an income tax return: People may wait until the last minute to pay a bill, but when owed a refund, they want it as quickly as possible.
And so the manual refund process at American Public University System (W.Va.) was problematic. Financial aid refunds at the fully online school took up to 10 days to process; nonfinancial aid refunds could take up to twice that time. And that was with staff members who did nothing but process refunds full time.
“Over the last five years, the volume of refunds we were processing to students was increasing,” says Melissa Frey, vice president for finance operations. “We were processing a little over 5,000 refunds a month. Our goal to provide better service for our students as well as our employees was to be able to process daily refunds to ensure that credit balances were leaving our institution quicker to get to students.”
Frey was part of a team that was convened to identify factors in the refund process that needed to change for improvements to occur. The team consulted with a business analyst from APUS’ information technology department, walking through the lifecycle of a refund to find where inefficiencies existed. IT then developed a software solution that automates the refund process.
Now, refunds to students and third parties can be processed daily, within two days of a credit balance occurring. The new system also flags when manual intervention is needed, routes credits to accounts payable so that checks can be cut, creates a log of the reason for each refund, and more.
The solution reduced average processing time for financial aid refunds by approximately 90 percent, and for nonfinancial aid refunds by up to 50 percent, says Frey. Students receiving refunds can now see on their ledgers when a balance has been returned to them, reducing call volumes. And total time saved equals the workload of about six full-time employees, allowing the school to do some realignment of personnel.
“Some individuals we assigned to financial aid teams so they could help package [aid] and do some programs in other areas,” she says. “Other individuals moved into general finance. Some went into other IT-related projects. For the first time, we created two different roles we didn’t have before, one in training and another one as a QA specialist.”
Beyond the efficiencies created, she adds, she and her team learned some important lessons.
“A big project like this is definitely a partnership,” Frey says. “The support and guidance we gave each other and immediate communication we will definitely use in other projects. And student feedback is important. As much as we can listen to and hear our students, it’s going to make us better.”
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