California State University, San Bernardino used to receive approximately 600 completed scholarship applications for the 200 or so on-campus scholarships. On average, 300 additional applications were initiated but never completed. Those were lost opportunities, in part due to the arduous application process, says Louise Jones, financial aid advisor and scholarship coordinator.
The scholarship application process at CSUSB was labor intensive and time consuming for students and Financial Aid Office employees alike. It began with an online form, which was later supplemented with a paper essay, letters of recommendation, and academic transcripts, which students had to request, gather, and deliver to Financial Aid. Staff would then create and attach a summary sheet for each student applicant.
Once the application deadline had passed, an Excel spreadsheet would be generated for each scholarship to determine which students should be considered based on the scholarship criteria. “It took weeks to sort,” says Jones. Applications had to be sorted, pulled, copied, and delivered for consideration to various departments. The amount of work meant scholarships frequently weren’t awarded until just weeks before the fall quarter.
About four years ago, the university’s president formed a task force to evaluate the process and make improvement recommendations. That led to research into the two scholarship management programs that existed. CSUSB chose NextGen Web Solutions as its partner. That was 2009 and the university was under pressure, with only two months until students would start applying for scholarships for the next year.
So they developed the system in stages, first building the customer interface to enable students to submit their application data, while back-end processing was still being developed.
The process now is a shadow of its former self, having been simplified for all involved. Students log in, fill out an application, consent to have transcripts pulled, and list faculty who could provide letters of recommendation. The faculty then receive email requests for recommendations with a link to the student’s application, eliminating the need for paper copies or a long wait between request and receipt. Students can track who hasn’t yet submitted a recommendation, then follow up with a reminder. The process saves faculty time, and has made them more likely to help students out. Scholarship committee members are given immediate online access to the scholarships they’re responsible for, rather than having to wait several weeks for papers to be sorted, copied, and delivered to them, says Jones. Once the application deadline passes, it takes a single week, rather than several, to pull everything together.
Besides significantly reducing the time and resources required to process scholarship applications, the system has resulted in a 103 percent increase in number of applications received over the last two years, and hence, says Jones, “in a broader and more competitive applicant pool.” And, scholarships are being awarded in April now, four months sooner than in previous years, she adds, “allowing us to be more competitive with other universities in our recruitment and retention efforts.”