Five years ago, Polk State College (Fla.) struggled to manually process 800 graduation applications each year. Students first completed a paper graduation application. This was followed by a 30-minute meeting with an advisor who entered the application into a database, which was then reviewed by the graduation coordinator for confirmation before approval.
The graduation coordinator position grew into a full-time job as the number of graduates increased, supported by an additional 600 hours of clerical assistance and as many as 1,600 advising hours a year. In total, support costs exceeded $33,000 a year. As the college began experiencing massive growth, the existing process and support staff size was no longer sufficient. “It became very evident that a change was needed,” says Kathy Bucklew, director of student enrollment services and registrar. “We couldn’t afford more staff or advisors, but I knew we weren’t using our existing system adequately.”
Technology and business process changes were needed. The existing technology consisted of a homegrown database that couldn’t be modified. Bucklew decided to expand the homegrown system by exporting data to a different technology. A consultant helped design and program a system in Microsoft Access for a one-time cost of $8,000. It took less than a month to build.
The new database was easier for staff and made graduation management more efficient. Fully utilizing the existing student web portal made the graduation application more accessible for students, who get updates on their application’s progress via email. Staff could run reports and easily query the data to spot errors or confirm information. No longer was graduation prep a time-consuming process requiring one-on-one meetings and duplicate data entry into spreadsheets and the existing system, but an efficient online application that took minutes to finalize and submit and then download to manage.
Bucklew and her team also took a hard look at the business process and noticed frequent duplication of effort. “We didn’t realize how much time was being spent on advising,” she says. With the more flexible technological system in place, advisors weren’t required to meet with students and monitor each application’s process. She reallocated the advisors—taking them completely out of the graduation loop—to spend more time with incoming students, who frequently need true advising on course loads and degree plans. “We can give them much better service, even with less staff,” says Bucklew.
Besides needing to spend less time completing the graduation application, students can also now graduate more quickly. “We began to graduate students as soon as they meet degree requirements,” explains Bucklew, “rather than only three times a year,” as in the past. Graduating sooner means that students can then take licensure exams more quickly and enter the workforce almost immediately.
This year, Polk will graduate more than 3,000 students. “It’s a good thing we changed our process,” she says, “because we could not have handled so many the old way.”