Creating a one-stop student services center in 2005 at Wilkes University (Pa.) seemed like a good idea at the time. These popular organizational structures have typically been a cost-cutting measure introduced to allow educational institutions to do more with less. At Wilkes, a one-stop shop was created by co-locating the services of the Registrar, Financial Aid, Admissions Processing, and Cashier. So excited was the administration about the potential for efficiencies, the center was set up and operational in just six months, rather than the more typical 12- to 18-month window for implementation, explains Janine Becker, executive director of the Student Services Center.
While the center was being rolled out and positions eliminated, university enrollment simultaneously grew, putting added pressure on the new and poorly-trained team. The center quickly gained a reputation for being ineffective and unhelpful as paperwork backlogs grew, student wait times for assistance ballooned, phones were unanswered, and additional staff members jumped ship.
When Becker arrived in late 2008, she immediately began work in three key areas: restructuring the staff into teams by function, introducing weekly training, and leveraging the existing technology infrastructure.
As part of the restructuring, a professional financial aid director was hired to replace the previous person who held this post. Likewise, employees were assigned specific tasks for which they were responsible and cross-trained for flexibility. The changes immediately helped reduce the existing backlogs.
Little training had been provided during the initial transition to a one stop and was never reintroduced as the backlogs and long lines worsened. To address customer service issues, Becker reintroduced regular training sessions by dividing the 18-member team into two groups who participated in alternating weeks of training, so the center could remain open.
Perhaps most important, however, was the automation of routine tasks using the university’s existing Banner system. In addition to simplifying processes for staff members, changes were made to the online system to make it easier for students to navigate. Online registration was formerly so inconvenient that the majority of students elected to register in person, exacerbating the center’s staffing woes.
Today, 85 percent of students register online, rather than in person at the Student Services desk. Phone wait times have been seriously curtailed, with the average wait time now two minutes instead of more than 30. With registration, financial aid, and cashiering all linked online, students can check important documents from their dorm and the university has been able to significantly cut its printing and postage expenses. The reduction in required labor as a result of these changes reduced operating costs by 33 percent.
Now caught up on the backlogs, the Student Services Center is able to distribute financial aid packages three months earlier than in the past, to the delight of Wilkes students and parents. In fact, student satisfaction ratings for the center have improved in all areas, with the results trending at or above the national average for financial aid. The secret, says Becker, has been the department’s shift away from being in “defensive mode” to being able to focus on helping individual students; “we can now provide much better service,” she says.