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Financial Aid, Course Schedule, and a Latte to Go

One-stop student centers streamline service.
University Business, Sep 2007

The primary purpose of a college or university is to teach, and the primary goal of a student is to learn. That said, in the current economic environment, the primary pressure on an institution of higher education is to survive, and the pressure on the student is how to best prepare for a competitive employment market. The design of the one-stop student service center represents a shift in institutional thinking towards a more "student-centric" focus. By placing all of the services an incoming student might need (registration, financial aid, housing placement, community organizations) in a single physical location with a welcoming, intuitive feel--along with amenities such as food service, coffeehouses, and hangout spaces--an institution can increase appeal, boost enrollment and, at the same time, streamline processes and cut operating costs.

In the Middle Ages, when the university as a formal center for higher learning was in its infancy, a new student's orientation was a simple affair: show up, sit at the foot of the master, and learn. Of course, at this time Oxford and Cambridge were the size of the Little Red Schoolhouse, and the entire world was much simpler.

Today, the newly arrived freshman at most colleges and universities is dropped into the center of a bureaucratic maze. The registrar's office in one building sends a student to the financial aid office in another for preapproval for aid before the student can register. The financial aid office needs to know the student's requirements first, so it's off to the housing office in yet a different building. Once the student makes it back to the first building and receives a class list, it's a trek across campus to the bookstore, after which he or she may very well need to return to financial aid and start all over again.

Does it need to be this complicated? Why must the first experience at a place of higher learning be a scavenger hunt for simple information? Some might argue that it builds character: "You're a college student now. You figure it out." But in addition to being a morass of duplicated efforts and wasted resources, the raison d'etre for this process is that it is really not a process at all, but in most cases an afterthought. The design and placement of student services are often determined by administrative needs and office space available at the time. The types of services that are needed change over time, as well. Though waiting lists at Harvard and MIT may never be short, many smaller universities, colleges, and community colleges operate in a competitive environment for enrollment. With the raised expectations today among students of a higher level of experience, perhaps it is time for a new model.

"What are we trying to accomplish?" The short answer is, "To best serve the student."

Competition in the business world has led to a shift towards less departmentalization and more collaborative, consumer-oriented thinking. At IBM, the theory of "re-engineering" was developed to provide a new approach to problem solving, beginning with the basic question: "What are we trying to accomplish?" The short answer is, "To best serve the student." Rethinking the enrollment process from the student's point of view helps create a system that is intuitive, welcoming, and easy to use.

A one-stop student center that brings together in one physical plant most of the services a new or continuing student might need can be designed so that, upon entry, students are presented with a clear and easy path to the people who have the answers they seek. The key is to set up a natural flow from the general to the specific. This type of organization can empower students to use as much or as little assistance as they require.

This configuration can be much like the modern-day local bank branch, where the self-service ATMs are located at the entrance, while a bit further in are the tellers (generalists), who handle 80 to 90 percent of a customer's needs. Anything beyond the standard transactions--business or home loans, security boxes, letters of credit, and other matters--are handled by the various managers and executive staff (specialists).

Another useful analogy is the well-designed, user-friendly website. "Our 'homepage' is the front help counter and call desk," says Kathleen Gaffney, director of Student Central at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y, where more than 14 different departments and services that had existed in multiple buildings have been combined into one facility (see functional diagram). "A good website doesn't need an instruction manual." The natural flow is from the general to the specific.

While there is always a certain amount of institutional inertia to overcome whenever a change is planned, the advantages in this type of consolidation overcome most objections. Since the mission of the school is to serve the students and to educate, a change to a student-centric plan addresses the first goal while at the same time achieving the second. The design of the one-stop student center both teaches and reinforces self-reliance.

The benefit to the student is tangible and immediate. The benefit to the school comes in different ways over time. Primarily there is an obvious cost savings in making all services more effective and less redundant. At the OCC Student Central facility, the sometimes overlapping services and departments are reconfigured into five service teams. Each team focuses on a different area--education, money, support, planning--while some departments (financial aid, career planning, counseling) overlap in a fully integrated and coordinated manner. There is also the reduction in cost that comes from sharing physical space and utilities.

The Onondaga Community College team structure was designed to overlie existing departments, which allowed them to function within the current hierarchy as they gradually made the transition. "The only anxiety among the staff was about the details," recalls Gaffney, "Overall, everyone is quite supportive and excited about the new facility."

A welcoming and easy to use one-stop center also has longer-term advantages. With its various amenities, the center can become a focal point for student life and alumni services--features that increase appeal and lend support to fundraising efforts.

When the first dons set up shop at Oxford, the primary goal of teaching had to be balanced with the distractions of the day: Keeping the church happy, keeping the king at bay, and keeping heads safely attached to necks. Today the focus has shifted as administrators address complex and diverse issues such as alumni satisfaction, fund raising, increasing enrollment, and reducing operating costs. Shifting to a student-centered perspective for planning, with concepts like the one-stop center, can address each of these needs and allow today's administrators to pleasantly keep their heads.

In business, it simply makes sense to always "put the customer first." In education, the student is the most valued customer. While the focus has always been on providing the student with the best possible learning experience, a competitive world is forcing that focus to expand and take into account the larger picture of student experience. When done successfully, this shift enhances learning, raises the profile of the institution, and attracts talented staff and students as well.

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