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One-Stop Wonders

IHEs are exploring new ways to give students more autonomy and convenience when making their administrative transactions
University Business, Mar 2006

Just five years ago, University of Minnesota students had to visit four different buildings on campus just to register for classes. In fact, completing any administrative transaction--from requesting a transcript to paying a parking ticket--required a commute, as the university handled most of its student services in different buildings.

This posed a great inconvenience for students and a significant communication barrier for staff. Finally, in 2002, after fielding many student complaints, the university revamped its silo-structured department model by consolidating student services into one location on each of its three Twin Cities campuses. These "one-stop" centers have streamlined the administrative process for the entire institution. "Students now only wait in one line at one building to get 95 percent of their questions answered," says Mary Koskan, director of One-Stop Student Services at the university. "Staff members are now aware of what other offices are doing and can better share information."

Many IHEs have adopted a one-stop lifestyle on campus, especially within the past five years. Besides making tasks easier for students and staff, the concept can be a money saver, as well.

Some institutions have even extended the one-stop concept to the web. At the U of M, many students take advantage of a "virtual" one-stop center. Unlike the physical center, this web equivalent provides 24/7, anywhere access to administrative services. The site helps offer a seamless experience for students. "Students don't know which department they are in because all of the services have merged into one," Koskan says. "We did not want to re-create silos on the web." Students can check a bill, look up their grades, and find out where they are in the financial aid process with just a few clicks. "We have a very robust website and a strong web culture," Koskan explains. "Our web services offer great support to our administrative offices on campus." The university actually implemented its one-stop website four years prior to building its physical center.

Despite the unparalleled immediacy of the web, U of M's physical facility also serves an important purpose. "Without the website, the one-stop centers would be flooded with students, especially during registration time," Koskan says. "I'm not sure the centers could accommodate all of our students." The web option has helped to reduce the volume of walk-ins and phone calls to the physical centers. Further, while plenty of students prefer to communicate online--92 percent of students currently register online and more than 75 percent manage their interactions online--many students still value traditional face-to-face interaction. "Ultimately, I think students like the ability to choose the way they interact with the university," Koskan says.

The one-stop trend on campuses clearly reflects the commitment IHEs have to customer service. "This is the era of the ATM and drive-thru service," says Prakash Mathew, vice president for Student Affairs at North Dakota State University, which is currently expanding and remodeling its student union to include a one-stop center. "We are simply giving students what they are used to getting outside of higher ed.

"Offering better customer service gives us a competitive edge," Mathew says.

At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, there is no other choice but to access student services electronically. Several years ago, the university explored the idea of building a multi-million-dollar physical one-stop center. But when CIO Karin Steinbrenner came on board in 2000, she put a stop to that notion. She recommended that money be used for a one-stop portal. The portal, which is enabled by SunGard SCT Luminis, has been running for four years.

Steinbrenner says students have responded very positively to the virtual center. "They can't imagine a world without it. It's the only place where they can access all of the information they need."

The university has also experienced significant cost savings by opting for a one-stop portal. "Running a physical building can be very expensive--between the cost of staffing it, maintaining it, and providing the software for it. It just seemed like a waste of resources," she says. "I knew we could execute the same concept at a much lower cost."

Some would argue that offering only a web-based process depersonalizes the college experience. But Steinbrenner points out that students can still build personal relationships with staff. "If a student needs in-person attention, we link them up with a student advisor," she says. "I actually think student interaction is at a higher level." But Steinbrenner still appreciates the physical one-stop concept. "They used to have great value before the web existed," she says, adding that the University of Delaware has benefited greatly from its center. "But that was built before the web existed. At the time, it was the right thing to do. I just don't think a building is still necessary."

The University of Delaware now offers the best of both worlds. Recognized as the pioneer of the one-stop trend on campuses, the university opened its one-stop center in 1992. Hundreds of other IHEs regularly visit the university to find inspiration for their own one-stop models.

But in recent years, the university implemented a one-stop portal to accommodate the new generation of tech-savvy students. "We have different students now than we did 14 years ago," says Executive Vice President David Hollowell. He strongly believes in the utility of offering both a one-stop portal and physical center. "We would build a one-stop center again today," he says. "Our major objective is not to save money, but to provide service." Further, he says, "there are times when students have a complex problem that is not easily solvable on the web."

The university's one-stop campus model uniquely operates like a banking model. In his book Planning for Student Services (Society for College and University Planning, 1999), Hollowell describes the model: "The bank lobby provides information brochures and forms along with automated teller machines; the tellers are able to provide a number of banking services; and, for those specialized questions or services, the bank officers are close by and often in clear view of the teller windows."

In the campus model, the center's staff members, also known as "generalists," represent tellers. "Generalists are cross-trained to address a variety of questions and concerns and make the appropriate judgment calls," Hollowell says. The self-service computer stations, which are found in most one-stop centers, are like ATMs. These computers serve students who prefer to complete transactions on the web. The specialists, in this case, refer to the various administrators who still reside in their departmental offices. They are often available to meet with students who require specialized attention.

Given the longevity of University of Delaware's physical one-stop center, it's safe to say that the branch-banking model works. But, the university continues to perfect its one-stop design. The one-stop center will soon undergo a renovation to "freshen up the place," Hollowell says.

The one-stop lifestyle also benefits community college students, perhaps more so. Often holding down a job and a family, these commuter students don't have time to visit multiple buildings to make simple transactions. In fact, many architectural firms have reported an increase in requests from their community college clients for one-stop centers. "I noticed the trend about five years ago with our community college clients," says Tom Christian of California-based NTDStichler Architects.

Cuyamaca College (Calif.) enlisted the firm's services to take customer service up a notch. In 2003, the college implemented a one-stop center in its student union, which consolidates more than a dozen student services. "We wanted to create a shopping mall experience where students could come into the space and immediately see all the services right in front of them," says Dale Switzer, director of Facilities, Planning, and Development for the college. "We wanted to give them orientation."

Because of Cuyamaca's large population of commuter students--many of whom have never attended college before or who have been out of higher education for at least 10 years--it was important to create a sense of direction for these students, he says.

The staff members have also witnessed major improvements. Prior to the one-stop center, they tended to have difficulty inter-relating and sharing information. "Being a few steps away rather than a walk across campus away makes staff feel more interconnected in their responsibilities," Switzer says. "This helps them operate more efficiently."

The one-stop student services center comprises a three-building complex built around a courtyard. The center also boasts a strategic design. Located right at the entrance to the campus, they're the first buildings a prospective student sees, says Christian. "The space also features a lot of glass in order to show activity and make it appear like a friendly, active space."

But Cuyamaca officials envisioned more than just a pretty building. They wanted a better customer service model to attract more students. "Our bottom line is to boost enrollment," Switzer says. So far, enrollment has jumped by up to 20 percent since the center opened. While class offerings and educational programs have also improved, he says the one-stop center is partly responsible for the enrollment growth.

The one-stop center at Anne Arundel Community College (Md.) has also become a recruitment tool. Nestled in a $9 million student center that has a 60-foot atrium, the building "is an attractive, inviting space," says Leonard Mancini, dean of Student Services. The college's significant enrollment growth over the last six years is not a direct result of the center, but the building's convenience, accuracy, and responsiveness has definitely been a contributing factor, he adds.

The college is also retaining students at greater numbers than ever before. Like its four-year counterparts, the college has also created a one-stop portal, enabled by Datatel's Colleague. "Before the integrated database, our offices could not share information online with each other," Mancini says. "All of their databases were separate. Now, they can access each others' information in a centralized way."

The integrated database has also allowed students to become much more autonomous in terms of their educational planning. Anne Arundel has just implemented e-advising, which allows students to communicate directly with their advisors through e-mail to develop an education plan together.

Still, Mancini believes technology will never replace the physical center. While 80 percent of students enroll virtually, the remaining 20 percent enroll in person at the one-stop center. "That's when the one-stop center comes in handy," he says. "Some students still aren't comfortable with the virtual system. They just don't trust it."

Clearly, IHEs see the benefits of a one-stop campus. "A lot of schools are finally seeing the light," says Kyle Taft, vice president of Salt Lake City-based MHTN Architects, which has designed several one-stop projects, including ones at NDSU and Minnesota State University, Mankato. "Administrators are increasingly becoming concerned with the plight of their students--the fact that students have to traipse all over campus just to get something as mundane as a bus pass."

The student services model has evolved--for the better. "The focus of student-centered services is to ensure that each student's 'touch point' with the institution provides the quality, accuracy, and responsiveness expected by today's students," says Darlene Burnett, an independent consultant and co-editor of the book Planning for Student Services: Best Practices for the 21st Century (SCUP, 1999). Now, students and staff may have two touch points with the institution--a virtual and physical one.

The one-stop concept holds different meanings for every IHE. But more convenience and better communication are at the core. "One-stop shopping is an investment that pays off early on," says Hollowell of the University of Delaware. "It's not just about reducing costs; it's about having a more satisfied student body that will become more generous alumni."

Alana Klein is a former associate editor of University Business.

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