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Smart Business

From financial aid to fundraising, cutting-edge software can streamline your business process, saving you time and money.
University Business, Jan 2005

When it comes to money--from financial aid to fundraising--there's always paperwork involved, and usually far more than seems necessary. That's why administrators are always on the lookout for ways to streamline operations, improve customer service, and maybe even save some money along the way. Here's a look at how some schools are using technology to make a difference.

Traditions are usually a good thing, but at Sam Houston State University (Texas), there's one tradition that administrators and students don't miss. That's the annual "Coliseum event" in which new and returning students converge on the school's Johnson Coliseum sports facility over the course of a few days to take care of late registration, submit financial papers, and get aid disbursement checks.

"It had been going on 15 or 20 years," says George Rollins, director of the school's Bearkat OneCard system. "Over the years we've gone to an online early registration system, and that's helped tremendously but, for whatever reason, transfer students and others just don't get around to early registration. There is always a good number of students who wait until the last minute."

And during that last-minute registration rush at the beginning of each semester, the university had for years distributed refunds via paper check during the Coliseum event, requiring significant staff time, added expense, and limited options for students. Problems were compounded by the fact that there was no common data available to be shared between the Financial Aid and Administrative Accounting offices, so errors and stop payments on paper checks were costly for the school.

"Basically, it was a logistics nightmare," says Rollins. "There were long lines throughout the day. In fact, at one time we had a live camera feed on our school website so students could see how bad the lines were and whether they wanted to come register now or wait until the lines were shorter. It was a time-consuming, maddening process."

Administrators expect to reach
$400,000 in cost avoidance gross
over the year. The savings have
allowed a number of departments
on campus to better cope with
state-mandated budget cuts
of 10 to 15 percent.

The solution came 18 months ago as part of the automated OneCard system provided by the Higher One company of Connecticut. SHSU wanted to provide students with the latest in integrated banking services through the university's ID cards in a format that could be used off campus as well as on campus without hassle for local businesses, accessible through an online OneAccount checking account, and a OneRewards program for local merchants. Then they learned they could streamline the distribution process. When students sign up for the card (as more than 85 percent have) they can choose to have their refunds automatically deposited to their accounts.

"Students select their refund preferences beforehand," Rollins says. "They don't need to be there on line, and we don't have to have personnel there to write checks or fill out the different ACH (Automated Clearing House) forms. We just send an electronic file to Higher One and they take care of it. It really speeds up the process."

"The reduction in the time-consuming processing of paper checks has freed our staff to devote their attention to new entrepreneurial activities," says Jacque Gilliam, associate VP of Finance and Operations at the university.

The result is a cost avoidance of $240,000 in the first semester of the program, money that can be diverted to other uses. Administrators expect to reach $400,000 in cost avoidance gross over the year. The savings have allowed a number of departments on campus to better cope with state-mandated budget cuts of 10 to 15 percent. Those efficiencies have helped the campus avoid the prospect of personnel reductions as well as improve student services.

An added benefit: The Bearkat OneCard program has generated significant levels of commerce. Over $3.4 million was transacted through OneCard during the fall of 2003 on campus and in surrounding communities.

Donor gifts are a big part of the financial lifeblood of any institution, and finding a way to manage constituent information to generate greater gifts from school supporters is always top of mind. One system that claims to do just that is ... well, One, by Iowa-based RuffaloCody. It's the "next evolution" of two of the company's legacy products (Summit and Ascend) that have come together in a new web-based donor and member management software package.

"We had a fundraising system in place here for many years that was fairly old and clunky to put it mildly," says Adam Kahan, vice president of University Advancement at Ryerson University in Toronto.

"One is a full-fledged, web-based fundraising database system that answers all our needs in the maintenance and use of all our donor records," says Kahan. "It enables our staff to be proactive in terms of their relationships with donors and prospects. It has very strong reporting features and has good content management and customer relations software."

Because it is web-based, One allows fundraising and alumni association officers to get critical data about their constituents virtually anywhere they have access to the web. Time and cost savings result from being able to access information directly, without tying up support staff time. "In the long run this is a cost effective system for our business needs," notes Kahan. "The motivation to change wasn't to save money in this instance, although obviously that was a consideration. The functionality was what mattered to us; the ability to serve our business needs with a system that would do so was what really mattered."

One also offers a full-featured e-mail and e-newsletter function to spread the word about new fundraising initiatives or membership drives. From a marketing and campaign perspective that means fundraisers can have more control over those functions of their jobs. But a key feature of the suite is its integration of Campuscall, RuffaloCody's widely used phonathon system. The data transfer element is completely transparent when the products are used together.

Steve Doser, annual fund director at the 1,150-student Cornell College (Iowa), says Campuscall, has stimulated a significant increase in donor gifts. "We're able to reach two or three times the amount of donors in three months than we can in two years," he says. "It has an automatic dial feature, and if someone doesn't answer, it rolls right on to the next call."

Is there an ROI? "Well, we went from about almost $90,000 a few years ago to more than $260,000 now in phone pledges. The ability to reach a greater number of prospects in a shorter period of time has allowed Cornell to solicit a bigger percentage of its prospect pool," Doser says. "Because of the increased number of potential donors, we've had a greater opportunity to reach more prospects who may have major gift potential."

"The most important thing to us is service," says Mary McKinney, executive director of Student Financial Assistance at the University of Central Florida. The school partnered with Nelnet, an education finance corporation based in Nebraska, to create a mainframe loan processing product to replace the outdated PC-based system it had been using. "What we do is take the processes and tasks involved in education financing and automate them so we create an environment where people and processes are much more efficient," says Todd Eicher, executive vice president of the company.

The system is based on three integrated products designed to increase efficiencies for the school and students. First is Nteract, the web-based student loan origination system designed to reduce paperwork, streamline the application and disbursement process, and improve coordination and communication between financial aid offices and lenders. Transactions are done in real time with Nteract, so what was once a manual, paper-intensive process that took hours if not days to be processed and approved, is now acted on immediately.

"A big time-saver for both the school and the student is the ability to complete the financial application paperwork online and even sign it electronically," says Eicher. "That way they can get their information right into the system and begin the process immediately, instead of having all kinds of papers that all need to be signed and sent from place to place as we used to do. This really speeds the process."

Nteract provides a vehicle for uploading and downloading CommonLine files (a widely used electronic file format) to meet information system processing needs. Administrators can update borrower demographics, and can even facilitate PLUS credit checks through the system.

Electronic processing-the ability
to complete financial applications
online and even sign them
electronically-gets student
information right into the system
so the acceptance process can
begin immediately.

"Most of our loans are processed through Nelnet, and we like the fact that we have access to their online data; it's at our fingertips for research," McKinney says. "We can go directly into their system and run reports for comparison purposes. It expands our ability to double-check our reports. If I want to see whether there is something different on our system than on their system I can check. I can identify transactions that come from a specific lender, find out volume information, and so on."

Again, real-time processing means that when a change is made to a file--certifying a loan, for instance--it gets done immediately, so no one has to wait for batch processing. "That's the big difference," notes McKinney. "Now a loan can be processed in a matter of days instead of weeks. I can certify the loan, get the promissory note signed, and get the money into the system very quickly. In the past we'd have had to type the loan application, do the certification, get the student to sign the 'prom note' paper, and then send it as snail mail. During that time the prom note certification would go to one location and the application certification would go to another. By the time the paperwork was returned, nearly two weeks might have passed. Things have improved substantially."

When the UCF business office moved to electronic fund transfers, it wanted a CDA (central dispersing agency) service so the dollars would come from one entity. Nelnet's Ntrust module fit the bill. Offered free of charge to eligible IHEs, Ntrust provides a flexible solution for receiving student loan funds, reports, and CommonLine files (a standard financial file format). Additionally, Ntrust acts as the single point of contact for all of a school's electronic loan application processing needs and provides real-time loan and disbursement adjustment processing.

Ntrust enables schools to work with and receive funds from multiple lenders, but not be forced into working in multiple formats and processes. The result? A simplified process with one disbursement roster and one transmission of funds for any variety of lenders with which a schools wants to work.

The third component, Nterchange, is the online tool that allows students to apply, view, and inquire about the status of their loan and all the details of it.

"Students want simplicity most of all," says McKinney. "Nterchange provides a central point for the bulk of our students to know where to go for loan service reasons. That 'personal' connection is important to students, especially if they need to resolve loan problems or issues. In fact, most of our students know that their loans are serviced and processed through Nelnet. I'd say a large percentage of students elsewhere couldn't tell you who their lender is. But because we centralize the service, even if our students don't remember the name Nelnet, they can go to the site themselves and get service for their loans.

"That helps enhance the services to our students," says McKinney. "And the fewer calls we get to handle things that students can take care of themselves, the more time we can devote to providing better service."

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