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Business Officer Magazine

Combining High-Tech Tools With Financial Aid

Technology is changing how the financial aid department at Pima Community College, Tucson, Ariz., conducts business.

By Terra Benson

One of the responsibilities of our financial aid specialists in Pima Community College's financial aid department is completing verifications of the information students provide on their FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). When students turn in their verification documents, we scan them into our Banner document management system. We then use a job automated scheduler, UC4, which assigns work and distributes responsibilities without tying up a staff person. The job scheduler notifies the appropriate specialist that the verifications are ready to be processed. (See also, "Lose the Queues," in the December 2014 issue of Business Officer magazine.)

Our scheduler has been in place about six years. Before that, a verification turned in at one of our six campuses would be completed at the receiving campus or sent to the district office. The biggest problem we encountered was one of equity: One campus might process 2,500 verifications each semester, while another would handle only 500.

The job scheduler allows us to more equally and equitably distribute our work to our staff. Now, each staff member is assigned student names organized by a letter group, such as A through C or D through F. 

Another important benefit: Our students at each campus now have consistent timeframes and expectations, as well as the ability to know who to reach out to if they need follow-up and assistance.  

Calibrating Calls

In 2012, to strengthen our financial aid and student accounts support system, we changed vendors for our remote call center to take advantage of new multimodal inbound solutions, including a call/e-mail/chat ticket-tracking tool with a reporting capability.

One of the beauties of working with Xerox Corp., our current vendor, is that the call center operators try to meet the goals and objectives of our institution. Although located in California, they try to adopt a Pima mindset, which provides a sense of ownership with what happens on our campuses.

This partnership has worked because we maintain constant communication. We have weekly calibration sessions during which we listen to calls and offer feedback to agents. If we notice that we are getting repeat calls about a confusing topic, we provide additional information.

Our call center typically handles basic, repeat calls, asking questions such as: 

  • How do I apply for financial aid? 
  • How do I find out when my aid is available?
  • Do I need to turn in anything else? 
  • Can you explain my award? I don't understand it.
  • Where is my refund check? 

Occasionally, students will ask questions that cannot be answered by our call center agents. Let's say a student says he turned his documents into our East Campus, but the record isn't showing up in the system. A Pima staff member, who coordinates with the call center to handle escalated tickets, works with the East Campus to find out what happened. 

The number of agents working in our call center varies according to volume. We typically need more agents at the beginning of each semester. Our last contract for financial aid and student accounts was about $1 million, which we calculate is significantly less than it would cost for us to staff it internally. 

Although we are happy with the robust technology our current vendor provides, we have encountered a couple of challenges. Two come to mind:

  • If a student or staff member uses Pima-specific jargon or a Tucson descriptor, the folks in California may misunderstand the reference, which results in confusion.
  • Students, who assume they are speaking with Pima employees, occasionally want to ask additional questions about an advising topic or registering for a class. Of course, the call center can't help and must transfer the student. We're currently in conversations about adding student services to the contract.

Translation, Please

To help us keep track of innovative technology and tools, we now employ two dedicated IT analysts who "speak" financial aid. In addition to understanding data, they can translate the functional and technical aspects of regulations and create efficiencies that help us improve the student and staff experience.

Terra Benson, executive director of financial aid, Pima Community College, Tucson, Ariz., joined the department in 2005 as the IT analyst.

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