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Business Officer Magazine
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Business Briefs

Short news articles based on research surveys and peers’ business experiences that can benefit institutions

SUSTAINABILITY
Data-Driven Transit Policy

Annual Giving to Higher Ed

$28.5B

The total amount of all financial gifts received by colleges and universities in FY09.

-11.9%

The drop in total donations to colleges and universities from 2008 to 2009, the largest decline in 50 years.

$5.5B

The average total amount of individual gifts and bequests received by higher education endowments in FY09.

-30%

The percentage change in gifts and bequests to endowments from FY08 to FY09.  

Sources: Voluntary Support of Education (Council for Aid to Education, January 2010); 2009 NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments (NACUBO and Commonfund Institute, February 2010).

At the University of Rhode Island (URI), Kingston, a study of six commuter surveys conducted between spring 2006 and spring 2009 is now being used to develop an annual survey to monitor changes in behavior and commuting-related emissions over time. The study, based on collected data on commuter demographics, behaviors, and attitudes toward alternative transportation, is also informing specific programs and policies the university will consider implementing to encourage greater use of alternative transit options. Following is a brief summary of several key findings.

Baseline Commuter Stats

A 2008 greenhouse gas inventory found that commuting accounts for about one quarter of URI's total emissions, of which single-occupancy vehicles are responsible for approximately 91 percent. This compares to 5 percent from carpooling and 4 percent from bus ridership. Overall, URI has about 11,000 commuting students, staff, and faculty; approximately 55 percent of URI's 16,000 students commute to campus. “Because students represent the largest commuter population,” says Robert Weygand, vice president of administration, “targeting student behavior is seen as the fastest, most efficient way of reducing these emissions.”

The Case for Incentives

Survey results also indicate that large percentages of commuters would respond to incentives and disincentives—most significantly, to the cost of gas and parking. While higher gas prices would likely influence the commuting habits of students more than faculty and staff, for all respondent categories (students, faculty, and staff), $4 per gallon appears to be a common threshold above which significantly more would start to carpool, take the bus, walk, or bike to campus.

The price of parking may hold even stronger sway on commuter behavior. Whereas student commuters currently pay $160 for an annual parking pass and on-campus students pay $235, staff and faculty do not pay for parking. According to URI survey analysis, 42 percent of staff respondents and 27 percent of faculty respondents indicated that having to pay as little as $125 (the student commuter permit price in spring 2008 and spring 2009) for an annual parking pass would encourage them to use an alternate mode of transportation. Once the cost of an annual parking permit approached $300, more than 80 percent of staff and faculty respondents indicated they would likely carpool, take the bus, walk, or bike.

According to Fred Meyerson, assistant professor at URI's College of the Environment and Life Sciences, actual commuter behavior during the period studied did not change significantly despite rather dramatic fluctuations in gas prices (from about $1.50 per gallon to $4 per gallon), a small increase in the price of a commuter parking permit, and increased bus service. “The overall absence of behavior change suggests that in order to reduce emissions from commuting at URI, the university will have to implement a wider variety of policy incentives and disincentives to make alternative transportation and carpooling more feasible and more attractive,” says Meyerson.

The Need to Raise Awareness

In 2008, 46 percent of staff, 39 percent of faculty, and 20 percent of students indicated that an online ride-matching system that would help them find other commuters in their neighborhoods with similar schedules would encourage them to carpool to campus more often. Additionally, students reported that discounted carpool parking permits and the ability to park close to academic buildings would encourage them to share rides. While results indicate that URI commuters may be more likely to carpool than to ride the bus, better awareness of bus stop locations and service would likely increase ridership, as long as commuters found value and convenience in using the system, says Rachel Sholly, energy fellows coordinator. “For instance,” she says, “some said they would opt for bus passes if they were less expensive than annual parking passes, and if they would be allowed several one-time parking passes for times when taking the bus was not possible.”

Program and Policy Priorities

Based on the comprehensive results of its study, URI has identified several transportation priorities:

  • Increase on-campus housing and make existing on-campus housing more desirable.
  • Establish parking policies that don't incentivize driving alone to campus.
  • Develop carpool and bus incentive programs that target high-density commuter populations and that make carpooling and riding the bus as convenient as driving.
  • Develop bike and walk incentive programs that target commuters who live nearby.

“Key to all these initiatives,” says Sholly, “will be implementing an ongoing large-scale social marketing campaign to increase awareness and use of alternative transportation options at URI.”

SUBMITTED BY Karla Hignite, contributing editor, Kaiserslautern, Germany

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STUDENT SERVICES
Service Tracking System Overcomes False Start

The idea seemed simple enough. Design a service tracking system to eliminate duplicate, incomplete, and lost e-mail messages, and document response time to incoming queries. That seemed like a logical step after the 2007 merger of the bursar and student financial aid offices at the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg. The new one-stop facility houses cashiering, third-party billing, veteran services, financial aid, scholarships, and notary functions. As part of the centralized service strategy, we determined that rather than manage each of the existing individual department e-mail accounts, we'd set up one student financial services e-mail account that would be used for all electronic communication.

Message Mayhem

We thought that we'd covered all the bases. But, soon after strategy implementation, we realized that the volume of e-mail coming into one location was difficult to address in a timely manner. Because of the time it took to review and respond to the deluge of messages in the central mailbox, some parents and students would e-mail again, creating duplicate e-mail. For messages that did not contain enough information—and were answered by staff requesting further details—staff spent time e-mailing back to gather more details, sometimes even basic information such as student ID or complete name.

FAQs Increase Site Efficiency, Service to Students

To reduce the number of initial e-mail messages coming into their centralized e-mail service tracking system, the University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, identified nine frequently asked questions and provided respective answers on its Web site. With these easy-to-use links to the answers to many students' questions, incoming e-mail queries have decreased dramatically. Here are the nine FAQs:

  • How do I apply for financial aid?
  • What about late payments?
  • How do I get my refund?
  • Where can I get the financial aid forms I need?
  • What scholarships are available and how do I apply?
  • How do I pay my bill?
  • What are some payment options?
  • How do I withdraw from a class?
  • How can I contact Student Financial Services?

Since all these responses also came back to the general e-mail box, it was difficult to match up the initial message with the response containing the requested information. All this activity created a ballooning number of messages.

Creating the Process

We decided on a service tracking system that is a Web-based application coded in PHP (Hypertext Preprocessor scripting language) using a MS SQL Server database. We designed two entry points for the process: (1) a secured, authenticated access for students from the Luminus/Banner portal and (2) a nonauthenticated access for parents via direct navigation from the university home page.

Incoming queries. Student data, such as name and student ID, are authenticated through the student financial services portal login and returned to populate and display a form. The student can then complete a text portion of the form, stating the issue or inquiry, and submit the information, which creates a service tracking ticket. For parents, access to the system from the university home page similarly displays a form that captures all data fields needed to initiate a service tracking ticket.

The form cannot be submitted unless all required data fields have been completed. Each ticket is assigned a number that is stored with the corresponding data in the SQL database. Upon submission of the ticket, the system displays a screen providing a general response timeline and a statement indicating that all responses will be sent to the student's university e-mail account. (Our policy is to use student e-mail as the primary contact unless the inquiry is prior to admission and a student e-mail hasn't been established; in that case we use the e-mail entered with the ticket.)

Processing points. On the receiving end, customer service staff log in to the secure administrative site to review and resolve service tracking tickets. If an employee is handling a ticket that requires additional expertise, he or she can forward the ticket, along with comments, to the appropriate subject expert within the office. A drop-down menu is used to select the name of the staff member for the referral. The system generates an e-mail to the particular staff member, notifying him or her that a service tracking ticket is awaiting review. The e-mail contains the text of the ticket and the corresponding ticket number. The staff member can either resolve the ticket directly, or route the ticket with comments back to customer service to close.

At each stage in the process, the staff network ID is captured so that we know who is working on the ticket. The submission date is also retained so that management can review to ensure that tickets are being handled in a timely manner. The administrative site also allows a staff member to complete a service tracking ticket for a student. We have found this to be most helpful when a staff member receives a direct e-mail from a student. The text of the e-mail can be cut and pasted into the ticket when it is created.

When the ticket is closed, the student receives a NO REPLY e-mail from the system that contains the text of the initial submission and the staff response. The reply may contain embedded Web links to refer the student to an electronic form or other related resources on the Web. Closed tracking tickets are stored in the database for future reference. The administrative site is set up to allow staff to sort tickets by status (all, initial, working, closed) or by student ID—which is helpful when we have a series of tracking tickets for one student. 

Sorting It All Out

We knew we needed to further streamline the system. To reduce the number of initial e-mail messages, we decided to analyze the types of questions that students and parents were asking and see if we could provide answers on our Web site. We identified nine frequently asked questions that fell into that category. (See sidebar, “FAQs Increase Site Efficiency, Service to Students.”) In addition to some basic text regarding the use of the system and a link to submit a ticket, our landing page also provides links to Web resources related to the FAQs.

With that simple fix, the volume of e-mail has been dramatically reduced, and the service tracking system allows us to respond to tickets within a 24-hour period on average. During busy processing times, students can typically expect a response within three business days.

In addition, staff adopted the system quickly and required very little training. They could easily see the benefits of a systematic approach. With the implementation of any new system, some adjustments need to be made. Since the system is designed in-house, modifications can be made easily. We continue to use staff suggestions to make improvements to the wording of links and navigation of the system. 

We strive to provide excellent service to our students. Having a system like this allows students to be confident that office staff will get back with them—and hold staff accountable if they do not.

SUBMITTED BY
Donna Bodenhamer, director of student accounts, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg

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SPOTLIGHT: COMMUNITY COLLEGES
Workforce Training on the Double

Skills needed for jobs continue to evolve in response to rapid changes in an increasingly competitive marketplace. To help Southern Arizona businesses keep up with those demands, Pima Community College (PCC), Tucson, has streamlined its processes for developing and approving workforce development courses. “New credit, noncredit, and CEU [continuing education unit] courses can be developed and delivered within one week to a company,” says Nancy Russell, vice president of instruction at PCC Community Campus. “Thanks to the region's WIRED grant, contract training remains in high demand in spite of these difficult economic times,” Russell states. The WIRED initiative—Workforce Initiative in Regional Economic Development—is a program of the U.S. Department of Labor to support regional worker preparation.

Demand Defines Programming

Between January 2008 and July 2009, the workforce and business development team housed at the Community Campus worked with more than 40 businesses, teaching topics ranging from business writing to computer programming to supervision and leadership. The college has also formed partnerships with more than 100 health-care providers through its nursing, emergency medical technology, radiology technology, dental studies, and other programs. The workforce and business development team members contact existing and former clients for the opportunity to provide training; additionally, the staff members are active in regional chambers and other business associations that enable them to attract new clients. The faculty and administrators at all six campuses are also involved in establishing relationships with businesses. The team specifically assists the campuses with identifying clients' needs, negotiating contracts, and delivering training.

Development in Overdrive

We've come up with an approach that provides an accelerated way of getting curricula off the ground. As a member of Global Corporate College, a consortium of community and technical colleges nationwide, PCC is able to access curricula from institutions around the country within a week if needed. Pima staff query consortium members when specific curriculum is needed for a client, and members promptly respond. We may then use gathered curriculum to refine and customize courses to meet the particular client's needs. If the courses are to be offered only under contract, they are expedited through Pima's curriculum process.

PCC's Logistics and Supply Chain Management program is an example of a training module that we developed, approved, and offered within 60 days of the employers' request, using this system. To ensure that the logistics curriculum addressed the collective needs of all the logistics companies in the Tucson area, representatives of the college—along with 27 logistics companies in Pima County—participated in focus groups. The groups reviewed the curriculum information obtained through our contacts at Global Corporate College and determined the key items that needed to be included in the customized training program.

Training Boosts Business

Many employers report being extremely satisfied with the customized training their staff have received and return for more. “PCC offered the best product for the cost,” says Lauri Martin, human resources generalist of Arizona's G&T Cooperatives. “The classes were tailored to our company operations and were taught at our facility, making them relevant and convenient for our employees. Some employees even moved into management positions as a result of the training.”

Pima's workforce and business development team has been proven to efficiently and effectively provide training opportunities for the regional workforce. The results have enabled businesses and organizations to see a measurable return on investment, improve opportunities for individual workers, and enhance the skills of our community's workforce.

SUBMITTED BY David Bea, executive vice chancellor for finance and administration,
Pima Community College, Tucson

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