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Business Officer Magazine

Stepping Up Service

NACUBO’s recent Student Financial Services conference highlighted access, affordability, and customer service as institutional goals that ultimately benefit students.

By Anne Gross and Connie Adamson

The relationship between the federal government and higher education institutions is largely shaped by the Higher Education Act, which is currently up for reauthorization. Congress has made little progress on HEA so far, despite fairly widespread agreement that major changes to the law are unnecessary. In many ways, this is the most complicated legislative environment that higher education has faced in the past 20 years, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education and de facto head of higher education’s lobbying efforts, in the opening keynote address. The escalating federal budget deficit will drive policy decisions toward more affordable options, and the highly charged political climate of an election year will affect discussions in unforeseen ways and constrain the time that Congress has to focus on legislation. The overarching goals of the higher education community for the reauthorization are to preserve and expand access to higher education and maintain the federal government’s relationship with institutions.

Hartle outlined several worrisome factors, including congressional interest in admissions and transfer-of-credit policies, the focus on college prices, and the unexpected advent of an x-factor or “shower idea.” A shower idea, he explained, is an out-of-the-blue idea that comes to a member of Congress and gets inserted into a bill without much warning.

Mark A. Olson, NACUBO’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, hosted a panel discussion of higher education advocates, which included Rebecca Wasserman, president of the United States Student Association. Wasserman noted that the students’ top priorities for reauthorization are to 1) increase grants, 2) decrease student loan debt, 3) preserve good programs such as GEAR UP, and 4) repeal the provision limiting student aid for students convicted of drug offenses. Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director, external relations, American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and Matt Hamill, NACUBO’s vice president of external affairs, rounded out the panel. Both indicated the need for creative policies to target federal resources to students who require financial assistance, and highlighted the additional burdens that Congress may impose on institutions in the name of greater accountability.

The issues of access and affordability resonated throughout the three-day program. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, described the difficulties of improving access to higher education for students from low-income and first-generation families. Sandy Baum, a senior policy analyst with The College Board and professor of economics at Skidmore, and Ken Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, led a lively discussion about tuition discounting, its role as a tool to enable colleges and universities to attract and enroll students, and institutional finance pitfalls to avoid.

Claus Recognized for Exemplary Contributions

Frank E. Claus, associate vice president for finance at the University of Pennsylvania, received special recognition at the Student Financial Services conference for his significant contributions to the field. Recognizing his leadership and ongoing commitment to high-quality student financial services and management in higher education, Mark A. Olson, NACUBO’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, surprised Claus with the award presentation. Olson said that Claus has changed the face of higher education administration through his “unending desire to provide access to higher education and to provide the highest quality possible.” Describing Claus’s “pioneering example of innovation and determination,” Olson thanked Claus for his ongoing willingness to share his expertise with other institutions seeking to follow “the Penn model,” which integrates student financial services in a highly effective manner.

Claus served on the planning committee for the first Student Financial Services conference in 2003 and presented a session in Phoenix on “Leadership and Integration: Taking the Role of Champion.”

Integration: Finding the Formula That Works

While the trend toward integration of student financial service operations was a primary focus of the conference, speakers did not provide one model that all campuses can follow. Rather, each institution must examine its needs and its organization to come up with a solution that fits. Successful solutions may combine only a few offices, such as student accounts, loan collections, and accounts receivable, or all student financial services including financial aid. The common drivers are: putting customer service first, transforming processes, and doing more with less. Using management consultant Jim Collins’s model from his book Good to Great, Belmont University has determined that customer service drives its economic engine, according to Paula Gill, director of student financial services.

Students aren’t the only ones to benefit from integrated services, however. The theme of increased employee satisfaction ran through several presentations. Ernst Huff, associate vice president for student financial and administrative services at Yale University, included increased job satisfaction on his short list of reasons to consider integration. (The others are to improve customer service and increase efficiency.) One hallmark of combined services is cross training and broadened scope of responsibility for many staff members, which leads to more interesting jobs. As institutions successfully streamline transaction processing and bring new systems online, staff become knowledge workers dealing independently with more complex issues and providing enhanced service and outreach to students.

Doing the Right Things Well

How can you integrate offices, or keep the one you have moving smoothly, if you are buried under a sea of paper and stymied by outmoded procedures? One program track addressed day-to-day functions necessary to ensure smooth, efficient operations of the student financial services functions, regardless of organizational configuration. Participants learned ways to incorporate new technology in handling student accounts and managing relationships with today’s tech-savvy students. Electronic billing, e-signatures, and Web portals were discussed. The conference also included sessions on complying with privacy protections and on the Department of Education’s refund rules for student aid.

Exemplary customer service aside, business officers seldom lose focus on the bottom line and the need to bring in payments and process revenue. Lowering student receivables is often one of the drivers pushing institutions to reassess how they are structured. Many colleges and universities are in flux about accepting credit cards for tuition payments, which can bring receivables down but add considerably to the cost of transactions. Attendees received a preview of NACUBO credit card survey results (see last month’s Business Officer), and an overview of the experiences at the University of Pittsburgh from Dennis DeSantis, associate vice chancellor of student financial services.

Another piece of the revenue equation was addressed: administering student loan programs and collecting on loans. Patricia Brant, university collection officer at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and David Glezerman, university bursar at Temple University, shared techniques to streamline and improve billing and collecting student accounts.

Making Connections

At lunchtime roundtable discussions, the most popular topics were improving communication between financial aid administrators and bursars; getting started on integrating services; looking at colleges and universities as lenders in the guaranteed student loan programs; and dealing with difficult customers. More than 250 participants took this opportunity to network and interact with their colleagues.

Attendees’ enthusiastic participation in this event indicates continuing interest in issues related to student financial services. Despite the uncertainty of legislative outcomes, improving customer service remains a high priority.

Author Bios Anne Gross is vice president, business and regulatory affairs, and Connie Adamson is manager, program development, at NACUBO.