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The Beat Goes On

NACUBO’s 2006 Student Financial Services conference highlighted trends in services, including ways to keep technology on campus in tune with students’ needs.

By RoseAnn DeRupo

Student financial services administrators may face the same challenges year to year, but the solutions have a slightly different rhythm. At this year’s conference, several presenters addressed the new beat in town: emerging trends that will affect the higher education community of tomorrow.

Getting the Message Out

William Troutt, president of Rhodes College, Memphis, set the tone for the conference with a forward-thinking approach. Quoting baseball player Yogi Berra, Troutt mused, “The future is not what it used to be.” Specifically, he highlighted three major trends adversely affecting colleges and universities.

  • State investment in higher education has declined from a rate of approximately $8.50 per $1,000 of personal income in 1977 to approximately $7 in 2002 to less than $7 today.
  • Public confidence in higher education is low, as evidenced by the demands for justifying federal investment in higher education and the calls for increased transparency.
  • The public’s understanding of the benefits of higher education is not what college and university community leaders would like it to be. Troutt noted that while higher education is still viewed as favorable, it is seen less as a common good than as a private good—something that people should pay for themselves.

“Our response to these trends represents a great opportunity,” Troutt said. “It allows us to tell our story of the benefit and value of education but also to rethink how we do our work.” The community must present “our story” in a coherent and compelling manner at the national level, he added. He shared plans for a national initiative led by the American Council on Education (ACE) to debunk these negative perceptions through a marketing campaign that highlights the importance of education.

At the institutional level, Troutt called on administrators to take responsibility to explain college costs to build understanding and support. Because institutions operate on a different model, he challenged administrators to effectively explain basic higher education economics and commended NACUBO’s college cost methodology for doing so. The higher education community must exercise good financial stewardship while serving students in new ways that reduce costs, increase access, and enhance the college experience.

Troutt also urged attendees to foster learning not only in the classroom but throughout the institution among faculty, administrators, and staff. He encouraged attendees to create campuses that provide staff with the freedom to experiment with new approaches, cross departmental lines, and even fail. “Leadership cannot be what it used to be. It cannot be command and control. It cannot be top-down,” he said. “Successful leadership is about influencing and enabling people to design and redesign their work.”

Crunch Time

Higher education issues will be prominent in the busy year ahead for Congress. Terry Hartle, ACE’s senior vice president of government and public affairs, addressed some of the unresolved issues with reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was set to expire March 31 (since extended to June 30). In the past few years, there has been a lot of buzz surrounding the question, “What is happening with reauthorization?” The student loan programs have essentially been reauthorized as part of the budget reconciliation bill, but it remains to be seen what will happen with the rest of reauthorization. Hartle indicated that some people speculate that it could be left unfinished altogether.

As Congress continues to work through that process and to address student aid funding, spending, and new programs, other factors are at play. Hartle noted that legislative activity with respect to higher education issues will be framed by four factors: the federal deficit, increased partisanship on Capitol Hill, concerns about ethics that could spark the need for more transparency or questions about earmarks, and the November midterm elections. The disappointing spending bills that Congress approved are one area affected by these factors, he said. On the bright side, there were no deep cuts to student aid. Hartle said that “Congress did about as good of a job as it could do” being forced to cut student loans by $13 billion across the next five years. Some good news for the higher education community: Loan limits for first- and second-year students will increase effective July 1, 2007, for the first time since 1986 and 1992, respectively, and Congress is phasing in a reduction of the origination fees. The bad news? Congress placed limits on loan consolidation, and interest rates will increase. The rate for the Federal Family Education Loan parent loans (PLUS) will increase from 4.7 percent to 8.5 percent this July 1. Direct Loan PLUS will remain at 7.9 percent.

Also on deck for July 1 implementation are the Academic Competitive Grants and National SMART grants to encourage high school students to take more rigorous courses. Pell-eligible students who meet the academic requirements will receive additional grants in their first and second years of college. These entitlement programs add a new level of complexity to federal student aid programs. For the first time, federal student aid programs will incorporate high school curriculum, academic major in college, and college GPA. Hartle said that ACE has already begun discussions with the Department of Education to determine how to implement these programs, likening their inception to “implementing the Medicare prescription drug program on speed.”

In a separate session, Fred Sellers, senior policy analyst at the Department of Education, noted that the department is working as quickly as possible to help institutions determine how they will develop regulations for implementing the new grant programs and other changes that go into effect this year. The department issued “Dear Colleague” letters to address the effect of changes made to the Higher Education Act regarding Title IV loan programs. In a separate letter, the department will address other changes resulting from the Higher Education Reconciliation Act of 2005.   

Sellers highlighted additional changes that go into effect this July, including:

  • redefining an academic year for clock-hour institutions from 30 weeks of instructional time to at least 26 weeks;
  • extending PLUS eligibility to graduate and professional students, retaining all of the eligibility criteria; and
  • requiring that institutions contact a former student prior to making a late or post-withdrawal disbursement and returning funds no later than 45 days (instead of 30 days) after the date that the student withdrew.

Meeting the Needs of a “Now” Culture

Reflecting on student technological demands, Anthony Salcito, general manager for U.S. Enterprise Education at Microsoft, noted that the concept of a digital lifestyle is likely incomprehensible to today’s students because technology is so woven into their psyches that they can’t imagine a time when it didn’t exist. From cell phones to computers to digital media devices to specialized Web sites, students expect technology to be available in every aspect of their lives. According to Salcito, technology has become a new competitive edge, giving institutions the opportunity to distinguish themselves from peers.

Institutions must find innovative means of adapting to the technological landscape. Students of the 21st century are from the “now” culture in which information is available immediately—and they expect the same of their college or university. Students want access to phone numbers, music, digital photos, television, and all other technologies to be available across all of their devices. Salcito challenged administrators to consider how information is used and in what format. As an example, he encouraged attendees to consider how their institution’s Web site might appear when accessed from a cell phone.

He also talked about technology’s implications for institutions today and in the future. For libraries, for example, the paradigm has shifted from a place of gathering information to a social or study space, because students can now do much of their research online. Salcito encouraged administrators to embrace technological advances by supporting open standards and ensuring that vendors do the same. He suggested considering existing procedures and brainstorming how technology might improve a particular process.

No More Bill Blues

In the post-conference seminar, “Big Payoffs: Improving Bills and Billing Processes,” Ruth Griggs Fontana, a communications and marketing professional, discussed bill presentment and e-billing. She encouraged institutions to consider billing communications as a direct marketing response vehicle. Because the bill is the most read communication an institution generates, it is an important channel for promoting the institution’s brand and delivering timely and targeted messages. Griggs Fontana noted that colleges and universities can create their own continuum of communication by adopting some of the corporate world’s billing service principles.

After displaying effective and ineffective billing statements, she discussed best practices for billing processes, including

  • delivering new billing services to enhance the customer experience and improve satisfaction;
  • leveraging technology to improve billing communications;
  • streamlining bill administration, mailing, and payment reconciliation to reduce costs;
  • offering broader access to payment convenience for all customers; and
  • tracking, reporting, and analyzing results of billing improvements.
See You Next Year
Mark your calendar: The 2007 Student Financial Services conference will be in Arizona in March. Stay tuned for specifics.

Following her presentation, roundtable discussion participants shared problems and potential solutions related to bill presentment; communicating with students and families; managing third-party billing and timing; processing; and interdepartmental communication. The discussions are available on the NACUBO Knowledge Network at http://knowledgenetwork.nacubonet.org/.

RoseAnn DeRupo is founder, DeRupo and Associates, New York City.