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Business Officer Magazine

Make Students Count

Whether it’s teaching them to manage their money or providing them with services worthy of VIP customers, make students the center of your efforts—despite tough economic times. Such was the advice for attendees of NACUBO’s 2010 Student Financial Services Conference.

By Bryan Dickson

*While readily acknowledging the persistence of tough economic times, presenters at NACUBO's 2010 Student Financial Services Conference in San Antonio, March 14-16, stressed the need to continue effectively serving students. Researchers, bursars, attorneys, and others who have sought ways to improve processes and services shared best practices, techniques, and case studies with more than 300 of their peers.

Sessions highlighted Truth in Lending Act compliance, a Post-9/11 GI Bill pulse check, benchmarking research, and human resources challenges. A central theme of the conference was the importance of keeping students top of mind. Whether it's providing tools to advance financial literacy, organizing efficient processes, or training business office staff in stellar customer service, serving students well is key to their success—and that of colleges and universities.

Teaching Financial Literacy

The need for students to understand and manage their own finances was the focus of a presentation by Julie Selander, senior associate director of One Stop Student Services at the University of Minnesota (U of M). She explained how the faltering economic climate and rising tuition are forcing more students to think ahead when it comes to paying off the growing debt they are taking on now. She pointed out that amounts owed aren't limited to student aid. “Half of all college undergraduates had four or more credit cards in 2008,” said Selander, and seniors with at least one card graduated with an average of $4,138 in credit card debt. This trend, she cautioned, should raise concerns with the university, as uncontrolled debt can easily result in negative effects on graduation and retention rates. Also, raising the level of financial literacy shows students that they can afford to attend school.

At the University of Minnesota, explained Selander, One Stop Student Services and the Office of Student Finance recently developed a Live Like a Student (LLAS) campaign to educate students in money management. Using a consistent message that identifies financial concerns relevant to university life, the campaign sought to expand on the existing once-a-year Financial Literacy Month. Selander suggested a continuous campaign to not only address decisions that students make on a day-to-day basis, but to improve awareness of the campaign though memorable messages. “Take a student perspective when talking about money,” Selander asserts, as positive messages are more effective than those with words or ideas that reference budget or purchasing restrictions.

Selander shared various elements of the LLAS campaign designed to further engage students:

  • Complementing the LLAS Web site, a Facebook page, campus posters, and electronic signs with brief messages encourage participation in the Live Like a Student program.
  • As an incentive to subscribe to an electronic newsletter about money management, students receive a free music download from a major retailer.
  • A popular “game show” format tasks groups of students with answering questions about finances, personal debt, and educational aid. 

Student participation in Live Like a Student activities in 2009 was very positive, said Selander, including the following:

  • 5,400 students attended the LLAS session during Welcome Week.
  • 3,335 participated in financial literacy sessions during loan exit interviews.
  • 582 subscribed to the LLAS electronic newsletter.
  • The One Stop Money Management section of U of M's Web site received more than 66,000 hits.

Rules of Engagement

In their session “Engaging Our Customers,” Melissa Englund, assistant vice president of enrollment planning and retention services, and Rose Breslin, senior associate director of the student resource center, both from Drexel University, Philadelphia, shared new ways to engage students and families and to coordinate the activities of various offices on campus. The presenters highlighted four key areas: the customer service model, a refocused' mission, the use of technology, and the effect of collaboration.

Experiencing a five-year increase in enrollment of 21.4 percent, Drexel focused on these priorities when faced with the challenge of managing its Student Resource Center (SRC) with no additional staffing to handle the influx of students. Long lines at the SRC, delays in processing, and unhappy students motivated the institution to create a new setup that called for the SRC and the financial aid office to fully integrate into a single entity. The single location allowed for processing of financial aid and financing options, academic changes, campus referrals, and other service-related activities. The result of this new student financial services (SFS) office was friendly service from a cross-trained staff and a significant decrease in wait times for students. 

Encouraging Great Ideas

Attendees at the NACUBO 2010 Student Financial Services Conference were encouraged to submit their successes, big or small, so that others might be able to replicate them at their campuses. The conference faculty selected the top three “great ideas,” recognizing submitters and giving each the opportunity to share further details on his or her campus accomplishments.

Communication matters. Amy Masters, student financial services adviser, shared how SUNY Genesee Community College found an effective, simple way to communicate with students. Rather than bombard them with more electronic communications, the business office posts a monthly newsletter, “The Stall Wall,” in a most unconventional way—in every restroom on campus. The publication provides information on refund policies, payment plans, tuition, and refund dates.

Coordination pays. Matthew Lukach, student account relations manager at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, described how the student account services office teamed with enrollment services to coordinate e-mail messages regarding student accounts, dates of importance, and tax information. The result: Online payment increased to more than 15 percent of total payments, while charge appeals dramatically decreased. 

Food works. Beverly Cotton, bursar of Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, reminded attendees that food motivates students more than anything else. In addition to sending messages and frequently asked questions to students providing details on the switch to direct lending, the university set up pizza nights to encourage returning students to sign their electronic master promissory notes (eMPN). All participants were entered into a raffle for a chance to win an iPod Touch. Incoming freshman signed their eMPNs at orientation. The goal was to capture 90 percent of the eMPN signings prior to July 1.


Next, Drexel needed to refocus the mission of its student services area. “From paper pushers to educators” is the phrase the university adopted for this task. Rather than telling students things they should and should not do, advised Breslin and Englund, “educate students and parents by engaging them as active participants.” Just as a professor in a classroom observes the different learning styles and preferences of students, staff in offices can use those same lessons to more effectively communicate with students and parents. 

Breslin and Englund went on to describe the ways in which Drexel is now using technology tools to efficiently operate its student financial services office, including the following:

  • Customer relationship management (CRM) software. This allows all SFS accounts to be housed in a single location. Other offices, including those of the registrar, academic advising, retention, and diversity, have been granted use of the CRM as well. This new system encourages students to submit questions online, allowing for self-service answers that quickly resolve their particular issue. Further, the CRM stores response information for students and staff to access later, adding to the volume of archived questions and answers. While 417 questions were submitted in FY07—with 147 answered with preapproved responses—in FY09, the CRM received 32,374 questions and resolved 5,285 with preapproved answers.
  • Self-service tools. Online do-it-yourself applications allow students to complete requests for enrollment verification, current transcripts, and degree confirmation without setting foot in an office.
  • Web-based comparisons. A tuition estimator allows families to enter information to calculate a financial aid award. Another Web service called “Simple Tuition” educates families on loan options and lenders, application processes, and ways to make comparisons regarding repayment decisions.
  • Smart letters. Letters  are automatically generated when students meet predetermined criteria for a specific scenario. For example, an award letter might present direct and indirect costs, a student's available financial aid, and remaining costs and financing options. Consequently, staff can spend considerably less time worrying about overlooking a required notification message.
  • Multimedia communication. The SFS office has created short videos to answer basic financial aid questions. These programs are embedded in office communications and are also available on the SFS Web site.
  • Processing support. Even simple changes like scanning documents can have far-reaching effects in the office. Staff no longer have to search for physical files.

While the CRM system has had a noticeable effect on communication efficiency, just as important, contended Breslin and Englund, is engagement and collaboration. To that end, once each term, Drexel hosts a multioffice resource fair to deal with increased demand for services. Families can go to one location to speak with representatives from various offices and departments. In addition to the fair, the SFS office provides a workshop that allows students and parents to view, compare, and discuss a variety of aid awards. Students may also participate in a financial literacy “game show” similar to the event at the University of Minnesota. Breslin and Englund concluded the presentation with the suggestion that academic departments sponsor financial literacy events as a way of engaging more members of the campus community.

Ensuring Staff Know-How

While training and development have important roles in any organization, said Spencer Gaines, president of CoachTrain Inc., so often the task is left to one individual, who can quickly become overwhelmed. After he led a brief exercise that quickly showed how much the session attendees were spending on existing training sessions, Gaines shared his perspective on developing online staff training.

First, Gaines explained the difference between training and development. He defined training as “the specific skills learned, or specific skills covered” in a workshop or session. On the other hand, he said, development occurs after the education and training process and “builds upon the basic knowledge and skill a person has, with the purpose of improving performance.” Development “enhances job performance by developing skills and redirecting behaviors so that a person or group can master those skills,” asserted Gaines.

He went on to explain that “stand-alone learning” is a single occasion that provides the information needed to understand the point of the session, while “blended learning” contains multiple sessions that can occur online, in person, “live” online, or in a combination of the three methods. With that, Gaines noted that not all training and development has to occur off-site, and not all has to stem from a training professional. One example he cited was online learning. The intimacy of online learning, coupled with the immediate testing of the new skills and the ability to use a number of delivery options, increases knowledge transference. 

Further benefits of online training include:

  • A reduction in the amount of time spent away from the office for the purpose of training.
  • The ability of individuals to learn at their own pace and in their choice of location.
  • The capacity of online platforms to store resources and information.

Launching an online learning program starts with identifying a need and setting goals, using what Gaines called the SMART model (specific, measurable, active, realistic, and timed). Not all information requires the development of a training session, Gaines advised. Further, multiple sessions of short duration are better than one long session covering the same amount of information.

Gaines suggested that online learning should:

  • Focus on one specific topic.
  • Present small amounts of information on each page.
  • Include images or graphs to support the point, as well as stimulate the learner.
  • Assess participants throughout, not just at the end.
  • Include an assignment to be completed outside of the session.

At the conclusion of his session, Gaines provided participants with a “training initiative tool” to help them develop their first in-office, online, or live training session.

BRYAN DICKSON is a program analyst for NACUBO.