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Managing your institution efficiently can help you provide a first-class experience to your students. This was the focal point of NACUBO's 2011 Student Financial Services Conference, where attendees learned a thing or two about creating efficiencies and customer value.

By Bryan Dickson

*How can your institution streamline operations, use technology, and encourage collaboration among offices to improve its efficiency? And how can this help you serve your students effectively? These were some of the main topics of discussion at NACUBO's 2011 Student Financial Services Conference in San Diego, March 6-8. More than 330 bursars, controllers, and student services staff from around the country shared ideas, techniques, and best practices to improve processes and services at their campuses.

Sessions highlighted latest regulations from the Department of Education and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the use of social media and smart phones, benchmarking, and collections. Attendees also learned about other key topics, such as leadership, communication methods, and intergenerational professional relationships. Here are some meeting highlights.

The Need for a Larger Discussion

Higher education policy in the United States needs a fresh approach, said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, in a session, "A National Strategy for Financing Higher Education." Callan said many people point to the recent economic collapse as a factor, but higher education in the United States was underperforming well before the recession. "We are not in a decline, but other countries are doing better," he said. "We are in a period that has a heavy premium on innovation and leadership." In the United States, the most educated generation is currently in the workforce, and these individuals will retire soon. But in many other parts of the world, there are highly educated youth getting ready to join the workforce. 

Perhaps one reason higher education is facing such challenges is that the United States may have rested on its laurels. "Success may have been our biggest enemy," Callan said. "The worst thing is a successful policy that outlives its usefulness."

Callan, however, remains optimistic. "With a change in our thinking and a more fundamental conversation, higher education can again become a priority in this country," he said. "The White House is trying to have that discussion. And community colleges may be the solution."

It's because of community colleges that the United States has an advantage, Callan noted. Other countries emphasizing higher education are starting with little or no infrastructure and facilities that are lacking. But in the United States, at one point during the 20th century, community colleges were opening at a rate of one college per week. Those schools still exist, but just having them is not enough; the priority needs to be student access to higher education and affordable prices. "It will be difficult to catch up at our current cost per student," Callan said, adding, "Increasing funding for Pell grants is a bandage." To truly provide access to students, the cost of higher education needs to come down, and for that to happen, there will have to be a larger national discussion on higher education policy.

Streamlining Services

Higher education institutions should consider developing a marketing master plan for student financial services.

At the institutional level, a large university and a small college have found ways to improve student financial services. In their session, "Reorganizing for Seamless Service," Melissa Stone, director of student financial services at the University of Delaware, Newark, and Tyson Cooper,
student financial services supervisor, Southern Virginia University, Buena Vista, discussed how integrating offices at their institutions has helped them better serve students at lower costs. "You're not just there to answer their [students'] questions," Stone said. "You're there to find a way to address the problem moving forward."

The problem at the University of Delaware was its student bills, which were confusing and hard to reconcile. The university setup didn't help either; offices within student financial services operated as silos with little communication among them. Students had to go between offices to find answers to questions related to their bills, resulting in complaints.

Stone described how the office developed a fast-paced student services initiative, which included the following three phases:

  • Phase one. A work group, composed of representatives from billing, collections, and financial aid, as well as an outside consultant, investigated factors that affected billing accuracy. The group looked into specific areas, such as parking, housing and dining, and financial aid; reviewed process maps; developed bill accuracy benchmarks; and made recommendations to improve the processes.
  • Phase two. The work group reviewed all aspects related to customer service and communication protocols.
  • Phase three. The work group developed a final report and action plan for implementing long-term changes. 

The work group held several meetings over a span of three months and made more than 40 recommendations across all areas of student financial services. The initiative led to the approval for hiring the outside consultant to focus on the area of financial aid. This, in turn, led to the reorganization of student financial services, as billing and collections merged with financial aid. The merger streamlined processing operations and allowed staff to be reassigned during peak cycles of activity. 

From a staffing perspective, the university was able to reduce the total number of employees by reassigning many individuals. Instead of having multiple directors and assistant directors, it now has more counselors and analysts, who view customer service as their top priority.

Cooper, from Southern Virginia University, which has 750 students, shared his secret to streamlining services: cross-training staff. With four full-time employees and a student intern working in student financial services, it made sense to cross-train, Cooper explained. "Anyone can help anyone," he said. Student accounts personnel package financial aid, while financial aid personnel participate in collections. And it worked: Student financial services had set a goal of collecting 99 percent of receivables for the current year; it has already collected 99.04 percent of the receivables. 

To determine how to best streamline processes, the student financial services office evaluated existing practices and then trained staff. In FY10, staff completed 162 hours of training on computer systems, policies, and process management, which led to two outcomes: financial aid paperwork is now available online, and refund checks are now delivered directly to students' on-campus mailboxes.

 In order to improve its customer service, the student financial services staff participated in role-playing sessions where one staff member acted the part of a student customer who had a question or a problem. After each session, staff offered feedback on strengths and areas that required improvement.

The staff receives occasional "homework assignments" focused on customer care and gets training on all methods of customer communication, including phone, e-mail, and in-person interactions.

The Role of Social Media

In another session, "Social Media—Connecting With the Millennials," Marsha Lovell, director of student financial services at the University of California, Los Angeles, discussed the role of social media in campus communications. While many institutions are familiar with blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, most of them have yet to adopt a strategy to effectively leverage these tools, she said.

The most obvious use of social media is that it provides a platform for broadcasting news, event information, and emergency notifications. But beyond that, social media has become a strong marketing tool at many institutions, Lovell said. Many prospective students now research colleges through Facebook, asking questions of current students and reading posts of former students. The problem is that there can be several Facebook pages or Twitter feeds using an institution's name. To make sure that students pay attention to your office's messages, keep them extremely focused, she said. That will set your office apart.

Institutions should consider developing a marketing master plan for student financial services, she said. Usually three social media sites are enough to reach a large number of students. Find out how different offices on your campus and other institutions are using social media. Once you select your platforms, upload appropriate content regularly and in a timely manner. Add new content twice a week to avoid flooding your followers' news feeds. 

There are a few things to consider when working with Facebook and Twitter in particular, Lovell said. Users must be able to find the Twitter or Facebook account of a particular office. To tackle that problem, the office should launch a creative marketing effort before a term begins. Keep in mind that short, pointed messages work best with the Millennials. Twitter limits each message to 140 characters, making it hard to include important details, but you can get help shortening links in tweets at Web sites such as bit.ly (http://bit.ly/).

Social media is a two-way street, allowing departments to create a forum for their target audience and offering students a way to provide feedback. Offices should use that feedback to steer changes and make improvements in services. "Learn from those disgruntled students and parents and fix the problem," Lovell said. 

When it comes to real-time communication, social media messages are more effective than traditional e-mail, which many students have already abandoned. "Social media is the new inbox," Lovell said. Many social media users consider themselves to be active participants and are more likely to share your information by "retweeting" your message in Twitter or "liking" your office's posts on Facebook.

But Lovell had one piece of advice: Don't depend entirely on social media and online strategies to reach out to students. Remind them that not everything is online. "After all, we were social before there was social media," she said.

BRYAN DICKSON is a program analyst for NACUBO.

Three Great Ideas Selected

Once again, attendees at the Student Financial Services Conference were encouraged to submit their best practices, tips, and success stories, 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.

Share your resources. Grace Miranda, bursar at Mount St. Mary's College, Los Angeles, explained how multiple offices, including collections, loan servicing, accounts receivable, and the business office, created network folders to house training manuals for cross-functional roles. These manuals help users find answers or instructions for tasks, such as running reports or verifying data. Since the documents are stored centrally, all the users have access to the most current information.

Increase direct deposit sign-up. Revon Thaxter, manager, student financial services at the University of Memphis, described how the university was able to increase the sign-up rate for direct deposits by allowing students to register through its online student portal. Additionally, the university mails paper checks only once a week, whereas direct deposits are processed in one to two days;  this has encouraged more students to register for direct deposits.

Improve communication. To help increase contact between student borrowers and the collections office, Dennis DeSantis, associate vice chancellor, student financial services at the University of Pittsburgh, addressed the caller ID issue. Because most landlines and mobile phones have caller ID, students know when they receive a call from the university and can easily ignore it. Instead, DeSantis's office purchased cell phones with different exchanges and used those to call students. Most borrowers did not recognize the number on their caller IDs and answered the phone.