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Business Intel

A roundup of short news articles and useful resources for business officers

STUDENT FINANCIAL SERVICES
Virtual Queue Helps Manage Wait Times

During peak registration periods, students at Greenville Technical College, Greenville, South Carolina, sometimes waited more than four hours to speak with a counselor about financial aid assistance. A student would sign in to see an officer; and, when called, would enter an office—only to disappear from view. Others waiting in line had no idea when they would be called; how many staff people were on hand to help them; or how long they might have to stand because of insufficient seating.

When I arrived on campus in October 2012 to head up finance and administration, I found angry, frustrated students; weary staff; and very low customer satisfaction. The college had tried to improve service, but the efforts—predominantly focused on changing student behavior—were unsuccessful. It was apparent that we needed an organized, streamlined process.

Searching for a Solution

One suggestion was to investigate a queue management system, in which students sign in online and can then view on a monitor their estimated wait time. By May 1, 2013, we had assembled a design team, including the assistant dean of financial aid, four financial aid officers, and a part-time project manager. Together they examined several commercial options as well as a homegrown system.

After weighing the pros and cons of each option, the team recommended purchasing a system called QLess, based on several factors, including:

  • The fastest start-up time of the reviewed systems.
  • No requirement to buy equipment.
  • Minimal assistance needed from IT.
  • Low total cost.
  • Immediate benefits.
  • Scalability, allowing for additional locations, service queues, and departments.

Steps to Better Service

The design team worked with student services to analyze data and other factors relevant to implementation of the queue management system.

  • Clarify the status quo. We created an "as-is" flowchart that outlined the current-although faulty-method for meeting with students. The diagram showed the process, from start to finish, that a student had to follow in order to have his or her questions addressed.
  • Consider the ultimate goal. The next step was to design a "to-be" flowchart (see the figure for the first steps in the process) that outlined the optimal process; removed redundant, unnecessary steps; and funneled students to the appropriate person to fill the student's need.
  • Present the ideas. In all-staff meetings, we explained the proposals. Responses were mixed, with some people generally resistant to change; others skeptical that wait time could be accurately estimated or that all students would have access to text messages; and still others genuinely excited about and supportive of the idea.
  • Develop policies and procedures. We had to make some design decisions, such as determining the number of queues needed, and to create a set of policies governing the use and ownership of each queue.

Figure: "To-Be" Flowchart

Fast Forward

The team rapidly completed the research and the process flowcharts by the time the purchase order was secured on May 22, 2013. At a cost of less than $10,000, the QLess system was operational on May 29, 2013, and the first students were logged into queue that day. The soft launch allowed students to get acquainted with the new system, and provided time to train staff and gather feedback (which was generally positive) before the fall semester.

During that first week, students realized that the increased efficiency freed up time to spend on other activities—with the system keeping students and staff informed in the following ways:

  • Sends the student a text message with an initial assessment of the wait time.
  • Provides a follow-up message noting that the estimated wait time is coming up soon.
  • Allows the student to request more time.
  • Provides student services staff with real-time status updates on waiting times, allowing managers to quickly adjust resource levels as required.
  • Supplies data to the vendor, which can then provide reports on wait time, student time spent with officers, number of students abandoning the line, and other information managers can use to further streamline the process.

Because of the new transparency of wait times, students can log in to the system from home, and then estimate the time needed to drive to campus for their appointments. Similarly, if they sign up on campus, they can leave to take care of other things, and then return to student services—or even reschedule if they are running late.

Adjustments and Additions

During the implementation, we saw the need for better and faster internal communication, so we added a messaging system to the existing phone arrangement. This allows agents to communicate with other staff members without having to leave their offices or make phone calls. It can also be used to see when staff are busy, on the phone, or in a meeting.

To build awareness of the queue management system, the design team worked with marketing professionals to create an advertising campaign, which we fully implemented in July. One element was a sticker that we placed on department windows and doors-and also posted to our Web site.

Signs of Satisfaction

Students' positive response has been the greatest benefit. They love the texting system, as reflected in the comments they text back:

"I love the text setup you have. And your staff is wonderful!"

"No waiting time. My experience was very positive and helpful. Thank you."

We even received a Tweet, saying "This whole text-your-phone thing at Greenville Tech financial aid is pretty sweet."

We've also seen a dramatic improvement in performance of some of our personnel. With daily reports showing the number of students each staff member serves, we can determine the individual efficiency. Everyone is accountable; employees see their performance compared to that of others; and they work to improve. Overall,
the office has increased by more than 43 percent the volume of students seen during the July through August peak season, as compared to the previous year.

A small investment has helped us better manage a large volume of students, while providing much better reporting capabilities. The benefits are so significant that other departments are implementing the system for their own purposes.

SUBMITTED BY Jacqui DiMaggio, vice president for finance, Greenville Technical College, Greenville, South Carolina

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By the Numbers: Higher Ed Staffing/Compensation, 2012

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Quick Clicks

Tracking GI Bill Use

www.studentclearinghouse.org

In late March, the Student Veterans of America (SVA) released the results of its Million Records Project. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center supported the first-of-its-kind study examining the education pathways of veterans who have used Montgomery and Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits. With U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs assistance, SVA's project makes available, for the first time, comprehensive national statistics on these benefit recipients' postsecondary outcomes, including degree completion, time-to-degree, and field of study preferences.

Online Social Responsibility Tool

www.usfca.edu/hps/Think_About_It

The Gold Excellence Award, presented in mid-March by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), went to the University of San Francisco (USF) for its Think About It initiative. The online training program, developed by USF and CampusClarity, trains incoming college students in socially responsible living, covering topics such as substance abuse, physical violence, and self-reflection. More than 35 colleges and universities across the country have implemented the Think About It program.

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RESEARCH
New Reports Signal Student Debt Rise

A trio of recent reports sheds light on alarming student loan debt.

  • "Quarterly Report on Household Debt and Credit." In February, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released its most recent report on the status of household debt in the United States. The report made clear that student loan debt totals have expanded to unprecedented levels.

At the close of 2013, student loan debts reached a high of $1.08 trillion, an amount greater than all credit card debt, and second only to mortgages in the total
U.S. consumer debt pool. Since the 2008 recession, student loans have been the only form of debt continuing to grow.

Particularly troubling is the New York Fed's note that the current rate of delinquency or default in student loan repayments is 11.5 percent—and is the only type of consumer debt to steadily rise in the previous five years of economic recovery.

Government officials are worried that these data don't tell the whole story. Rohit Chopra, the student loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, notes that student debt is often underestimated, as some costs of education are assumed through credit card loans as well as parents borrowing against home equity or retirement accounts.

"As the current student debt landscape clearly illustrates, the stakes have never been higher," said  Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, in a March 27 hearing on strengthening the federal student loan program. Harkin's committee has been debating proposals surrounding the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, including simplifying the loan-repayment program and providing students with incentives for smarter borrowing practices.

  • "The Graduate Student Debt Review." In March, Jason Delisle and the New America Foundation released a report arguing that the growing cost of graduate programs in the United States is a large factor in the overall student debt increase. The report noted that the discussion surrounding student debt often fails to account for the disparities between graduate and undergraduate programs.

In 2012, 40 percent of the overall debt burden was derived from borrowing for graduate school, and that number is likely to increase in the years ahead. That same year, nearly one fourth of borrowers owed, on average, nearly $100,000 each in combined undergraduate and graduate student debt.

  • "The Rising Cost of Not Going to College." While the overall value of earning a degree has been contested of late, this report released in February by the Pew Foundation notes that in nearly every metric of economic well-being, college graduates are still out-competing their peers who haven't completed a degree.

Importantly, the report points out, the gap has never been more dramatic than the one between full-time workers from the Millennial generation who have earned a bachelor's degree or higher, and those with only a high school education. In 2013, for those born after 1980, a college degree accounted for a $17,500 increase in median annual earnings. For those born between 1946 and 1954, that gap shrinks dramatically to around $9,700 per year.

But this increase in educational attainment has not stopped the New York Fed from worrying about the impact of rising student debt on the overall economy. Officials noted that young people burdened with loans are now less likely than previous generations to take out auto or home loans. These liabilities, combined with a widespread reduction of disposable income, pose a real threat to future economic growth prospects fueled by consumer spending.

In 2012, then Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke raised eyebrows when he testified before Congress, saying that his son was on track to graduate from medical school with $400,000 in loans. Many were shocked at the time. Unfortunately, the New York Fed's newest estimates have given no indication of relief.  

SUBMITTED BY Nolan DiFrancesco, research assistant, NACUBO

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