Moving to outsourced document-imaging services can improve efficiencies and make digital document management more secure.
End the Paper(less) Chase
SIX YEARS AGO, if you had walked through
the Northeastern University (MA) admissions
department in December, you would have seen
something approximating chaos.
The Boston private university was seeing a
tremendous spike in applications. To manage
them, the school was using part-time workers
and expanding into makeshift office space.
Conditions were cramped. Budgets and staff
morale were strained, recalls Pamela Brennan,
senior associate director of operations
for undergraduate admissions.
"We were doing it," Brennan says of processing
student applications. "But we knew it
could be better. We were managing to get
decisions out, but we couldn't get our heads
around what the applicant pool looked like."
In 2004, looking for a comprehensive solution
to its admissions needs, Northeastern
decided to outsource its document imaging
and management. Now, instead of arriving at
the campus, applications are sent directly to an
offsite production center, run by document imaging
and web-hosted document-management firm Data-
Bank IMX. There, documents are sorted, scanned, and
indexed before being uploaded for processing by partner
company FolderWave, which provides Software as a Service
(SaaS) document management for college and university
admissions departments. DataBank handles the actual
paper documents coming in from applicants, records and
indexes them into digital files, and then uploads them to be
processed by FolderWave's software, which is what the university
staff interacts with via the web. FolderWave also
serves as a workflow system for the admissions staff.
The result: Northeastern's admissions department has
become a very different place. The department no longer
needs to rely on part-time processors, and morale is greatly
improved. In December, at the height of the application
season, "if you walked into the admissions office, you'd
never believe we're in the throes of our busiest cycle," Brennan
The faster processing time also has given admissions
staff a clearer picture of what the overall applicant pool
looks like, which allows them to make better decisions for
the university, she adds.
Northeastern isn't alone in its move toward a hosted
document-management solution. Traditionally, most
schools have opted to purchase document-management
software, but a growing number of colleges and universities
are turning to hosted and SaaS solutions, says Dan Dillon,
marketing manager for Perceptive Software, whose ImageNow document-imaging, management, and workflow
software is used by more than 400 colleges and universities.
To help manage the barrage of paper and electronic documents
associated with moving students into and through
the higher education system, universities are looking to firms
providing various outsourcing options for document imaging
and management. Such companies offer a buffet of choices,
from taking on the entire process of processing and storing
documents on their own servers, to tackling key pieces of
the document-imaging and management puzzle. Solutions
such as DataBank and ImageNow integrate with student
information systems, allowing users to access documents
through their existing software. And each offers a range of
options based on how much schools want to outsource their
document-imaging and management needs.
Starting With Admissions
The admissions department often is the first place where
universities look to implement document-imaging and management
solutions. For good reason: In 2008, for the third
year in a row, about three-quarters of US colleges and universities
reported that they had seen an increase in applications
for admission, according to the National Association
for College Admission Counseling. While most
students apply online, many of the supporting documents,
such as transcripts and letters of recommendation, continue
to be on paper, and schools need a way to integrate all
those documents for review by admissions counselors.
St. John's University, a 20,000-student university in
New York City, started using DataBank IMX about three
years ago in its admissions department.
"We, like many schools, were undergoing a significant
increase in undergraduate applications," St. John's Associate
Vice President of IT Maura Woods states. In a five-year
period, the number of undergraduate applications had
climbed from about 15,000 per year to about 25,000.
Using paper files with a folder for each student was cumbersome,
and documents sometimes were misfiled or misplaced.
The school had been using SunGard Higher Education's
Banner solutions for more than a decade, and initially
was looking to establish an in-house system for processing
documents via the Banner Xtender document-imaging module.
After calling in DataBank as a consultant to develop the
in-house system, St. John's instead decided that it might be
more efficient to outsource its document imaging altogether.
"It was more than we were willing to take on," Woods
says of the prospect of processing all the department's
Now, mail for St. John's admissions department goes to
a post office box established by DataBank, which also
fields faxes and other document deliveries. At its regional
processing center, DataBank scans and indexes documents.
Because St. John's opted to store its information on
its own servers, documents are uploaded nightly to a
secure FTP server. The school's Banner software then
matches documents according to students' identification
numbers, or holds them in a staging area if an applicant
doesn't yet have an ID number. Because DataBank records
each item as it comes in, it is also easier to find answers if
a document is missing or if an applicant says it has been
sent, explains Woods. Staff can check the file digitally,
rather than having to sort through paper documents.
Since the school started using DataBank, the number of
applications it receives has shot up to about 50,000 per
year, but the admissions department has been able to handle
them without an increase in staff, she says.
The increased efficiency also has helped the school reach
its admissions goals, Woods boasts. Students receive
responses faster, which allows university staff to spend
more time following up with students, taking those who
were accepted and turning them into enrolled students.
The St John's admissions department now is able to handle
double the applications without an increase in staff.
Moving Into Other Services
Many schools are looking to take hosted document-imaging
services beyond admissions departments to manage and
coordinate information in other areas, including financial
aid, invoice processing, student health clinics, and other
document-intensive applications. When necessary, departments
are able to share access to relevant documents.
At the California Institute of Technology, Associate
Director of Payment Services Michelle Thompson knew that
the admissions department had used ImageNow's hosted
document-management services to streamline its processes.
In admissions, implementing ImageNow boosted productivity
by 40 percent, which enhanced recruiting and
student service, according to the university. Thompson wondered
what it could do for her department, which manages
all campus invoices.
So in 2007, the payment services department adopted
ImageNow. The transition has turned the department into a
mostly paperless environment, according to Thompson.
Employees scan invoices upon receipt; the software's
workflow component then routes them to the appropriate
place. Meanwhile, the ImageNow printer allows users to
create a TIFF image of any web page or document, eliminating
the need for paper copies.
A Greater Level of Security
For Thompson's department, which has to comply with federal
laws designed to safeguard against identity theft,
security was a key consideration when making a decision
about document-management services. St. John's had similar
concerns about securely handling admissions documents,
which contain confidential student information,
Administrators from each school say they feel hosted or
outsourced services offer a greater level of security than
they could provide themselves. DataBank, ImageNow, and
FolderWave all rely on SAS 70 certification, which assesses
the internal controls of outsourcing services, such as
hosted data centers. At its processing centers, DataBank
also has in place physical security measures to control
access to documents. As university officials point out, that's
a huge security improvement over the mass of paper documents
typically handled by college temporary staff during
peak processing times, which leaves information vulnerable.
In addition, vendors' online document-management tools
regulate who has access to documents, offering a variety of
access levels based on what information employees require
to do their jobs. In dealing with student records, such measures
help schools comply with the Family Educational
Rights and Privacy Act. These kinds of security measures
"made a big difference in our decision" to outsource document
imaging at St John's, relates Woods.
Ultimately, for St. John's, the positive changes that
occurred when the school started using DataBank have led
to a review of the university's entire business process.
Woods says St. John's administrators now are scrutinizing
all the paper they use and analyzing what documents could
made electronic and which ones must remain in paper form.
"It's forced us to analyze everything we do."