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 enthuses.

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 incoming documents.

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, adds Woods.

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.

Resources

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."

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