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7 Ways to Streamline Student Services

To meet the expectations of today's tech-savvy students, colleges and universities are looking for ways to speed up their processes and provide better services for their No. 1 customer.

Photo: Paul Harizan

For just about any service provider, faster is better. It certainly holds true for higher education, which has increasingly come to view students as customers: Quick customer service has become a priority in student-oriented areas, from parking management to tracking degrees. Looking to stay competitive, colleges and universities have turned to technology to simplify processes, reduce costs, and meet the high expectations of a tech savvy student body. CT looks at how seven schools are solving a wide range of problems all with the goal of streamlining their students' college experience.

1) Manage Parking Online
Like most universities, the University of California, Irvine had parking problems: too few patient stalls at the university medical center, overflowing residence hall parking lots, and a cumbersome system for managing and enforcing parking.

To alleviate the problem, in 2007 the university designed and implemented the Virtual Parking Management System (VPMS), a web-based application consisting of an Adobe ColdFusion front end with an SQL Server database. According to Ron Fleming, director of UCI's Parking and Transportation Services, the goal was to create a more flexible, easy-to-use system. "We made it attribute-based," he notes. "That way, we can turn things on and off as needed."

The web-based system has a number of advantages. At the medical center, for instance, the receptionist inputs visitor vehicle and stall information, so parking is tracked and enforced more precisely. As a result, the parking department has been able to reallocate some of the visitor spaces--freed up due to regular turnover--for employees who need to park for the day.

On-campus residents now manage their registration through VPMS online, anytime they want. Parking is enforced using a license plate reader on the enforcement vehicles, rather than stickers or rearview mirror tags. As a parking employee drives through a residence parking lot, the readers compare the license plate numbers against the database. If the plate isn't registered, the reader dings, and a citation is written.

Fleming says the system's reporting tools have helped the department "reorganize parking in a major way." Due to more accurate enforcement, people have learned that they can't park in the wrong lots. The result is a clearer picture of parking needs, more precise parking allocation for residents and visitors, and all-around easier parking. Parking complaints are down and other schools are looking to Irvine as a model. And the cost? It was relatively low once the parking department collected unpaid fines from the biggest violators.

2) Automate Textbook Rentals
Eastern Illinois University has been renting textbooks to students since 1899, and, until recently, the process had changed little for decades. Renting textbooks meant hours-long waits for students while staff picked their books off the shelves. Staff then had to handwrite the copy numbers for each book, and later enter them into the textbook inventory system. In addition, textbooks were stored on three floors of the old textbook building, which led to a lot of heavy lifting.

All this changed for the summer semester of 2010, when EIU unveiled an RFID-based rental system (using radio-frequency ID tags to track books) in a new textbook building that stores all the books on one big floor. According to Dave Bailey, senior applications analyst at EIU, the new system is based on software designed for public library systems and enables students to come into the stacks, select their own books, and check them out in a matter of seconds by stacking them on a Tech Logic brand scanner.

When the semester is over, students can either scan the books back in or put them in a drop box. Bailey says the automation both speeds the process and helps prevent errors.

In order to adapt the library system for textbook rentals, Bailey and his team had to modify C# scripts to interface with the school's Banner system, as well as write PL/SQL (Procedural Language/Structured Query Language) scripts to update textbook tables and check students' book rentals against their schedules in Banner. The team also customized the check-out/check-in messages automatically sent by the system to make them more student-friendly.

The preparation paid off. When the system launched last year, textbook-rental lines were completely eliminated--the average processing time, from the moment a student walks into the building to him leaving with his textbooks, is now just 10 minutes.

3) Go Paperless With Refunds
Central Piedmont Community College (NC) is on a paperless crusade. One program that has radically changed as a result is the school's student refund program. In the past, CPCC mailed around 25,000 refund checks per year. The process was labor-intensive and costly, recalls David Baker, director of accounts payable and procurement.

"There were costs for paper, for the special microtoner ink needed to print the checks, and for labor hours, especially when you factor in lost, stolen, and destroyed checks that had to be reissued," he says. And each check cost an additional 42 cents for postage.

CPCC went looking for a solution that would enable it to send refunds electronically to all students, not just the 15 percent who had bank accounts. After an RFP search, Baker's department settled on Higher One, a payment-services provider.

After each registration period, the CPCC IT department sends a list of new students to Higher One, which then mails each student a debit card. The card is not active unless a student gets a refund and chooses to use it. If they prefer, students can opt to use their own bank accounts instead. For those who choose to use the debit card, Higher One opens a checking account.

Meanwhile, CPCC identifies student refund amounts, generates a report that it then transfers to a Higher One template, and uploads the file to a secure Higher One server. Within the same day, Higher One distributes the refunds to student accounts.

Overall, Baker says, the process is quicker than the check process, and ATMs installed around campus give students instant access to cash. And with Higher One administrating the refund process, CPCC can reallocate staff hours to other tasks. Best of all, each refund now costs less than the price of one postage stamp.

4) Integrate Student ID Cards
In 2009, only 10 percent to 20 percent of Carl Sandburg College (IL) students bothered to get a campus ID card, because it wasn't required for many student functions. The cards simply "didn't add value to the student experience at the college," says Samuel Sudhakar, CSC's vice president of administrative services and chief information officer, adding that the low adoption rate made it impossible to identify legitimate students out of all of the people filtering in and out of campus.

To better integrate the ID cards into the campus experience, CSC worked with a company called Datacard Group to connect the ID card database to the school's Active Directory-- essentially tying students' identities to their student records. Now, whenever students have to identify themselves in a class, at an administration office, or even the school fitness center, they punch in their ID number, and their picture is displayed. This way, "no one can impersonate the student," Sudhakar says.

By adding a bar code with students' ID numbers to the cards, Sudhakar's team turned them into library cards. And the addition of a magnetic stripe makes the cards usable for buying meals and books. The college now boasts a 95 percent adoption rate for the new student IDs. Students enjoy not only greater convenience but increased security, too.

The team also located a banking partner that pays for all the card-making supplies in exchange for printing the bank's logo on the back of the cards. Sudhakar's team is now in talks with the banking partner to incorporate debit capabilities, so that students can use the cards to access financial aid and refunds.

5) Track Degree Progress on the Web
In June 2009, as part of a campuswide move away from paper files, the University of Alabama rolled out SunGard DegreeWorks, a web-based tool that allows students and advisers to track a student's course requirements, electives, and transfer credits en route to a degree.

The product demystifies advising and helps students make the most of their advising sessions, reports Denny Savage, associate university registrar. Students and their advisers can map out the coursework needed for a degree term by term. In addition, they can carry out a "what-if" audit, he says, to "run their coursework against the requirements for another major, or tack on a minor to see where that puts them--what's needed for that major or minor."

Students can also plug in individual classes to see how they would contribute to the overall plan. They can even use DegreeWorks to see how they must perform to graduate with a specific GPA.

According to Savage, DegreeWorks provides the tools to help students complete their education in the shortest time possible, supporting the university's "finish in four" campaign, which stresses the need for students to graduate in four years to save themselves and their parents money.

In order to make DegreeWorks successful, Savage's department gathered a team of advisers, college registrars, and assistant and associate deans to help determine the product's look and feel, and how and when it would be implemented. It also got the student government involved, and marketed DegreeWorks through print ads, campus TV spots, and classroom presentations.

While Savage admits it's too soon to tell whether DegreeWorks will help more students finish in four years, his department sees more students taking ownership of their degree paths and asking questions based on their DegreeWorks audits.

6) Provide Self-Service Support
In an effort to consolidate and efficiently manage recruitment and retention messaging across several regional campuses that comprise University College at Texas Tech University, the school recently implemented a central knowledgebase system using the RightNow CX Cloud Platform.

According to Michele Moskos, marketing director at University College, the knowledgebase enables the school "to provide the same answer to students' questions, whether they call in or visit the website or social media pages. If you search our website, for example, you search our knowledgebase." This is a change from the school's previous setup, where each regional branch of the college had its own site, and call-in centers relied on Excel spreadsheets and binders of printed documents--a system that led to incomplete or imbalanced information across the sites.

In addition, Moskos says her department can run a keyword search to find out how students are searching the website: "We know the top 20 questions that people are asking, and we know that these 20 questions could answer 60 percent of things the students want to know." Since implementing RightNow, the department has seen a 19 percent reduction in the number of incoming calls, and a 99 percent self-service rate on the website.

The college is also taking advantage of RightNow CX Engage, a customer-management tool that makes it possible to follow up on website queries with targeted e-mails and run e-mail campaigns. Because RightNow is integrated with the school's Banner system, administrators can send timely information just to the individuals who need it.

For instance, Moskos says her department can pull the data on which students are eligible for graduation, and then send them a note with instructions. "We're just communicating with students the way they expect to be communicated with in today's world," she says.

7) Forge Relationships Early
California Polytechnic State University prides itself on being forward-thinking when it comes to integrating technology into the recruitment, applications, and admissions processes. Cal Poly was one of the first schools to enable electronic application portfolios, and by the early 2000s, the school had an automated acceptance program in place as well.

But it's around recruitment that Cal Poly demonstrates ingenuity in the use of technology to better serve students. According to James Maraviglia, vice provost for marketing and enrollment development, Cal Poly leverages its Hobsons EMT Connect customer relationship management system to provide personalized service to prospective students--starting with the messages they receive.

"Our CRM allows us to measure the effectiveness of each mail sent," Maraviglia says. "We then tailor future messages, including broadcast phone, text, chat sessions, instant mail messages, and even webcasts--based on student preferences--to actively communicate with potential students."

For each prospective student, Cal Poly also creates a personal microsite that contains video messages from a number of campus sources, including academic department chairs and current and former students, all aimed at providing the information students need to choose not only this school, but the major they will pursue. Microsites are also created for counselors and parents, which further enhances the sense of community and personalized communication around Cal Poly. The technology helps the school nurture these early relationships despite the fact that only three of Maraviglia's staff are in the field to handle one-on-one conversations with as many as 100,000 prospective applicants.

By 2010, the applicant pool had jumped to 40,000 applications from 20,000 a decade earlier, Maraviglia reports. With recruitment and enrollment exceeding institutional goals, Cal Poly has started applying the same pervasive technical approach to improving retention and graduation rates.

"We're shifting all of our attention to intrusive academic coaching and support," says Maraviglia. "The model not only engages the front end, but it allows us to share with the deans and the enrollment people how to keep people there and, as importantly, how to foster the sense of giving back as part of our daily lives at Cal Poly."

Speeding up the Back End

At Georgia Institute of Technology, the unique technology needs of seven distinct student services--health services, the campus card program, housing, dining, the bookstore, parking, and a new student center--are all managed under the Auxiliary Services Information Technology Group (ITG). And therein lies the challenge, says James Pete, director of the group. ITG has to meet the expectations of a highly technical student population that counts on the "same type of customer experience and online services that they receive from the external corporate marketplace," he notes. What's more, the department needs to create new solutions on an ongoing basis, without disrupting that high level of service for students.

To provide the kind of just-in-time services that college students expect, Pete's department set out to bring the various technologies involved in these business groups under the management of one integration tool. The department hired an ETL (extract, transform, and load) developer, and began reviewing tools such as Microsoft SQL Server Integration Services, a platform for data-related solutions.

Wanting a tool "that can handle web servicing more effectively," Pete says, his staff is now trying out IBM InfoSphere DataStage. "Once you can get these [services] into a standardized platform, the tool itself allows you to develop integrations quickly," he adds.

A more integrated back end, along with more effective planning and oversight, has led to a better experience for students, even if they aren't always aware of it. If students, faculty, or staff buy a parking permit, for example, they expect that their campus ID card, the BuzzCard, will work to open the gate. Similarly, when students arrive on campus and check into housing, they expect their ID card to open the door. Auxiliary Services has worked hard to make these integrations possible.

Pete's team also worked to streamline the immunization-compliance process. "We had not done a good job of letting students know where they were with their immunization-compliance requirement," Pete notes. His team created a website that lists the requirements, and notifies students about whether they are compliant or not.

"We're regularly messaging the students and driving them to that website," Pete says. Many new students complete their immunization requirements over the summer, before school starts. But graduate students get their admittance notice later than undergrads, and many come from countries with different immunization requirements. As a result, each new year begins with a pileup of immunization forms, and students anxious for the forms to be processed so they can register for classes.

Working with a back-end process workflow in Microsoft SharePoint Workflow Services, Pete's team was able to speed up immunization processing. The workflow reduced the time it takes for student records to be submitted and reviewed--and for the automatic registration hold to be lifted.

As Pete says, "Students don't necessarily look behind the scenes and know that this system is over in health, that system is student information systems and enterprise-level solutions; they see it as one Georgia Tech." And that's how he wants it.

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