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Enrollment Management

How the Pandemic Accelerated Digital Transformation at Jones College

Jones College's move to a paperless workflow happened to coincide with COVID-19 lockdowns. Here's how going digital enabled the institution to navigate through the pandemic, a summer enrollment increase and beyond.

digital documents

For the last century, Jones College in Mississippi has helped students earn associate degrees and credentials in an array of industries. At any one time, we can have up to 4,000 students enrolled, which makes keeping track of paperwork and class enrollment deadlines a seriously time- and labor-intensive task. Prior to my joining the staff at the college, our departments were weighed down by having to continuously collect and route paper documents. Oftentimes this created a delay in meeting internal deadlines as well as timelines for student enrollment. For example, if a student didn't provide the required information within an initial enrollment form submission, it could take days to weeks notify him or her, get the missing information back to the correct department, and then manually enter it into the system.

To address some of these challenges — at the beginning of the year, before everything in the world got turned on its head with the COVID-19 pandemic — our school's president had already tasked Information Technology with bringing together several departments under one umbrella: financial aid, admissions, records, recruiting and the student success center. I had been at Jones College for 20 years, and most recently led the IT department as part of that existing plan for digital transformation. My biggest goal was to introduce new technologies to our staff in an effort to bridge the gaps between existing systems, and to identify where we needed to put new processes in place. These five departments had been heavily reliant on manual paper processes, which had made it difficult to keep track of important information.

Jump ahead to early 2020, and in an effort to kick-start our digitization process, we got staff from all the aforementioned departments to agree not to print anything for one day — just to start. This "digital day" allowed us to kick off the process, in turn, we stressed to all five departments that their participation was both mandatory and essential (our offer of a free lunch for everyone may have helped a bit, too). Unsurprisingly, the pandemic quickly accelerated our digital transformation implementation and timeline.

Our long planned-for implementation of a cloud-based Laserfiche document management system coincidentally came to fruition at the same time most regions in the U.S. began to lock down due to the pandemic. Everything was put on hold when the COVID-19 lockdowns affected our community. When we were able to come back to the office, we realized that paper and paper-driven processes were just inefficient, and wouldn't serve our needs in the future — much less during a pandemic.

With the help of Information Consultants (ICONS), our Laserfiche solution provider, we implemented the technology and began scanning documents into a repository. We were able to get the enrollment management department's existing paperwork scanned into the system and digitized within a single week at the beginning of the pandemic, which has allowed us to go completely digital for new enrollees moving forward.

Moving beyond simply maintaining a digital filing cabinet, we wanted to also digitize the processes that were previously driven by paperwork and manual tasks. We created electronic forms in Laserfiche, which allowed us to completely transform the student enrollment process from start to finish. We're now able to mark fields that require a student's input, which allows for the proper information to be submitted from the beginning. Students are now automatically notified via e-mail or text message with updates from enrollment onwards.

Our financial aid department took these new tools and ran with them, creating upwards of 30 Laserfiche online forms which replaced all of the paper forms they'd used previously. Having everything in one place — tax filings, income statements, residence status and more — has allowed applicant information to be validated in an efficient manner. Now, students' FAFSA information can be verified electronically, and shared simultaneously with financial aid organizations and the federal government as is required.

Currently, we're in the process of digitizing and automating our admissions processes — specifically, the graduation process. Before our digital transformation efforts, students had to walk around campus with a stack of documents and get signatures from their advisers confirming they were approved to graduate. With an electronic form and supporting automated workflow, students will be able to go about this process completely online, getting their advisers to add electronic signatures to their graduation forms, which are then electronically routed to the central admissions office and automatically filed in the student's records.

We're also currently working to digitize the transcript request process. These were previously delivered by hand or via snail mail. Now, we're immediately scanning any new transcripts that come into our Laserfiche system upon receipt. Once this is completed online, students are then notified via e-mail of their acceptance status.

While we're obviously still in the midst of an overall digital transformation initiative, we're thrilled with the progress we've seen thus far. Our legacy students are still using old processes, but our new students will be introduced to our digital processes from the beginning — making things easier for parents, educators, admissions and administrative staff and most importantly, students themselves.

One unexpected (but major!) gift that our digital transformation has provided us thus far: By implementing different technologies, we at Jones College have actually saved an estimated $40,000 in manpower, or almost four months of work so far. As a small community college that has seen our share of budget cuts, this has been a major blessing.

We were also able to use Laserfiche systems to measure enrollment more accurately. We had expected our enrollment rates to drop when the pandemic hit, but we actually saw a 15 percent increase this summer over the summer of the previous year. During a pandemic and without adding additional staff, I'm proud of the way we were able to manage the larger workload with our efforts to digitize and streamline processes. And, we've gotten better visibility into our total admission rates while simultaneously tracking the number of students that are in the admissions queue along with how long their onboarding process will take.

At the end of the day, the student experience is always top of mind for us at Jones College. As we look ahead, we're hoping to improve the communication process between students and administration even further during their time with us, by implementing more e-mail verifications and in-house workflow processes. The next step in our digital transformation is all about system integrations between departments and building out tables in our platforms to make data more easily accessible to all our staff.

Through our digital transformation, we've been able to digitize and automate processes while simultaneously improving collaboration throughout departments. This has also led to an increase in accountability and trust among staff that has not previously worked together. As we continue to navigate this new normal, we're happy that everyone has access to documents and forms no matter their location. And just think: We kick-started all of this, improved our teamwork and became a more organized college, simply by getting rid of paper.

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