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Automating Finance

Smaller schools—or those with budgets stretched tight—may only now be evaluating the automation of certain financial processes. For you latecomers, an updated primer to help you catch up.

IT FundingIN PAST YEARS, higher ed's financial management side has been riddled with manual processes and aging mainframe applications. But today, schools can take advantage of an array of technologies that automate billing, payment processing, and refund processing in the case of overpayment. And the investments are well worth it: Institutions that wring greater efficiency out of these financial operations stand to make life easier for students— and themselves.

Three years ago, Long Island University (NY) embarked on a major investment in an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and recently completed the deployment of Oracle's PeopleSoft Campus Solutions 8.9. Prior to the rollout of the new system, the university would generate multiple bills for a student attending classes at more than one campus. (The school operates six campuses, and it is not uncommon for a student to take courses at more than one location.) Now, however, the PeopleSoft ERP solution consolidates the billing. "We united the student ID as a single source of billing," notes George Baroudi, LIU's chief information officer. "So, even if students attend multiple campuses, they now get one bill."

Certainly, the system boosts back-office efficiency but, overall, the ERP deployment aims to improve student services, he asserts. In that regard, the school's solution includes a web self-service portal that lets students track their accounts in real time. The school's previous legacy batch-processing system meant that updates on a new meal plan or the latest financial aid disbursement would show up in the system about a day after the fact, Baroudi explains.

Next Challenge: Payment Processing

With billing and student account access ironed out, some schools move on to automate payment processing. Solutions that enable electronic payment through such means as credit cards get campuses out of the paper-check processing business. Today, in fact, schools can purchase payment processing as a software product or hosted service, and the hosted option is particularly helpful to institutions with already-stretched budgets. Providers in the electronic payment processing space include CashNet, Nelnet Business Solutions, and TouchNet. Some providers may offer both purchase or hosted options, and most cultivate alliances with the leading ERP vendors, facilitating integration between payment processing and ERP systems.

Baroudi says administrators and technologists at LIU are evaluating eCommerce partners such as Touch- Net. TouchNet integrates with People- Soft products as well as other ERP solutions (the company has been a PeopleSoft partner since 1999). The CIO observes that the electronic payment processing capability will be a welcome improvement at LIU; it will replace the school's current "sneaker net" process, wherein students routinely trek into the Bursar's Office to make their tuition payments.

Managing Financial Aid

Schools also seek to automate the financial aid process and, today, this component may be integrated into a broader ERP solution, as well. That's the case for Macomb Community College (MI). The school recently migrated to release 18 of Datatel Colleague ERP system, which includes Datatel Colleague Financial Aid as an integrated component. "Integration is key," notes Judy Florian, director of financial aid at Macomb. "The Financial Aid Office now has a large amount of information [from the core ERP system] readily available to us, which helps our staff serve our customers more effectively."

The Colleague Financial Aid module provides automatic data exchange with the US Department of Education for FAFSA, Pell Payment, and other programs. Florian says she finds the product's automatic packaging module (referring to the decision process regarding the combination of federal, state, and institutional awards for which a student is eligible) to be particularly useful. Florian also cites Colleague Financial Aid's satisfactory academic progress calculator as a helpful feature.

At Long Island University, electronic payment processing will replace the school's current ‘sneaker net' process, wherein students routinely trek to the Bursar's Office to make tuition payments.

Handling Refunds

When schools dispatch refunds to students who have overpaid tuition or have financial aid funds left over after tuition and room & board are met, students find themselves on the receiving end of the money flow and, understandably, want to see those funds as soon as possible.

To remedy this and other glitches, some schools have opted to offload the refund chore to an outside party, rather than cut the checks on their own. Troy University (AL), for example, tapped refund management disbursement provider Higher One to handle refunds. The refund management service smoothly disburses funds and provides students with refund cards. Money due students may be deposited in a checking account associated with the card, which can be used as a MasterCard debit card, as well.

Troy University Controller Bryan Helms notes that Higher One has proven quite a selling point with non-conventional students who attend classes via the school's distance learning program. Many Troy students take courses at military bases (the university offers occupation-related degrees through distance learning to soldiers stationed around the world). Students who once had to wait up to a week to get a refund check in the mail now receive their funds the day a refund is issued (or, at the latest, the following day). Funds are transferred to a Higher One card or to a bank account of the student's choice, via electronic funds transfer, says Helms.

The Higher One approach offers an additional benefit, the controller adds. Sensitive data— bank account information, for instance— is housed in the Higher One system instead of a university system. And while some higher ed administrators might be hesitant to allow this kind of data to move outside of the confines of the institution, Helms believes that moving the data to Higher One actually reduces the school's liability.

As for return on investment, Helms says the Higher One solution is "cost neutral" over the long term, when comparing the cost of paying Higher One to provide refund services versus the cost of preparing checks in-house. According to Higher One spokespeople, the task of generating refunds, maintaining payment preferences, providing customer service, and handling errors can saddle a school's business office with a good deal of cost.

Sean Glass, founder of Higher One, discloses that one school told him that the cost per refund payment could run as high as $30, without electronic processes in place. (He points out that the school did not offer any electronic options.) But even schools that do offer electronic options may not see in-house disbursement costs decline significantly from manual processes since "the cost is in the exception handling, not necessarily in the cost of the paper check and mailing," he explains. Glass says that Higher One's program handles exceptions for no additional cost; that is, the vendor does not charge for refunds directed to a Higher One-related account. Those exceptions sent via Automated Clearing House (ACH) are market-priced at a couple of cents. Of course, pricing for check handling depends on a school's size. But this particular vendor is "moving to where customers can choose a model wherein a school can pay a per-refund price of 40 cents— for all types of refunds," Glass claims.

Other companies that distribute student refunds include TouchNet and CashNet. ERP products such as PeopleSoft Student Financials calculate student refunds and provide a link to third-party payment processors.

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