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Giving students what they want when they want it

At some colleges and universities, gone are the lines for signing up for classes or seeing an advisor. Because of technology, gone also are the all nighters for staff handling the tide of enrollment paperwork.

The University of Michigan - Flint uses an enterprise content management system to handle the paperwork loads that come with the crush of students at the beginning of a semester.

They can get lunch in seconds at a drive-thru window and access to millions of Web pages instantly, but when it comes to higher education, students typically find service to be anything but quick.

Standing in line to register for classes or waiting weeks for confirmation that an application was received or financial aid approved are delays that are unacceptable to a generation that has come to expect what they want, when they want it. As a result, a school’s ability to provide timely service is becoming a crucial buying button in the competitive higher education marketplace.

Some colleges and universities are turning to enterprise content management (ECM) systems to digitally corral the stampede of paper that sweeps over them and so significantly amp up student satisfaction.

At the root of these delays is a single factor that even the most technologically advanced colleges and universities deal with to some extent: paper.

“It takes time to know we’ve received students’ paperwork, more time to get it into the system and make sure it’s connected to the right student, and yet more time for that student to see it, ”said George Hudachek, director of undergraduate admissions at University of Minnesota.  "This is a problem, because today’s students want instant access to current information.”

It is not a picnic for college staff either. During the student selection period that precedes each semester, admissions departments deal with a tide of paperwork that often requires long nights for existing staff and the hiring of temporary employees.

Admissions departments struggle to deal with student content sent from multiple sources. For a single student, a school may receive a transcript via fax, a recommendation letter via e-mail, an application by mail and test scores electronically from the College Board.

Staff members typically assemble paper versions of all these materials in a folder, affix a label, and then give it to an application reader for evaluation. Readers frequently work from home, which involves taking boxfuls of folders to and from campus. If a student calls to see if their application has been received, a time-consuming file cabinet search begins.

Reinvigorating Admissions

Enterprise content management systems are helping forward-thinking colleges and universities overcome these challenges in admissions. Whether student content is submitted by fax, e-mail, mail, and online portal, it’s captured and automatically associated with the correct student’s record in the student information system (SIS). Application readers can then instantly access the information they need from anywhere on campus, or from home.

Hudachek explains how ECM has reinvigorated the admissions process at the University of Minnesota, a school known as an early adopter of technology.

“With a paper-based system, it took up to two weeks to notify each student that we’d received their application, and then another four weeks to evaluate it and tell that student if anything was missing,” he said. “With our ECM system in place, we notify the student within 24 hours, and they can click on an e-mail link to access our new application status portal. This shows them a document type list of what we’ve received, and what we’re missing.”

Eliminating paper delays and providing immediate access to real-time information are just two of the benefits of an ECM deployment in admissions. Students applying to the University of Minnesota have found this simplified process meets their needs far better than its convoluted, paper-dependent predecessor.

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“I hear a lot of positive comments from students about how easy it is to submit their applications and view their status,” Hudachek said. “They’re used to having instant access to up-to-date personal information on social media sites and financial information with online banking, so they have a similar demand for immediacy with higher education. With our ECM system, we’re able to satisfy that expectation.”

To extend the impact of its ECM solution, University of Minnesota plans to implement electronic forms, also called eForms. Currently, a data warehousing system pulls all pertinent student information into a form for an admissions counselor to read. This is manually linked to records in the PeopleSoft application. Some of these forms are handwritten, and not linked to SIS records. This will soon change.

“eForms will enable application readers to get all the information they need in one stop, and to receive this more quickly,” Hudachek said.

At University of Michigan-Flint (UM-Flint), administrators have improved student service and information sharing by rolling out ECM to admissions and academic advising in tandem.

“When a student brings their application packet into the admissions office, we quickly scan it into the ECM system and link it to their SIS record, so that by the time they get to the academic advising office, the advisor is already prepared,” said Jay Gandhi, senior systems analyst at UM-Flint. “This proactive approach just wasn’t possible when we were waiting on inter-office mail deliveries.”

Many students' ability to study at a school depends as much on their financial aid award as it does on their successful admission. So it’s understandable that they have little tolerance for paper-related delays when waiting for the verdict on their funding for the upcoming semester.

When UM-Flint managed financial aid applications manually, students’ folders could sit on a desk for several days until they were processed, and there was then another holdup while the folders were given to a counselor. Now, files are scanned upon receipt and automatically routed to the appropriate counselor via electronic workflow for timely review.

“With our ECM suite in place, counselors are more efficient, so students get their awards faster and are more satisfied,” Gandhi said. “ECM has made all our enrollment services processes more efficient and more student-focused.”

Schools such as UM-Flint and University of Minnesota are finding that ECM is also enhancing student relations in the registrar’s office. At UM-Flint, as at most schools, the registrar’s office receives many drop/add forms indicating students’ changing course loads each day. Gandhi explains the difference ECM has made with handling these forms.

“If a student drops a class they expect to be reimbursed, but a drop/add form is easily lost and that used to lead to student frustration,” Gandhi said. “Now, these forms are scanned and linked to student records immediately, so these reimbursements are processed quickly and students don’t have to wait for their payments.”

Upping the Grade

ECM systems offer similar advantages for managing grade change forms. Before UM-Flint deployed its ECM system, neither students nor faculty members had convenient access to grade change information, as grade change forms were housed in binders in the registrar’s office. When forms were misplaced, the required changes could not be made to transcripts – an omission which could adversely affect scholarships and graduation honors.

Now this information is instantly available across campus through student and faculty portals, and registrars quickly update students’ transcripts to reflect any alterations.

When asked for input on ECM projects, Gandhi encourages her higher education peers to focus on the departments that interact most with students and deal with high document volume.

“Admissions, financial aid and the registrar’s office are the departments where ECM can most significantly impact student satisfaction,” she said. “I also recommend extending ECM to academic advising, the career center, student housing and other student services areas.”

Mike Wessel, Perceptive Software solution manager for higher education, believes that the positive impact of ECM on student satisfaction can extend across campus as part of a sophisticated approach to using IT in higher education.

"ECM empowers all authorized staff members to be a one-stop shop for student service,” Wessel said. “This signficantly increases the points where students can have their questions answered and issues resolved.”