|Delivering student services to the students in an integrated fashion appears to be intuitively much more user-friendly and efficient than the traditional model of engaging in a complex web of activities in order to accomplish a simple administrative task. Anecdotal evidence through students' verbal comments have revealed that they do indeed prefer the integrated method over the traditional segregated means of service delivery. However, anecdotal evidence is not sufficient for the proper determination of whether or not this kind of integration is indeed effective in meeting the needs of the students as well as those of the university. Therefore, in this cycle, I will engage in a series of action steps designed to illicit evidence to either affirm or disaffirm my assumption that the one stop method is indeed an effective method is service delivery.|
For this cycle, I engaged the assistance of three student administrative services personnel who serve as my "critical friends" in desiging the evaluation process as well as carrying out the evaluative steps. In our initial meeting, I explained to them that I needed to determine whether or not the one stop method of student services is effective in meeting the students' adminstrative needs as well as meeting the University's needs to properly maintain the integrity of the students' records according to University policies and governmental regulations. After a lengthy brainstorming session and a subsequent evaluation meeting, we determined the following evaluation plan:
Audit of 35 Student Withdrawal Records:
35 student withdrawal records were randomly selected from the list of students who withdrew from the undergraduate college during the last academic year. The list was divided among the three student administrative services advisors for a records audit. The following items were checked for completeness on the University student administrative systems (SIS) and the students' permanent files:
This audit involved both a thorough review of the information stored and available on SIS as well as a review of the student's actual permanent files in the Office of the Registrar and Office of Financial Assistance. Prior to the audit, I notified the directors of the home offices via memorandum of our audit and requested their permission to review their records. I assured them that the review is for my action research project and that it is for process assessment purposes only.
After the student administrative services advisors audited these records, I performed a quality assurance check on these audits by reviewing the information available on the student information system pertaining to each of these records. For the purposes of quality assurance, I re-verified that 1)the withdrawal date was properly recorded, 2) classes were properly withdrawn or dropped, 3) online registration flags were properly handled, 4) withdrawal fees were properly applied, and 5) tuition was properly re-calculated for withdrawals occuring during the refund periods.
As we began the audit process, one of the student administrative services staff members suggested that we send out a simple email to the directors and managers of the home offices soliciting feedback regarding the withdrawal workflow process that we had put in place. It was another attempt to collect evidence of whether or not the process itself was effectively meeting the adminstrative and operational needs of the various functional areas. I agreed to the suggestion and asked her to send out that email. This was the text of the e-mail: "We are in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of the withdrawal procedure. Would you kindly respond and let us know if the emails that we send to you when a student is either temporarily or permanently withdrawing from the university are sufficient or is there additional information you need that would be helpful. Any thoughts you would like to share regarding this process are welcomed."
Audit 30 student refunds:
I personally pulled 30 copies of the student refund checks that were processed since January 2003. To perform this audit, I re-traced the steps of the procedures that were performed to generate the check and getting the checks into the hands of the students. The audit include:
Surveyed 150 randomly chosen students: Click here to see copy as well as the results of the survey.
Audit of 35 Student Withdrawal Records:
The audit of these withdrawal records received strong support from the home offices. The student adminstrative services advisors found the process to be encouraging as they saw the effectiveness of the workflow process which has been put in place. My quality assurance process confirmed their findings. From the records audit, we found that most of the audit items were found to be 100% in compliant with university records policy. The official "trigger" notification e-mail was quite effective in starting the workflow process which allowed each home office staff to own the process and in most cases to simultaneously begin the documentation process as well as take the necessary action to work with the withdrawing student via mail or email to complete the withdrawal process. It was clear from the process review that the workflow channeled information directly to the student with clear instructions on what to do. The student did not have to engage in the complex web of activities involved in the withdrawal process; rather, the process required university personnel to take the first steps in engaging the student in completing the process.
There were three areas that received less than 100% compliant scores:
The comments from the email to the home offices directors and managers affirmed our assumption regarding the effectiveness of the process for university adminstrative functions. The comments we received were from a good cross-section of home offices throughout the university. The comments included:
Audit 30 student refunds:
The audit of the 30 student refunds was a long and tedious process. The most difficult part of the audit was the re-calculation of the amount of the refund. The difficulty stems mainly from the fact that our administrative system does not "freeze" data for a certain period of time, allowing for the ease of backtracking. Although the system does store user information for each transaction as well as the transaction date for all transactions, this data is stored in separate databases and is viewable only through arduous programming efforts to create query programs to link various elements of the data.
Out of the 30 refunds audited, 21 of them were processed after all of the financial aid had posted to the respective students' accounts resulting in a credit balance which was refunded to the students. Out of those 21 refunds, 6 accounts required further exchange of communication between the Office of Financial Assistance and the Office of Student Accounts regarding the adjustment of aid due to the students' enrollment changes. This aid adjustment process added anywhere from 1 to 3 days to the refund process.
Documentation on the system as well as in the students' files revealed that the 9 refunds that were generated without a credit balance on the students' accounts were processed because 1) students were attending one of our overseas program and needed their money before leaving. 6 refunds were in this category or 2) students appealed for an exception due to extenuating personal circumstances. 3 refunds were in this category. In all nine cases, the Office of Financial Assistance communicated via e-mail as well as noted on the system that the loans were already guaranteed. It was just a matter of time before the money would be posted to the students' accounts. These exceptions also added anywhere from 1 to 3 days to the refund process.
For the 21 refunds that were processed without extra "interventions" or exceptions, the refunds checks were generated within two days after the credit was made available. 15 of these refunds were picked up in person by the students, and the remaining 6 refund checks were mailed to the students' local addresses. For the 9 refunds that required exception processing, the checks were generated within 5 business days from the documented date of the students' requests (2 refunds were processed by the third business day. 4 refunds were processed by the fourth business day. 3 refunds were processed by the fifth business day.) The length of time required for the refund processing was determined by the speed of my response to the request and Financial Assistance confirmation.
All of the 30 refunds were properly calculated by the student administrative services advisor by the time the requests were posted to the administrative system. A retrieval program allowed the Student Accounts Consultants to acquire a list throughout the day of outstanding refund requests with credit balances. Requests requiring exceptions to the standard refund policies were emailed by the student administrative services advisor to the Office of Student Accounts, the Office of Financial Assistance and to myself, who needed to grant the exception approval. The Accounts Payable office executed the check print program on a nightly basis. The documented transaction date showed that all of these 30 refunds checks were generated with the same date as when the refund was posted to the students' accounts, showing that there were no "systems" glitches for these refund generations.
Please click here to see the results/reaction to the student surveys that were sent. Out of 150 surveys that were sent, 68 were returned. The student responses were generally quite positive regarding the effectiveness of the integrated method of student services delivery. 46% of the respondents strongly agreed with the statement that "OneStop has been effective in meeting my administrative needs." An extra 29% agree with the statement, while the remaining 2% mildly agreed. When it comes to the efficiency in meeting their needs, 97% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the process is indeed efficient. 49% of the respondents stated that the OneStop personnel were able to meet all of their needs; 9% said we were able to meet most of their needs; 13% said we were able to meet most of their needs. 3% said that we were only able to meet some of their needs.
One of the students who had stated that the OneStop staff had more than met his need explained it this way: "I went in there to change my major, and your staff explained to me how I could have even more of my requirements met by changing my catalog year. She could have just done what I asked, and I would have been very happy. But she went way above and beyond it. I walked out of there with four more requirements already fulfilled than I thought I had, my address got changed, got money from my student account, and movie tickets for the weekend. I hit the jackpot!!! Thanks so much!"
83% of the students who completed the survey said that they did not need to make any other adminstrative stops after meeting with the OneStop advisor, which is consistent with the 83% who stated that the staff members were able to meet all or more of their adminstrative needs. 17% of the remaining students were required to make other stops.
The written comments revealed some unmet needs for our students:
The descriptors that the students use to describe OneStop and our staff members were indeed encouraging. They see the staff as funny, friendly, courteous, happy, efficient, knowledgeable, helpful, welcoming, professional, willing to help, and able. They also saw them as stressed, overworked and probably underpaid.
One student commented, "In all my years here, OneStop is one of the best things I have seen. You have made my life so much easier. I tell everybody 'Just go to OneStop' for just about anything. I figure if you can't do it, you'd figure out a way." Another student noted at the bottom of her survey, "My mom saw that I was working on this [survey] and told me that I had to say that Doug was really great! She called after 5pm one day and he already turned off his computer. She said that he actually turned his computer back on and spent another 20 minutes with her on the phone explaining my student account to her. She was amazed! She said thank you!"
Overall, the results of the survey showed that we were mostly effective in meeting the students' administrative needs.
Audit of Student Withdrawal Records:
For the most part, the findings of the student withdrawal records did not surprise me. They did, however, affirmed my confidence in the one stop process and in the ability of university personnel to collect and maintain accurate information as required by university policies and governmental regulations. Withdrawing from school has always been and will continue to be considered a significant event, which required careful attention by the student as well as the university. Due to the serious nature of such an event, traditional student services practices had required that the request for withdrawal must be explicitly and formally made by the student with proper documentation. Each functional office, in the desire to maintain accurate records, had made concerted efforts to collect such documentation from the student. Embedded in these concerted efforts is the accepted norm that, except in the cases of dismissal for various reasons, only the student may withdraw him/herself from the university. Under the traditional model, the functional offices operated under what I would call the Doubting Thomas Model, which is based on the "unless-I-see-it-with-my-own-eyes" tenet. Such an operation tenet then required the student to be the one to personally and officially notify everyone who needed to know about her intention to withdraw. It also became incumbent upon the withdrawing student to make sure that she received confirmation back from university officials regarding the "receipt" of her notification. Efforts were made to "streamline" the process through the creation of an official withdrawal form with multiple copies and many spaces for signatures. The form allowed for the student to document her intention to withdraw as well as the university's personnel acknowledgement that indeed the intention was made known. The narrative case showcased the "official notification" process, which had evolved to a perfunctory and cumbersome signature-collecting process. Most people who signed those forms do not take any immediate action because they either a) need another functional area to act before they can act or b) they really do not understand why they need to sign the form in the first place. For example: The signature requirement from the Dean of Students is rooted in an outdated program involving maintaining an involvement database separate and apart from the main student administrative system. Since the two systems did not "talk" to each other, the student was required to notify the student life area of their impending withdrawal so that the standalone system can be adjusted. Years after this system was no longer in place, the student was still required to get a signature from the Dean of Students, regardless of the needlessness of the notification to that office.
The one stop model re-characterized and reframed the process for both the student and the university. During the process of designing the audit process, the student services advisors shared stories of students who were subjected to the lengthy and often frustrating process of withdrawing from school under the traditional model. (Click here for a narrative case regarding such an experience). While the "official" notification is still required of the student, it is only required once. In reframing the process, the Student Services Council had agreed to accept the secondary notification from a student services advisor as the official notification, based on the assumption that the primary notification is already received directly from the student. We redefined for ourselves what "official" meant. We moved from the Doubting Thomas Model to the Trust and Share Model, wherein we allow ourselves to be a connected and collaborative team, trusting in the information provided to us by an agreed-upon source and allowing such information to trigger the necessary administrative steps to serve our students.
It was disconcerting to not be able to find the primary student notification for 6 of the withdrawal records that we audited. This issue, however, was mitigated by the fact that all of these students had either completed their exit interviews with the Account Resolution Office or a Leave of Absence Form with the Office of Financial Assistance. Their signatures on these other forms effectively served as their primary notification of intent to withdraw. This finding did reveal an outstanding risk in the process. In the past, such risk would have been mitigated by creating more layers of administrative steps, requiring the student to be engaged in more administrative activities to help us ensure the completeness and accuracy of our required information. Today, such risks can be mitigated through the sharing of information across functional lines as well as using available technology (i.e. scanning) to immediately capture information for storage in the student administrative system, thereby lessening the dependency on the manual process of filing and storing important data.
The one stop process allowed the student to be separated from the complex web of activities and allow her to serve as the trigger or catalyst which set into motion a series of critical adminstrative functions that are in place to facilitate the student's needs. The university takes responsibility for engaging the student in action rather than requiring the student to engage us, university staff, in action. (Click here for a narrative case which tells the story of what happens when the student is required to engage the university in action.)
Audit 30 student refunds:
The audit of these refunds revealed to me once again how labor intensive our processes are. Despite the complicated and cumbersome process, the OneStop advisor is able to simplify the process for the students. When the request is originated from the student to the OneStop advisor, it triggers a workflow process that is transparent to the student. The student is no longer required to travel from office to office to acquire information needed for the refund transaction to take place. The staff member utilizes the information available on the adminstrative system along with e-mail and phone communication to facilitate the refunding process. The disparate information databases within our current administrative systems require extensive manual interventions and multiple levels of information searches before a refund can be processed. As I re-calculated the refunds, it took me on average about 15 minutes to complete the process for each refund. A more integrated system with information readily available in one place, on one screen, would have simplified the process and lessen the amount of time needed for such processing. Performing this audit renewed my appreciation for the expertise of the staff members who regularly perform these tasks, who are able to quickly and effectively gather the necessary data to provide the students with complete and accurate information. I came away from this audit impressed with the ease of communication among the various home offices via e-mail and the thoroughness of documentation of communiques. Instead of sending the student back and forth between various home offices to get the needed information for exception processing, the OneStop advisor used the available communication tools and established working relationships to provide effective service to the students. It was heartening to find that within the 30 refunds, the only thing required of the student was the original request. From there, a myriad of communication, calculation, verification and approval process took place without the student's intervention or effort. Indeed, this process, although labor-intensive and at times very cumbersome for the staff members, is effective in meeting the students' needs for accurate and timely refund processing.
The one thing that was conspicuously absent from the current process is the formal notification to the student when the refund is available to be picked up or when it is mailed. This leaves the student fairly uncertain of when the check would be available. One thing for us to consider might be to flag the system once a check is generated to trigger an email to be sent to the student, notifying him/her of the availability of the check. This will require a COBOL program to be written which will integrate our student administrative system with our web portal and our email system. I will need to discuss this further with our programming department. In addition, our current systems do not allow for the direct deposit of students' refund checks. Although the technology is available for such a process, integrating new technology in our current system will require a significant investment of financial capital in new software and staff resources. Click here for further discussion of the direct deposit process of student refunds.
The overwhelmingly positive responses from the student surveys were indeed affirming to my assumption that the integrated method of delivering student services is effective in meeting the students' administrative needs. The adjectives that the students used in describing the OneStop personnel reflected a "personal feel" regarding what could be impersonal and complicated adminstrative processes. Connections are being made with the student in the "business" transactions of the educational experience. The student is no longer alone in her efforts to meet the adminstrative requirements for being a student at our institution; the University has become actively engaged in the process of information gathering, processing, and distributing. The workflow process has been put in place to serve the students' needs while providing for the University adminstrative needs at the same time.
The traditional model of student services is based on the assumption that administrative information is "deposited" by the student to disparate information banks, who then take such information and make it proprietary unto itself. When the student needs that information, she needs to visit the respective information bank and follow established steps to "borrow" that information. Since each bank is its own separate entity, there are no established channels for the sharing of proprietary information. It is up to the student to take her cache of information from bank to bank, depositing and borrowing from each, independent of the others.
The new paradigm of integrated services redefines the assumption of adminstrative functional offices. Rather than disparate information banks, they become connected accounts within the same bank. Information is deposited once and is used by the student over and over again. This model allows for a controlled but more flexible exchange and flow of information from one account (functional area) to another. The "cache of information" resides within the framework of the information bank and is available to be used by all "bank officers" as well as the depositor (the student).
The students have come to rely on the student services advisor to effectively serve as their information broker. They no longer are required to know all of the steps of the information flow in order to complete an adminstrative task. The focus of the service is meeting the needs of the student rather than the requisite compliance with established policy.
While we have made significant progress in simplifying the adminstrative processes for the student, there is still a need to address the need for pushing the information directly to the students so that they can more effectively engage themselves in these processes without the requirement of University intervention. Our current information systems are designed to meet the needs of the University, with the users group comprising mainly of administrative staff. Our students, who are more technologically proficient and who come to us with strong understanding of the affordances and capabilities that current information technology provides, are pushing us to design systems that better meet their needs and means of information access and processing. Indeed, we have attempted to meet those needs through the addition of various layers of web-enabled products and software along with peripheral administrative systems on top of our main information platform so that we can better deliver information to our students. But the vehicle by which information is delivered resembles more of a gypsy wagon than a sleek and modern vehicle that would better represent a top-tiered academic institution.
Efforts are underway to replace the Gypsy Wagon with a more up-to-date vehicle. It is an expensive and extremely difficult and involved process. But as we prepare for such a transforming shift, the integrated model of student services provides for a strong model of effective and efficient business process which upholds the student as the heart of the educational enterprise.
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