Five Ways to Serve Students by Increasing Transparency

Recognizing the need to help more students stay on track to degree completion, various stakeholders across higher education are looking for ways to give students clearer roadmaps to the end goal. One such effort comes from the U.S. Department of Education. Recently, the department unveiled the Shopping Sheet, a standardized financial aid award document that includes tools for calculating the cost of the student’s educational path. While institutions’ use of the sheet is voluntary, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sent a letter to college presidents urging them to adopt it. In that letter, Duncan states, “Our goal is that more students will arrive at school each fall less worried about how they will pay for college and more focused on how they will complete college.”

While I’m not convinced the Shopping Sheet will be in wide use by the kickoff year of 2013-14 (see the lukewarm initial feedback from some financial aid officers), I applaud any effort intended to help students keep their eyes on the prize. And, I see financial aid as just one of several areas in which students would benefit from a clearer picture of what it will take – academically and financially as well as in terms of time. Others include enrollment services more broadly defined to include admissions, registration, advising and billing.

So, to echo the service-minded intentions of the Shopping Sheet, I offer five additional ways to help increase student visibility into the processes and steps critical to successfully navigating the path to degree completion. These processes and steps are mostly on the administrative side, where students are best served when views of the machinery and organizational complexity behind the scenes are kept at a minimum, yet views into financial and academic status are easily and intuitively accessible.

1. Share document tracking checklists (showing documents required, received, not yet submitted) on a student-facing portal. Don’t make students wonder about documents you’ll need for admissions processing, financial aid verification, transfer credit evaluation, course registration, and so on. Work to keep those lists current – updating them in real-time, if possible.

2. Update your student information system (SIS) with receipt of required documents and the status of pending decisions in a timely fashion – again, in real-time, if possible. Also, be sure your document management system allows for instant retrieval of received documents directly from SIS screens. When a student calls any of the enrollment-side offices to check on the receipt of a submitted document or the status of a decision, you’ll want staff to answer questions quickly and accurately on the first call.

3. Move forward with “one-stop shop” and student self-service initiatives. Make sure that staff working your one-stop counters has secure, electronic access to cross-department documents. You’ll want to stop relying on campus mail, photocopying and office-to-office phone searches to share or track down documents. And, you’ll want version control of documents available to staff at one-stop counters.

4. Present bills online. A complement to the Shopping Sheet, which guides students’ understanding of how they’ll pay for their education, online billing provides a convenient way for them to stay on top of what they owe and when they’ll need to pay it to stay enrolled.

5. Arm advisors and registration staff with accurate, up-to-date degree audit information. To keep students on track to an on-time graduation (and not waste financial aid dollars on the wrong or redundant courses), make sure the view of certificate or program completion is crystal clear. I describe this in more detail in a post specifically focused on superior advising.

Like cost calculators such as the Shopping Sheet, the five service-oriented recommendations I’ve outlined above will help your institution provide students with fast, accurate answers in convenient, highly visible ways. As Secretary Duncan states, in describing the need to provide students and parents with clearer insight into education costs, “It starts with transparency.”

Tom von Gunden

Tom von Gunden directs Hyland’s market research, strategy and advisory initiatives in higher education. Tom holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University and spent more than a dozen years in higher education, serving as a tenured university professor, program director and accreditation specialist. His deep understanding of best practices in deploying ECM (enterprise content management) capabilities comes not only from his direct involvement in system implementations in colleges and universities, but also from his prior work as chief editor of Web and print publications focused on ECM and data storage technologies.

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