Published on 2015/06/12

Streamlining Operations to Better Serve Students: On Scholarships and Success

—With Brandon Phipps | Chief Executive Officer, AcademicWorks—

The EvoLLLution | Streamlining Operations to Better Serve Students: On Scholarships and Success
Streamlined, integrated systems that create seamless, engaging experiences for students are differentiators that can help colleges and universities stand out in the crowded and competitive higher education marketplace.

According to Fortune Magazine, approximately $100 million in scholarship funds go unused every year at colleges and universities across the United States. This in an era where the cost of higher education is more scrutinized than ever before. These funds are accessible to students, but the problem comes down to the service expectations of today’s learners. Institutions must work harder to meet students where they are, and to serve them as they want to be served. In this interview, Brent Gage and Brandon Phipps share their thoughts on how universities can create better access to these funds and, at a larger level, adapt their operations to meet the expectations of today’s savvy student-consumer.

Click here to read key takeaways.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the biggest challenges students face when it comes to finding, applying for and winning applicable scholarships?

Brent Gage (BG): The biggest challenge students face is in the scholarship finding phase. Is it a paper application that’s on a desk in a secretary’s office, or is it a form that’s buried 12 feet deep in a department website? Is it a centralized form that goes through a college office and gets sent down to departments?

Students that are a little more savvy or well connected can find the path to the application whereas there are a lot of students that are really disadvantaged by that process.

The other side of that coin is if you’re a department that has a very narrowly defined scholarship, sometimes it can be a challenge to find students that meet all the requirements.

It’s a challenge for both sides of the equation when scholarship management is really decentralized and there is no one point of contact to see what students might be eligible for.

Brandon Phipps (BP): Creating a very streamlined process that students can understand, that allows them to be considered for everything, helps from that utilization perspective as well as levels the playing field.

BG: This also helps to negate the possibility of 100 students who do not meet the qualifications of an award applying for that scholarship. That can take a tremendous amount of time in the awarding of a scholarship if you have people apply who don’t meet the criteria.

Evo: Approximately how much scholarship funding goes unclaimed every year?

BP: It’s hard to say. The process is so decentralized it’s difficult to even identify the number of scholarship funds that a bigger campus might have. A lot of our clients can’t even answer that question prior to the implementation of AcademicWorks. The numbers we’ve heard from different industry studies can be as high as 40 percent. Typically most campuses do a very good job of utilizing their scholarship funds but we’ve had several clients that have increased their utilization rate by 7 to 10 percent just through implementation.

Evo: Are administrators actively looking for ways to make the scholarship process more efficient or is it often a struggle to get them to understand the value?

BP: Since the process is so distributed across the entire campus, we often wind up doing presentations where there are 50-100 individual scholarship administrators involved in the decision making process and in many cases the concerns revolve around the process change. We designed the system in such a way that we’d still have a lot of autonomy in terms of setting up their individual scholarship requirements, application processes, deadline dates, review processes and scoring/review processes.

BG: This is such a common problem that exists in larger college campuses. By definition we’re a loosely coupled system. The economics department doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what goes on in the philosophy department or the admissions office. We want to create a process that is navigable for students, that’s intuitive and helps them really understand what opportunities there are without going on a search through hundreds of websites or trekking into 20 different offices on campus. It’s really a way to bring the scholarship application and selection process from an outdated business process to what students expect within the way they ask for data and information.

Evo: Why did the University of Iowa decide to work with a partner on this service rather than build a similar product in-house?

BG: Before I arrived at the University of Iowa, a group had been charged to try to address this problem because they were having trouble effectively managing scholarships and they had approached IT about building a solution. I wanted to bring in AcademicWorks and have them show the tool that they developed and look and see if this might be a fit for us. Upon doing so, the team in IT clearly indicated it would be very difficult to build and replicate a software or tool that had the level of functionality the system had and it would certainly be significantly more costly.

BP: At an institution like the University of Iowa, you may have 25,000 to 30,000 student records getting updated on a nightly basis. That information needs to be combined with the student scholarship application data and used to match those students against the scholarships. Since that data is changing all the time and there are so many different scholarship administrators across campus, in order to have the most current data to ensure that students are actually being matched properly, you really have to run this process every evening. For a campus individually to try to create that process, they would have to create stacks and stacks of servers allocated to this one specific function whereas we can leverage the cloud and a much broader customer base to solve this fairly complex problem.

Evo: How will the university benefit from creating more access to scholarships for its students?

BG: At the University of Iowa, it’s the simple notion of trying to provide one-stop solutions and self-service for students. Another way it helps, from the enrollment management perspective, is I can see when college departments are leveraging their scholarship dollars in the cycle to help promote students choosing the University of Iowa or students being retained at the University of Iowa.

BP: We also see scholarships, from an institutional advancement perspective, tend to be the first donation that a donor makes. An endowed scholarship fund can often be a precursor to having a broader donation to the campus. Making sure that that the scholarship is utilized (and utilized in a compliant fashion), as well as ensuring that the donor receives some acknowledgment and can monitor the impact that their donation has had over time, is incredibly important to stewarding that relationship. This allows the institution to continually go back to that donor in the future for additional funding.

Evo: How much of a differentiator are tools that allow students to manage their own bureaucratic processes, when it comes to enrollments and retention?

BG: It makes a big difference because that’s the level of expectation that students have. They’re used to dealing hands-on and doing things online at 2 a.m. The notion of them having to take a form and walk over to this building and get a signature is really a foreign construct to them. It shows that the institution is doing what it can in the best interest of the student.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of the self-service tools when it comes to ensuring that students are satisfied and having a positive and engaging experience at the institution?

BP: One of the things we set out when we built the AcademicWorks product was not just to create a basic online application form, but to really offer an integrated solution that pulled existing data from students’ data records and allowed them to log in using their existing campus credentials so that the system could play well within the confines of the existing campus architecture. Students could apply for scholarships without having to reenter their same demographic data that they filled in during the admissions process.

Any time you can streamline that process by leveraging the existing systems and existing data in place, it’s certainly going to be a big win for students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • Institutional leaders are looking to tools that streamline bureaucratic processes and reduce burdens on students as major differentiators.

  • Systems that can leverage pre-existing systems and information to create a more seamless experience for students are expected by today’s savvy student.

  • Improving scholarship management creates positive impacts in internal efficiency, fundraising and philanthropy, enrollment management, and student retention and success.
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