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Power to the People: The Wide Impact of Administrative Self-Service in Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Power to the People: The Wide Impact of Administrative Self-Service in Higher Education
While technology is enabling business offices to do more with less, it’s important for both staff and students to understand the policies and practices that are crucial to its effective use.

Technology is fundamentally changing the way people conduct business, and higher education is not immune to its influence. Students aren’t standing in line to pay for courses anymore—it now happens with the click of a button. Yet progress is not always linear. Innovations meant to help students manage their own financial accounts can actually make the process more complicated.

In this interview Christine Blakney discusses some of the common roadblocks students face when registering and paying for courses online, and offers her insights on how business services offices can help to overcome them.  

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the benefits of letting students manage their own account balances and payments online?

Christine Blakney (CB): This generation of students has only known immediate access to information via the internet—with around-the-clock access to virtually. It just makes sense that our universities—which should be on the leading edge of technology and education—would offer that ease of access as well.

Meeting this expectation can also greatly improve the efficiency of our business operations due to the decrease in hands-on processing. Since many business offices are being challenged to do more with fewer staff, providing resources that allow the student to manage their account directly helps us to meet that goal.

A growing number of students are also considered non-traditional, which means they are no longer coming directly to college from high school. Many are attending college while working and raising a family and may not be able to address issues with their student account during typical office hours. By making access to student accounts available around the clock, students can make payments, enroll in payment plans, consult FAQs and send inquiries at times that fit their lifestyle.

By providing virtually unlimited access for students to manage their student accounts, universities are not only providing quality customer service, they are improving the efficiency of their operations and meeting the expectations of our students.

Evo: What are the most common obstacles students face when it comes to account and payment management?

CB: In many cases, a student is not the person that is actually managing the financial aspects of their college enrollment. While the prevailing standard at universities has been to allow the student to assign an authorized user access to their student financial account, there are regulatory issues that both the student and the institution must navigate.

The Family Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provides guidelines and restrictions on access to student information. When a parent wishes to manage the financial aspect, we often encounter a very unhappy customer if we explain that we cannot release any student information when there is no FERPA authorization on file.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records. The law applies to all schools that receive funds under an applicable program of the U.S. Department of Education.

FERPA gives parents certain rights with respect to their children’s education records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she reaches the age of 18 or attends a school beyond the high school level. Students to whom the rights have transferred are “eligible students.”

Assigning authorized user access does not necessarily provide business offices the ability to answer any question that the user may ask. Financial transactions on a student account are inherently tied to their academic record. While we can generally discuss anything that the user can view on the student financial account, without a FERPA authorization on file we are prevented from providing detailed information that could inadvertently reflect the student’s academic status or activities.

It can also be difficult to ensure students and their authorized users are aware of all available tools and resources. Every fall we encounter a new cohort of students, and some returning students, who insist on visiting the office to manage their student financial account. During these peak periods, wait times can be in the two- or three-hour range. While we offer a text-from-home solution, we may have over a hundred students and family members waiting in our lobby for their number to be called. Many times, once we are able to assist them, we advise them of the online resources available and they are understandably frustrated that they made the effort to visit the office. We always see a drastic reduction to our in-office visits during the spring term since the users are now aware of those online resources.

Another common obstacle revolves around simply providing access. There are so many browsers, apps and computer settings, it becomes challenging for business offices to ensure access to their online tools is not adversely impacted by various user settings.

Evo: How can business service offices work to help students overcome these obstacles?

CB: While the business office is generally not the office responsible for collection of FERPA authorizations, our staff should understand the requirements of that form and also have the form available to assist student who wish to defer their financial account management to another person. At Texas Tech, we also have a notary in our business office to facilitate getting a properly executed form from the student.

Business offices should make every effort to educate new students on the resources available to them, whether it be the text-in feature to lessen their wait time or the online payment portal. Making sure the users are aware of these options results in much higher customer satisfaction. Providing information during orientation is critical but honestly, students and parents are inundated with so much information during those days, even a simple concept about how to login and pay the bill can get forgotten.

Providing computer support presents a more unique challenge to business office staff. That is definitely not a job function that we would be experts at. But there is an ever-increasing need for our staff to be able to provide basic computer assistance when a student or authorized user is having trouble accessing their account. If the problem is difficult, we do have an IT help line. But if business office staff can answer the basic questions, it just improves our level of service and efficiency.

Evo: Where’s the line between a human touch and technology when it comes to supporting students?

CB: Anytime you can put student account management directly in the hands of your students you will gain efficiency in your operations and make your staff resources available for other tasks. If you are fortunate enough to be able to automate and still retain your current staffing levels, you can increase staff training level so they can perform more complex tasks than simply taking payments or answering student questions.

The difficulty in making student account management completely self-sufficient lies in the fact that we still serve several generations and not everyone trusts, or is willing to utilize technology to manage their finances. While many offices have gone cashless in an effort to move all payment transactions to an online function, you increase the hassle for students who are determined to pay in cash.

Also, while systems strive to be user-friendly, we will always encounter users who either have technology related issues or may fail to follow instructions in using those resources. Creating effective training materials — and keeping them up to date — takes time and money. These requirements will negatively impact the gains you receive from having fewer staff involved with in-person transactions.

As with all advancements, there becomes a trade-off between what you gain and what it truly costs an organization to implement and maintain those resources.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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