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Adult markets can be well served; chaos doesn't have to ensue as Student Services tries to attend two populations.

IN RECENT YEARS, STUDENT SERVICE OFFICES (FINANCIAL AID, Registrar, Student Billing, etc.) at a growing number of private IHEs have found themselves stretching to serve two very different populations. The primary population is that relatively constant-sized group of traditional-age students in a liberal-arts-focused undergraduate college. The other is the rapidly growing number of adult students in graduate or degree-completion programs, often taught in cohort groups at satellite campuses, and/or online. The benefits of serving both populations are clear: more efficient use of resources, and significant infusions of revenue from new markets. Yet, the challenges of serving such disparate populations with very different needs are frequently underestimated. As a result, many of these institutions are experiencing infrastructure stress and deterioration in customer service that impacts both their traditional student base, as well as the rapidly growing adult market.

Challenge: Lagging staffing levels. Of course, there are a number of factors contributing to this state of affairs. In some cases, staffing levels have not kept pace with growing volumes. A useful toot for assessing the adequacy of the financial aid staff size is the NASFAA staffing model, available to NASFAA members via www.nasfaa.org. This predictive model was based on responses to a nationwide staffing survey conducted in 1999. It enables institutions to enter volume-related information (e.g., dollars spent in various programs, number of students applying for aid, total enrollees, etc.) and receive a projection of average staff size based on those data. Although other offices (Student Accounts and Registrar) do not have similar toots available, benchmarking with like-size institutions will provide information on whether staffing levels are sufficient.

Challenge: Administering off-schedule programs. Another contributing factor is the complexity of administering programs that may not follow the standard academic schedule. A growing number of adult programs (both at undergrad and graduate levels) are moving to a cohort-based approach to education, often accompanied by cohort-driven term start and end dates. In extreme cases, each cohort that starts can be on a different academic calendar. As a result, each has a different schedule for registering, disbursing aid, grading, billing, etc. The available technology on the market typically does not handle such complexity well particularly when the institution has not established protocols for standardization. (For-profit institutions tend not to have the same issues because, although they are often cohort-based, those cohorts typically must adhere to a clearly defined set of guidelines.) In addition, at some IHEs, cohort schedules can change frequently in response to the needs of the particular cohort. In cases where these changes result in a term that crosses academic years or in changes to the credit hours taken during the academic period, financial aid budgets and packages may need to be recalculated for everyone in the cohort. The result is often confusion, an increased volume of phone calls, more errors, and deterioration in customer service.

Varying customer need/expectation. Finally, offices are sometimes hard-pressed to respond equally well to the different customer needs and expectations of the two populations being served (e.g., time of day for service delivery, amenities, policies that treat adults as adults). This is exacerbated when the education occurs at a distance from the main campus. Site coordinators-often the only administrators seen by regional students--are typically ill-equipped to answer questions about everything from registration and degree requirements to financial aid eligibility, yet the questions come to them, at least initially.

Solutions. So what are IHEs in this situation doing to address these challenges? Some are designating staff to focus on adult students, or even setting up two separate Student Services units: one to serve traditional undergraduates, and one to focus on adult students. In the most successful of these models, however, much of the processing (especially in financial aid compliance functions) continues to be performed in a centralized manner. Regardless of the organizational model, however, there are three key elements to success:

One--The faculty must be willing to impose discipline on the establishment of cohorts to ensure a limited number of different academic calendars, and limited midcourse changes in the original academic schedule for the cohort.

Two--IT and user offices need to work together to ensure full utilization of the existing student system. Full utilization should include providing training and query access to key financial aid, billing, and registration screens in the student system for all staff who are likely to field questions from students. It should also include the ongoing creation and sharing of management reports, using the system to automate and systematize communications with prospective and current students, and providing self-service opportunities for prospective and current students to conduct business over the Web.

Three--Staffing levels must be sufficient to handle the new demands placed on Student Services offices as a result of both increased complexity as well as increased enrollments.

Non-traditional markets can be a rich source of prospective students and enhanced revenue. They are not a "free good," however. IHEs need to adjust resources and business practices to new needs, or they'll risk of exposing all of their markets to poor service.

Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell, Scannell & Kurz, Inc., are enrollment management consultants; they regularly pen our "On the Money" column. Visit their Web site at (www.scannellkurz.com).
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Title Annotation:Controversy
Author:Scannell, Jim
Publication:University Business
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:868
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