More and more state college systems are exploring or implementing consolidation and mergers among campuses. The landscape of higher education is changing and schools are looking for ways to stay relevant and profitable at a time when enrollment is rightsizing to pre-recession levels. States like Georgia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are leading this shift. But doing so can sometimes create a lot of concern around ensuring the best student experience throughout the student financial services journey.
How do you help people—students, staff, and the community at large—navigate this change? Communication is key. Regardless of whether there are 10 campuses that process student files locally, or 10 that process files centrally, your students are still the same people. As you look at the types of communications, information, or processes that are difficult or confusing to students today, you may need to identify different ways of overcoming those challenges within a consolidated system. Below are five things to think about for managing change while keeping students and staff engaged.
5 Tips for Better Communications When College Systems Consolidate
- Face-to-face interaction is not always scalable for centralized student financial services support. But we all know how important and effective it can be. Challenge yourself and your team to come up with innovative alternatives. Consider video conferencing, using Skype or ConexED with screen-share, to walk students through verification, financial aid awards, professional judgment, or billing questions.
The combination of video and screen sharing will enable you to review documents and answer questions in real time—almost as if the student was right there in your office. “FaceTiming” has become an everyday occurrence for many students; it gives them a sense of comfort in knowing that there’s a real person on the other end of the line. Students are likely to appreciate the (virtual) interaction.
- Communication is not limited to students. If you want to scale operations effectively, a good communications plan includes employees and leadership, too. As schools consolidate and resources are pooled, many offices will grow in size.
With this growth comes the need to ensure that communications are clear, directed at the right person, collaborative, and actionable. It’s important to keep everyone well informed before, during, and after consolidation.
- Use data to be more effective. Don’t manage on ‘gut feel’ alone. You need to use data to make strategic decisions. Knowing where you have effective student touchpoints or interactions is imperative for maximizing the results of a system-wide consolidation. A few best-practices suggestions:
+ Review document reject-rates by type and employee.
Your institution is a treasure trove of information. Use data collected on students as they travel through the student financial services journey—financial aid, admissions, and scholarship applications—and academics to develop a relevant, personalized change-management and communications strategy.
- Let technology do the work for you in the form of personalization and segmentation. Instead of having admissions, financial aid, student accounts, and academic advisors spend endless hours writing personalized emails to students, think about using an email/contact management system that uses logic for variability. Doing so frees up a lot of time so your staff can refocus its efforts on more high-touch interactions.
When I hear from someone who knows a little about me—and it shows in their emails to me—that goes a long way toward building trust and developing a relationship. Test this idea with your students. I’m willing to bet personalization will improve engagement.
Use technology that customizes next-step messaging, or missing information notices, based on outstanding tasks found in the student information system (SIS). For instance, say your data indicates that 75% of first-generation students in the county complete their master promissory note (MPN) but not their entrance counseling. Send those students a special notice with additional resources about the importance and ease of FAFSA completion—and remember to track the results.
- Eliminate variability. I know, you’re probably saying, ‘Wait a second—you just told me to create more personalized student communications.’ Not exactly; I said to create personalization that can be automated. When we’re talking about functions performed by staff members, you’ll increase accuracy while reducing keystrokes and cycle times by automating personalized communications.
The processes within student financial services can be very complex with extensive decision trees. But the nice thing about automation based on logic is that once you decide what rules you want followed, you can build those rules into email/contact management systems and create a high level of automation around document requirements, awarding, disbursing, and verification.
College Consolidation is an Opportunity to Rethink Processes—with a Personal Touch
Establishing an automated, personalized communications strategy allows for clear separation between frontline student support/counseling and backend processing—which may or may not be located anywhere near your campus. For schools that already have made the change to statewide consolidation, it’s helping them do so much more at scale.