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Will Customer Service Suffer as Colleges Eliminate Staff?

Higher ed institutions like UW-Madison, Guilford College and Elizabethtown College are eliminating staff and faculty in response to budget cuts.

If financial aid department employees are among those lost, an already thin staff may be stretched to close to breaking. According to a NASFAA survey, 60% of financial aid administrators report that their offices are not adequately staffed  and 63% believe their budgets are not adequate to provide needed services to students.

In under-budget and under-staffed  financial aid departments, how will staff deliver the level of customer service that students expect? How will schools meet enrollment and student persistence goals with a financial aid staff that can’t possibly keep up with student demands?

Current Student Expectations

The majority of current college students are Millennials or of Generation Z. Both generations have grown up in an age with computers, when processes like connecting across the globe happens instantly. They are not patient. And they’re not likely to become patient, because the world and its infinite processes are getting faster and faster.

Both generations also have very high standards for how companies and brands (including your school’s) interact with them. If they don’t like what a company has to say, they take to social media in an indignant hailstorm. They’re also more likely to sing praises for the companies they do like, as they highly value their own and others personal experiences with companies. This is why excellent customer service at your school is a vital priority.

Great customer service to Millennials and Generation Z-ers, means a few things:

It’s fast. Like even-faster-than-the-previous-sentence-fast.

It’s self-service. They don’t want to wait for someone to guide them to a decision. They want to have all the facts laid out and be given the option to decide and act on their own.

It’s digital or at least has the option of being digital. Given the option, today’s student will choose to complete a process on a smartphone over mailing or faxing, no question. And wouldn’t you? Not getting off the couch sounds much easier than getting off the couch.

It’s 24/7. Millennials, and especially Generation Z, were raised in the era of 24/7 chat support. Have a question about your Macbook at 2am? No problem, Apple chat is standing by just waiting for the opportunity to help you.

It’s personal. Millennials want to feel like they’re a part of something, and they want to feel like brands are backed by humans. Read content written for young people – it’s all about “us” and “together” and being part of an organization’s mission.

How do you accomplish all of this with reduced staff, time and money?

Do More With Less

Software enables people to get more done with fewer resources. Just ask small business owners who use Quickbooks, marketers who use BufferApp and any American tax payer who has used TurboTax. Businesses small and large use automated software programs to save time and money. Colleges and universities are no different. Once upon a time, all college processes were handled with paper and pen; now there isn’t a higher ed institute out there that doesn’t utilize a student information system (SIS). More and more higher ed institutions are turning to software products to improve enrollment, class counseling, career services and in-classroom education.

But do these software solutions work?

Does Software Improve Schools’ Customer Service?

The short answer is yes.

Well-crafted, smart software does indeed help schools improve service for their students, as well as meet institutional goals such as lowering student over-borrowing, increasing enrollment and reducing operational costs.

Fullerton College used automated verification software to vastly improve their customer service. They took their verification processing time from nearly 6 weeks during peak season to as little as 48 hours with the StudentVerification platform – that’s a 95% reduction. Impatient students were suddenly afforded the ability to complete the verification process quickly online with a safe, easy-to-use student portal. And yes, they could do it all from a mobile phone or tablet.

With staff spending a fraction of the previous allotted verification time, Fullerton College was able to reduce operation costs by 50%. Staff previously dedicated to the tedious cat-and-mouse of tracking down students to complete verification were able to spend that time actually counseling students. Read the case study here.

Another form of customer service is empowering customers to make the best decisions for their future. I see conversations occurring everywhere from The New York Times to the Financial Aid listserv about the unnecessary debt students are taking on during their high education. Empowering begins with education; yet again, how is an overworked financial aid staff supposed to find the time to sit down and go over all the jargon and information students must sift through to make a responsible borrowing decision? There simply isn’t the time.

But that may be okay. We discussed self-service above. The youth of today will use information to make a decision on their own, if that information is:

1. Readily available and

2. Presented in an interesting format, such as video or interactive media.

Paper award letters do not meet the criteria. AwardLetter, a digital and dynamic award notification platform, does. Just ask WGU.

Western Governors University (WGU) incorporated AwardLetter into its Responsible Borrowing Initiative. Instead of simply putting a maximum borrowing amount in front of students, WGU award letters featured a suggested borrowing figure that calculated the student’s expected expenses for tuition and fees less any grants and scholarships. Though students still had the option to borrow the full amount, 75% took the lower, recommended amount of aid.

Since the 2013 launch of the Responsible Borrowing Initiative, WGU students borrowing has decreased by 29%, even while the school’s enrollment increased by 18%.

That means that even while financial aid staff was servicing up to 18% more students, they were still able to help the student body borrow less through the use of technology. Read more about WGU’s resounding success here on Yahoo Finance.

Budget Cuts Don’t Have to Mean Cutting Out the Important Stuff

The schools above aren’t the only ones who will have to make the painful decision to lay off staff in light of budget cuts. If the right tactics are employed, some schools will be able to keep staff. For those who cannot, they can rely on modern technology to deliver a better customer service experience across campus, in the hopes that enrollment and student retention will bloom as a result.