New financial aid customer service strategies working

financial aid counseling
Students meet with WSU financial aid counselors during their scheduled appointments.
PULLMAN, Wash. – The scene outside the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships (OFAS) is vastly different from this time last year. There is no line.
“It really surprised me not so see a line,” said Washington State University freshman Shelby Eide, who said she heard horror stories about last year from her brother, a WSU senior.
The first couple of weeks of classes traditionally hit the OFAS staff hard as thousands of students converge to check on their financial aid status or submit documents. Last fall, glitches with implementation of the student information portal added to the challenge. The result was a long line of students outside the OFAS for many days.
But staff began to address problems even before the end of the challenging fall 2012 semester. So far, their hard work during the winter, spring and summer months appears to be working.
“We know that time is of the essence for each student awaiting their financial aid,” said Sally Texter, assistant vice president for enrollment information technology.
Cougar Connectors
Cougar Connectors Amy Musbaum and Bruce Jones help
students Kathryn Atkinson and Fletcher Bailey make online
appointments to see financial aid counselors.

Although the OFAS will never be able to have all financial aid processed during the first week of classes – in part because some students wait until then to apply or submit documents – new customer service strategies are improving efficiency for students and their families. These include:

* An online financial aid appointment system, the FinAid Scheduler (, so students need not wait in long lines.
* WSU students serving as Cougar Connectors who help drop-in students make an appointment, navigate the student information portal and find other resources.
* Additional staff trained to handle calls and emails, as well as collaboration with supporting offices.
* A redesigned website.
* Streamlined processing of scholarships with a new website.
Financial aid appointments
The enrollment information technology team and OFAS client services created a customized financial aid appointment system. Instead of showing up at the OFAS and waiting for an available counselor, students can schedule an appointment when it is convenient for them.
Financial aid counselors are better prepared to address specific needs when students arrive, resulting in a more efficient session. 
“Using the FinAid Scheduler is so much better than waiting in line and it’s easy to use,” said Eide.
Freshman Cayla Blakeney agreed: “All you have to do is find a time that works for you, click it and it’s set. Once you arrive for your appointment, everything goes pretty fast.”
Students helping students
Students unaware of the FinAid Scheduler who drop by the OFAS hoping to see a counselor are directed across the hall to the admissions office where a bank of computers has been temporarily installed. WSU student Cougar Connectors introduce them to a “check-in” form that captures the reason for their visit and also helps them make an online appointment if one is needed.
Nearly 2,000 students without appointments have visited the OFAS since Aug. 12, including 962 stopping in during Week of Welcome and 978 in the first three days of classes. The idea behind the check-in strategy is to acknowledge the students, record who they are, when and why they visited and assist them as much as possible – even without an appointment.
In many cases, students end up not needing to meet with a financial aid counselor. Many questions can be answered by phone, email and through self-help information available to them on the redesigned website.
“Having the data behind all visits, including those with and without appointments, will help us be more strategic in our communications to students and in prioritizing tasks needed to support the financial aid effort each year,” said Texter.
Staff training, collaboration
Additional staff have been trained to handle the large number of calls and emails. The wait for a professional to pick up calls has been greatly reduced compared to last year.
“On the first two days of classes alone, we handled 2,615 calls and 500 emails were received,” said Chio Flores, OFAS director. “About 475 students had appointments and were seen by counselors.”
Collaboration with and support of offices outside the OFAS – such as admissions, enrollment IT and the enterprise systems group (ensuring student information portal readiness for financial aid packaging, awarding and disbursement) – has been critical to success.
Redesigned website
As part of the redesigned website, an improved email submission form helps students craft messages to the OFAS in a way that will clarify questions and speed up the turn-around time for assistance.
“Students receive a customized email that provides resources to help them with their questions,” Flores said. 
A new “Document Uploader” lets students submit required documents electronically, as opposed to mailing, faxing or dropping them off in person. More than 5,400 documents have been uploaded.
Streamlined scholarships
A new Web-based system, the scholarships and resources authorization site (SARAS), allows departments across campus to authorize scholarships and other financial resources online, greatly reducing the amount of paper being handled in the OFAS. Since implementation of SARAS, more than 2,700 departmental scholarships and 1,800 departmental waivers have been uploaded to the system.