Automation for Improved Productivity

Financial Aid Office, Capella University
Honoree: 
Capella University
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Capella University’s financial aid office faces challenges few other higher institutions do. Unlike universities with traditional four-year students, Capella serves a population of 39,000 students with an average age of 39 and work and family responsibilities that can interfere with their studies. Capella learners are more likely to start and stop their degree pursuits. And with each change in enrollment status comes a need to change financial aid status. Prior to 2009, a single financial aid adjustment took only 15 minutes to process, but 15 days to get to.

Mike Nylund, director of financial aid, believed that was too long a wait. Partnering with process engineers, the IT department, and consultants, Capella’s financial aid office worked to automate processes that were previously manual. The goal was to improve turnaround times on financial aid adjustments, as well as accuracy.

Under the old system, which was run on PeopleSoft and implemented in 2008, individual financial aid staff members would log into the ERP system, query work to be completed and download it to their own computers for completion. Without set standards and performance expectations, explains Nylund, “it was difficult to provide expectations to learners of how quickly things should get done.”

So in 2009, the financial aid office decided to redesign its work process, taking a cross-functional approach in an effort to improve service quality and provide an overall better experience to both learners and staff. Nylund reports that they looked at technology, process, and people, in that order. Several high-impact projects were quickly identified and implemented.

Today, more than 80 percent--over 50,000--of all financial aid award adjustments are automated.

The first was automating the daily exchange between the Department of Education and Capella and the second was automating financial aid award adjustments. “The experts told me, ‘There is no way you can automate award adjustments,’” says Nylund, but, fortunately, he would not be dissuaded. He knew there had to be a way, and he was right. Today, more than 80 percent of all financial aid award adjustments are automated, or more than 50,000 since the project’s launch in 2010; the remaining 20 percent continue to be handled manually. The time required to process such adjustments fell from 15 days to one day, thanks to the new automation.

A new work distribution tool helped manage work volume, converting from a pull strategy, where employees query available work and claim it, to a push approach, where “all work is compiled into a single inventory, which is then prioritized and distributed to financial aid processors,” says Nylund. This conversion resulted in a savings of two full-time staff positions valued at approximately $80,000 per year.

In addition to using Oracle’s PeopleSoft, the financial aid office also implemented a workforce management solution by IEX, called TotalView, which is frequently used in call centers. TotalView “gives an accurate view of capacity,” explains Nylund, which helps ensure “staff members aren’t under- or overworked.”

The one-two punch of TotalView’s workforce management tool and Capella’s work distribution tool helped the financial aid office improve its productivity by 13 percent in the last six months alone. ?M.L.T.