Sometimes Plan A and Plan B need to be implemented simultaneously before you can determine which is the better way to go all along. Increasing enrollment and soaring numbers of financial aid recipients at Lakeland Community College (Ohio) had combined with plunging state support to place an enormous burden on support staff who simply couldn’t keep up with students’ requests for help during peak times. In 2011, Lakeland implemented a dual solution in hopes of serving students in a more timely fashion and freeing staff from spending too much of their day handling routine requests.
Plan A was to pull together a team of part-time employees seeking extra work during the summer and train them to answer general, frequently asked questions about financial aid and to look up a student’s financial aid status and inform her of next steps.
The plan had benefits, says Dawn Plante, chief communications officer and vice president for community and college relations, but they were limited. “The Student Success Team was effective in that we were able to cross-train employees from different departments to answer some of the basic financial aid questions,” Plante says. “However, we found we really needed more dedicated help to keep up with the enormous call volume we had.”
Plan B, launched alongside the establishment of the Student Success Team, was to outsource.
Lakeland contracted with Edfinancial Services to set up an external call center comprised of advisers with expertise in federal financial aid regulations and FERPA. They also were trained on the college’s policies and procedures. Lakeland financial aid staff could then concentrate efforts on processing tasks and more time-consuming inquiries; Edfinancial handled the more basic calls, referring students back to the college only if questions were too complex for its advisers to investigate and answer.
“When we started with the Student Success Team, the calls were coming in and the call center was getting the overflow,” recalls Melissa Amspaugh, director of financial aid and enrollment support. “We got so busy handling paperwork and students at the counter that, from mid-July through mid-September, the call center took all of our calls.”
During that peak time, Edfinancial handled nearly 9,000 Lakeland calls and had to bounce only 2 percent of them back to the college. Because staff had far fewer phone duties to tend to, email response time plunged, and in-person wait times fell from more than an hour in 2010 to less than 15 minutes last year. Finally, aid processing time also dropped, from three to four weeks at the height of the flood to two to three days last year.
“I wish we would have started two years ago,” Amspaugh says. “ was by far the worst financial aid peak season we ever had in terms of the number of complaints about not getting paperwork processed in a timely fashion.  was the best year I’ve ever had in my 25 years here.”