A better flow

Units come together to leverage services and better assist students with financial aid

One-Stop

UND One-Stop Student Services, Student Account Services and Student Financial Aid have spearheaded two process improvement projects that will help them better utilize student data and enhance their staff collaboration. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

When you ask UND One-Stop Relations Manager Matt Lukach and Student Account Operations Manager Chelsea Larson how long they’ve been talking about joining forces with Student Financial Aid, you might not get a straight answer.

It’s been a while – since back when the students they work with were into Grumpy Cat and Jersey Shore.

“How long ago did it happen?” Lukach asked as they both chuckled.

Larson thought for a moment. “Seven years ago? Eight years ago?”

“We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” Lukach smiled.

Those early discussions are finally taking shape as the two leaders, joined by Student Financial Aid Director Janelle Kilgore, develop a new way to integrate all three service entities into a more cohesive unit that more efficiently and effectively serves students.

One-Stop, Student Account Services and Student Financial Aid have spearheaded two process improvement projects that will help them better utilize student data and enhance their staff collaboration. The work started last fall after budget challenges forced the restructuring of positions within the units.

“We were really trying to rethink what One-Stop should be, what kind of services they should be offering and how that connects with the operations side of Financial Aid and Student Account Services,” Larson said. “It was an opportunity to start looking at things differently.”

Digging the data

One of the biggest barriers the offices are looking to overcome is lingering student account balances. In an average semester, 800 students owe at least $3000 – that’s around $2 million in debt to the University at any given time. One-Stop and Student Account Services have been using personal communications to reach out to these students, but they need a way to more effectively leverage staff resources.

UND Finance and Operations Project Manager Lisa Earls, who has been working with the team as a process facilitator, said the first step is understanding where students are getting stuck in the process. From there, they can find ways to keep the students paid up, in classrooms, and earning diplomas as laid out in the One UND Strategic Plan.

“We need to facilitate so we’re not losing students due to debt or having them withdraw because of financial burden.  We want to make sure students are successful,” Earls said. “The data piece fits into that. We’re looking at it in a new way. We have hundreds of spreadsheets with information, but we’ve never seen it in one place where we can go, ‘Hey, if I move this indicator, something can change here.’”

The UND crew is working with a consulting firm to build a data visualization tool that will allow staff to look at those student factors – such as their program, if and when they have applied for or declined financial aid, if they have enrolled or are reenrolling, etc. – to guide the focus of their efforts.

“This helps us target students a little bit earlier,” Kilgore said. “We can say, here are some attributes that are happening within certain populations we see are struggling, so hopefully we can combat that earlier so they have a better transition into the University.”

UND One-Stop Student Services is just as the name implies -- a first stop for students and families to ask questions about financial aid and billing. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

UND One-Stop Student Services is just as the name implies — a first stop for students and families to ask questions about financial aid and billing. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

Team empowerment

The student services teams are also engaged in a second project – redeveloping how the three teams work in harmony. The initial physical action was moving the Student Account Services staff down the hall to join Student Financial Aid in Twamley 216.

“Just to be working in the same environment is going to at least get those first conversations started about what we’re doing and how we’re impacting each other,” Larson said, adding that any other changes would be looked at after the fall semester, when she, Kilgore, and Lukach will examine job duties and what makes sense for potential further reorganization.

“We’re open to anything,” said Lukach, whose One-Stop team will remain in the Memorial Union for now. “We’re open to changing names, we’re open to changing structure – all things are on the table.”

This openness to change is something that VP for Finance and Operations Alice Brekke, a co-sponsor of this project along with UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo, knows will empower staff to voice ways things can be done differently. And empowerment is contagious.

“It’s a first step from the perspective of our ability to demonstrate to ourselves what it takes to really dig in and analyze and orchestrate change in a fashion that makes sense,” Brekke said. “In that way, it is a pilot.”

Continuous improvement

Once the teams start harnessing the power of data visualization, more projects for process improvement will emerge. Scheduled report outs will be one way of communicating to campus stakeholders how the plan is coming together.

“The report outs are an opportunity to demonstrate that this isn’t being done behind closed doors,” Brekke said. “The hope is they will generate some interest, and get people to think, ‘Could I do something like that in my area?’”

Kilgore said ultimately, they want to create a structure in which students can go to one place for all things finance – taking the guesswork out of who to call for help. She urges students and families to contact One-Stop first for any financial aid or billing questions.

“This is becoming more of a national topic of conversation, so it’s fun that we’re on the front edge of those conversations,” Kilgore said. “We’re creating that one element in which we have trained staff who are all answering questions in whatever is needed.”

“Students do view us as One UND, whether we’ve been functioning that way or not,” Larson added. “So we’re physically removing those silos, so that it’s not just a student perception that we’re one, but that we are actually functioning as one.”