Every year, more than 80,000 students attend Penn State University in hopes of pursuing their goals and dreams. Unfortunately, with unprecedented tuition increases, decreases in government funding and a slumping economy, getting an education becomes more difficult every year.
According to the United States Department of Education, sixty-four percent of students attending four-year public colleges and universities require financial aid. To apply for aid, Penn State students must complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and are encouraged to use “FAFSA on the Web.” Following submission, applications are electronically sent to Penn State’s Office of Student Aid at the University Park campus. Students are then prompted to complete different processes and asked to provide documentation, if needed. Award notifications are sent directly from the Office of Student Aid to all new students through the U.S. mail beginning in March. Returning and graduate students are notified through email in mid-June.
Prior to the 1996-97 academic year, documents were out-sourced yearly to be microfilmed. With the interest in imaging, hard copies of student files were stored off-site for 1996-97 through 1999-2000 academic years. Both options proved to be very expensive processes. Manual sorting, filing and retrieving paper documents were extremely time-consuming as well. To address these challenges, the Office of Student Aid began evaluating Optical Image Technology’s (OIT) DocFinity® Imaging system. In 1999, Penn State purchased a DocFinity global license to address the document management challenges in various departments of the university.
The Office of Student Aid, Application and Eligibility Services (OSA/AES) Team, which processes the largest volume of paper documents, was the first area in the office to implement the imaging system. OIT worked with Ed Hinkle, Network Analyst in Student Aid, to address the challenges associated with scanning and indexing files, including customizing the batch indexing feature. Every area of the office now utilizes the DocFinity system.
Once the OAS/AES Team was comfortable working with the system, the office began to scan the three academic years of stored documents. To tackle this issue, all staff were trained to use the new software and assisted with the project. This allowed staff to become familiar with the imaging process before having to use it in their daily tasks. The system now electronically stores all student files beginning with the 1996-97 academic year as well as manuals, brochures, journals, reports and other files dating back to the 1984-1985 academic year.
The Office of Student Aid has two scanners to handle the volume of documents received daily through the U.S. Postal Service. Most documents are scanned up front before any action is taken by staff. All mail is typically scanned and indexed within a 24-hour period. Once a document is scanned, the paper is retained for thirty days for quality assurance and then destroyed.
Typically, 50,000 student documents are imaged a year. 18,000 of these documents are Federal Tax Returns, W-2 Forms, etc. and are collected for a process called verification. Once verification documents are received, the Penn State Integrated Student Information System (ISIS) is noted at the same time documents are scanned and indexed. The next day a report is produced and the review is completed. Other documents are imaged and staff are notified via email to an area message board allowing for immediate processing to take place. This up-front scanning and use of the DocFinity IntraVIEWER® allows the office to speed up the office processes by decreasing document lag time and providing all staff, including Penn State’s twenty-two locations, immediate access to documents. The Office of Student Aid at University Park processes federal and state aid; maintains documentation for all locations; and has also begun to scan documents for the Hershey Medical Center and Dickinson School of Law.
The Office of Student Aid also receives a high volume of faxed documents from students, outside agencies and offices at Penn State’s twenty-two locations. In March 2002, Hinkle installed a Fax Server. The fax server allows images to be moved from the server directly into the imaging system. Every file is migrated into the cascade in the DocFinity IntraVIEWER Web client and indexed. The office utilizes OIT’s functionality to auto-populate fields with student identification numbers and codes for indexing. The change to the Fax Server reduced processing time by eliminating scanning the paper. Because of this time savings, the office encourages everyone to fax rather than mail documents.
Laura Garver, a Financial Aid Coordinator, remarked, “Our processing did not change when we began imaging. However, the workflow and document tracking changed the way staff receives documents and provides immediate access to documents when imaged, which is a huge benefit. As staff became more comfortable with handling imaged documents, they began to change their processes and increase productivity.”
More than three years after the implementation of imaging, the Office of Student Aid has made remarkable progress. In the Document Processing Area, where all documents begin the process, with only one file cabinet remaining. Nearly every document in the office is available through DocFinity IntraVIEWER. In fact, the office has eliminated its use of a resource library, which prior to using DocFinity, contained manuals, regulations and other documents. This information is now available electronically with a simple point and click of a mouse. Karen Bayletts, a staff assistant in the Document Processing Area, adds, “it’s so user friendly and easy to learn!”
Every staff member in the Office of Student Aid is required to learn all aspects of the imaging system and how it relates to their daily functions. Bayletts and Garver both commented, “Our theory is, if you understand the initial process, you’ll have a better understanding of how imaging fits into the overall process. We developed a “Fun With Imaging” training manual customized to our use of the software to help guide our users.”
The use of the DocFinity system has allowed the Office of Student Aid to increase efficiency through improved workflow and document tracking. In addition, the office has been able to significantly reduce the possibility of misfiled or misdirected documents. Garver commented, “It’s great to be able to determine, with a few clicks, if we have received the information and it is being reviewed, rather than trying to determine if paper documents are here.”
The initial change from paper to image was met with some resistance. Bayletts remarked, “Some people had a really hard time giving up paper. We completed our implementation in stages, demonstrating the benefits of imaging through example and moved slowly so everyone could get used to it. Now, I would challenge you to find anyone in the office who would say it isn’t an improvement to all our processes.”
Three years after implementing the DocFinity Suite of Products, Penn State’s Office of Student Aid has been able to improve their service to students, while enhancing financial aid processes. At the same time, the office has relieved the stress of the process, enabling students to focus more on their academics rather than spending valuable time on tracking the status of their financial aid.