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UW Information Technology

Faster financial aid

Getting financial aid decisions to students and families earlier drives modernization

Allison Wolf, now a junior in informatics at the UW Information School, spent many restless nights wondering about her financial aid status.

Allison Wolf, now a junior in Informatics at the UW Information School, spent many restless nights wondering about her financial aid status.

Allison Wolf knew as a seventh grader that she wanted to go to college.

So when she was accepted at the University of Washington in spring 2014, everything seemed to be falling into place. “Great, you got in! Now, how are you going to pay for it?” she heard again and again, even from her mom.

“I was so stressed out about finances,” said Wolf, now a junior in Informatics at the UW Information School. Wolf’s anxiety grew as she waited to hear from the Office of Student Financial Aid (OSFA). When a financial aid package offer from the UW finally arrived in the mail, Wolf exhaled a sigh of relief.

“It was so great to have good news,” Wolf said. “I was going to my dream school!”

Wolf’s deep worries about financial aid are very familiar to Kay Lewis, OSFA Director. No one should have to wait too long to hear if they’ll be able to afford their dream school, she said.

That’s why, in the past year, OSFA partnered with the Student Program and Enterprise Document Management teams in UW Information Technology (UW-IT) on a project to modernize financial aid operations. One of the project’s major goals is to reduce how long it takes to notify students about their financial aid status—from several weeks to two weeks or less.

Allison consults with an adviser.

Stephanie Olsen, Senior Counselor in OSFA, consults with Allison.

“Prospective and current students anxiously await a decision from our office. And we know it’s not easy on them or their parents,” Lewis said. “Students need time to plan for their future and they need to know their options quickly. If they are made to wait too long, we may lose them to other schools.”

In the past decade, the number of financial aid applications has grown by 69 percent, to more than 79,000. As more students have applied for financial aid—and as the rules that govern aid have grown in complexity—wait times have increased during peak application windows to between 12 and 14 weeks for an OSFA decision.

OSFA Director Kay Lewis is helping lead financial aid modernization to improve the student experience.

OSFA Director Kay Lewis is helping lead financial aid modernization to improve the student experience.

The office has been encumbered by a growing mountain of paperwork, which often requires labor-intensive manual processing, with multiple reviews and handoffs among a significantly smaller staff—from 45 employees in 1992 to 27 today. The additional paperwork forced OSFA to cut student counseling time by 250 hours a year, and wait times to get a counselor on the phone grew to 45 minutes.

By modernizing operations, Lewis wants to reach a point where no student will need to wait more than two weeks to hear. “We want to integrate admissions decisions with financial aid offers. At that point, students have all the information they need about whether to come to the UW. And for us, the best outcome is having them choose the University of Washington,” Lewis said.

“OSFA receives tens of thousands of applications and supporting documents, and manages about $650 million in financial aid each year, up from about $60 million in 1991,” said Erin Page, Senior Engagement Manager with UW-IT’s Enterprise Document Management team. “They are a small team and have been doing heroic work with existing systems. But without significant changes to their business processes, they were not going to be able to keep up.”

When students interact with us, they expect quick answers. We want to make sure students like Allison don’t spend sleepless nights worrying about their financial aid package.”

Ultimately, the goal is to improve the student experience, and the parent experience, by making considerable improvements to the financial aid application process.

To get there, OSFA has embarked on a three-year modernization effort that touches every aspect of how it operates and handles students’ applications. In the first year, OSFA worked closely with UW-IT to adopt new tools to digitize paper applications and new software to move from a paper-based process to an online electronic one.

In the first four months using the new system, OSFA handled 10,000 documents via a mostly paperless application online process for the 2017-18 financial aid year. This winter, OSFA will work with UW-IT to implement eSignatures so parents and students can more quickly complete, sign and send forms online.

“UW-IT helped us define the pain points in the application process, from the very basic steps to the more challenging aspects of our work. And they looked at it from every angle,” Lewis said. “I really appreciate how careful and methodical they were about our work, and how they are aligned with us in the belief that improving the student experience is a driving goal.”

“When students interact with us, they expect quick answers,” Lewis said. “We want to make sure students like Allison don’t spend sleepless nights worrying about their financial aid package.”