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Initiative makes student services a top priority
February 23, 1998

A student plans to switch majors but isn't sure which of the classes she has taken will satisfy the requirements for her new major. Another wants to sign up for a class on the last day of registration and needs to find out quickly which classes are not yet full. A third has moved but doesn't know which office to notify of his change of address.

These dilemmas commonly faced by students will soon be addressed by a University-wide student services initiative that will include a single information system and staff trained to answer questions that overlap departmental lines.

The project is led by an MIS task force that was established as part of the strategic plan implementation process. The group is seeking to purchase new technology and implement a culture change among the offices - such as registration, financial aid and billing - that provide services to students.

"We realized we have to change the way we deliver services to students," said Fred Maryanski, vice chancellor for academic administration, in a presentation to the academic affairs committee of the Board of Trustees.

To assist the task force, the University engaged the services of Coopers & Lybrand to undertake an assessment of student services, a study commissioned prior to the administrative services review that is now underway.

Harvey Blustain, regional director for the higher education consulting practice of Coopers & Lybrand, said UConn is not alone in its desire to improve student services. Schools and colleges are all struggling with the issue, he said, primarily because of the need to attract and retain high caliber students.

The student services study included nearly 100 individual interviews, focus groups with students, and a review of benchmarks and best practices in student services.

Blustain said UConn has made significant improvements during the past three years, but there is room for further progress. He added that there is no single model for student services, but there are best practices the University can emulate.

Blustain said that although there is no established correlation between improved student services and increased tuition revenues or other financial measures, enhancing services must be viewed as a strategic decision. "There is no way to be academically excellent when you're forcing students to deal with business practices from the 1960s and 1970s," he said.

"There is a false dichotomy in a university between the academic and the administrative," he added. "From a student's perspective it's a total experience."

Chancellor Mark Emmert said the student services initiative "Is about how to take the administrative and managerial resources of the University and design new processes so we are providing the best possible services for students."

In a separate interview, Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction, said the goal is to make students' experiences at the University as successful and useful as possible. "We don't want students to be aware of the service. We want it to be easy for them to do what they have to do."

She added that the new initiative will not only make information readily available for students to make decisions, it will also make it easier for faculty members to obtain information about students and know what advice to give them.

Blustain said student services are difficult to change because there are many different offices involved and they have traditionally operated independently. Greater cooperation between offices is essential, he said.

Earlier this month, the firm facilitated a retreat that brought together the directors of these offices.

Blustain said that although there is a tendency to feel that nothing can be done until the University has new technology in place, participants at the retreat identified a number of steps that can be taken right away, including having people from different offices talk to each other and providing training that crosses departmental lines, so that employees are prepared to handle students' questions on a wide range of issues. Also in the interim, the Registrar's Office, for example, is planning for touchtone access to grades, automated room scheduling, and a system for monitoring the demand for courses. In addition, the Financial Aid Office plans to offer complete financial aid packages at the time of acceptance and to introduce student services generalists who can deal with a wide range of questions.

Retreat participants also decided which services should be located in the new Student Services Center planned for Wilbur Cross Building. These are: the Registrar's Office, the Bursar's Office, Financial Aid, the Scholarship Office, Student Employment, Student Affairs, the Center for Students with Disabilities, the Department of Residential Life, Dining Services, and a new ID center. The building would also house temporary satellite offices for parking services, telecommunications and health services at the start of each semester, and a reception area with computers and a help desk. The proposed Center for Undergraduate Education, which will provide academic services, will be housed in what is now the School of Business Administration building. Officials expect renovations to the Wilbur Cross Building to be complete by the year 2000.

University officials are also exploring new technology for student services. Maryanski said the goal is for students to be able to fill 80 percent of their needs for student services via computer. Now, he said, students can register, check their grades and find out where their classes are through the computer, but they do not have access to billing or financial aid information.

Underlying the new system will be a data warehouse, a single repository of data available to offices throughout campus that will also be used for separate human resources and financial management systems. A prototype was established last sem-ester at the deans' level for budgeting.

Members of the MIS task force will issue a request for proposals next month. Maryanski said he will present a request for funding for the system at a future meeting of the Board of Trustees. He expects the system to be in operation by July 2000.

Still, the culture change that's required may be the biggest challenge. "The system part is doable, although it will take time, money and effort," said Maryanski. "Actually changing our culture to be more responsive to students is a more difficult and complex task, but we are committed to that."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu