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Coffeepot Chatter: The New Enrollment Services Center

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Tom: Good morning, Maria. I just took a call for you, placed the message on your desk – someone from the Enrollment Services Center?

Maria: Enrollment what?

Tom: Oh good. I had the same reaction. My first thought was they were trying to sell us something but then she gave me a Lehigh extension.

Maria: Really? Hmmm.

Harry: My guess is that she’s in Admissions or Financial Aid, or maybe the Registrar’s office.

Tom: Why didn’t she just say that?

Harry: I believe because now some employees’ jobs overlap those offices and their services.

Tom: That makes sense. Anyone who has gone through the application and enrollment process at a college or university knows how closely those departments need to work together.

Maria: Yes, Tom, you’re right. I’m going to call her back right now.

Sometimes the best ideas come from watching and listening. For Jennifer Mertz, Director of Financial Aid, and Bruce Bunnick, Director of Admissions, a simple observation about workload in their respective data processing teams led to a four-year process of transformation and the creation of the new Enrollment Services Center.

“We noticed there was a lot of overlap between undergraduate admissions and financial aid in what our data processing support staff did in terms of processing and paperwork,” Jennifer explained. “But more importantly, we saw that the busy period for undergraduate admissions support staff was September through January, whereas when things were quieting down for them, the financial aid staff’s busy period ramped up. Each team was going crazy with work and then it got really quiet for them.”

“We also really needed uniformity in all of our document maintenance,” Bruce added. “As everything was going digital and paperless, we needed a centralized document management system.”

By merging the two staffs into one team of eight, Jennifer and Bruce reasoned they could smooth out the workload across the year and gain greater efficiency. Part of what made the merger possible was the adoption of the same software for both admissions and financial aid data management.

The data processing staff started cross training in 2012, though they were still located in separate buildings. By 2013 it was time to bring them together physically. Terri Jones was brought on as the Operations Manager to oversee the group and help them become a real team. “They’re gelling as a team now. The admissions group had been together a long time, but now that they are all sitting together, they are asking each other questions and getting along well. They are all one Enrollment Services Center group.”

“Our data processing coordinators don’t answer the phones anymore, either,” Bruce added. This allows them to focus on the voluminous amount of applications and supporting material they need to process.

Merging the back office worked so well, plans soon formed to move the Financial Aid front line staff into the Alumni Memorial building where Admissions is housed.

(left to right) Terri Jones, Jennifer Mertz, and Bruce BunnickRenovations to the old Financial Aid building created space for the data processing group. The Financial Aid counselors and front desk staff then moved into space across the hall from the Registrar and Bursar’s Office in July of this year. The transformation from separate Admissions and Financial Aid areas into an integrated Enrollment Services Center was complete.

The front desk staff of both Admissions and Financial Aid were also cross-trained and now answer all lines coming into both function areas. “They’re doing well absorbing the new information,” Bruce said. “I can hear them on the phone and they are doing a really good job of triaging the calls before sending them on to either a financial aid or admissions counselor.”

Jennifer says that the impact of moving the financial aid counselors into proximity with Admissions, the Registrar and the Bursar is, in a word, “Amazing.”

“Our counselors are right across the hall from the Bursar’s Office, which is great for students, because they tend to be a little confused about what is a Bursar’s function and what is a Financial Aid function,” Jennifer said. “So, they used to walk all the way down Packer Avenue to find out they had to go all the way back to Alumni Memorial. Now, we can walk students across the hall and help them explain their situation to the Bursar’s Office. The students are really happy with it.”

Jennifer says that while Financial Aid’s relationship with the Admissions Office was already close, they’re now seeing an increase in visitors who come to Admissions for a tour or meeting and then stop in to Financial Aid to ask questions. “These are questions that they really should be asking but never would have before because we were located away from where they would usually come for a tour.”

Terri says the training process is continuous. “There are still things that are new and changing, so we’re constantly learning. But at this point everyone who works in the processing center has been trained on each area. Now we also have graduate applications. The graduate programs are all using one application now and we are processing those. There are things we only do once a year, so some things haven’t come up yet.”

A Trendsetting Transformation

Merging functions into integrated students services or enrollment services centers is a growing trend in higher education, but there is a great diversity in what these centers combine. Lehigh’s version is unique because other schools aren’t merging their back office processes.

“It just makes sense. It’s efficient, it’s effective,” Jennifer said. “Our applicants and students can view all of their documents on the portal. It decreases the phone calls because they can see them, it lessens their anxiety.”

By keeping processing staff off of the phones, cross training front line staff to field calls in both areas, and moving financial aid counselors into proximity with other related services, efficiency and processing turnaround has soared. Now colleges and universities are reaching out to Lehigh to learn how the university planned and structured the merger. While they are still learning and making minor tweaks, the Enrollment Services Center is a change for the better.

“It’s been a great evolution and collaboration,” Bruce said.

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