Success: California State – Pomona

By Melanie Saracco, Financial Aid Director, Cal Poly Pomona, and Dolores Basilio, Quality Improvement Program Specialist, Chancellor’s Office

How does a financial aid office process 13,000 financial aid applications (FAFSA) in a six-week timeframe? And do it accurately and with great success? By involving the entire department in an ongoing process improvement effort. Cal Poly Pomona has found the secret to increasing student and campus satisfaction with financial aid processing while building employee morale in a positive team environment. Here’s how:

Between April and May 1996, the Financial Aid Office at Cal Poly Pomona processed 12,147 applications. With so many applications to process, award letters were sent out later than the campus would have liked, some not until June. Also, Cal Poly didn’t have accurate enrollment numbers early on, which would have helped speed the decision process. Of concern was the possibility that, while waiting to hear from Cal Poly, some students might choose a competing campus that had mailed its award letters sooner.

Realizing that improvement was needed, the campus implemented a process group effort that same year. Since then, Financial Aid has made great strides. In the 2000 award year, with a 14 percent increase in applications over the 1996 FAFSA count, Financial Aid staff completed the review process and issued award letters six weeks earlier than in 1996!

What were the steps in achieving such an impressive improvement? The department worked as a team, creating a process map of the overall financial aid process. They acknowledged that current problems were department-wide and worked together to streamline the process. Finally, they kept an eye out for new ways to improve by implementing ongoing process reviews.

Step One: A Process Map

Participants drew a “thousand-foot” level map to identify key steps in the process -from receiving the FAFSA through mailing the award letter to a student. In 1996 “normal” processing (applications with no problems) involved 35 steps. By 1999 the number of steps was reduced to 28, a 20 percent improvement! No sophisticated tools were used – just a process mapping template/ruler, pencil, and sheets of paper. The map was drawn on five sheets of paper indicating “decision diamonds” and additional key steps needed to process an application with “problems” (missing documents, ineligibility for financial aid, etc.).

Step Two: Department-wide Buy-in

Getting everyone on board was not an easy task. As in any process improvement effort, staff were concerned about the way changes would impact them as individuals, and about their job security-the old “WIIFM” (what’s in it for me?). However, management was committed to reorienting the department philosophy, moving from a policy-driven to a customer-oriented focus. Management and staff came together to openly acknowledge that there were problems in the department and with work processes. In addition to establishing training programs, they formed a process group, with a new team each year, to review a key step of the financial aid process, the awarding of funds. Eventually, employees participated in an employee assessment survey that helped management address the issues highlighted by survey results. The final result: the department has built a more positive team of financial aid employees.

Step Three: Fixing the Process

Where to begin to fix the problems? In 1996 the first step -processing the FAFSA-seemed the likely candidate. (A process mapping rule of thumb: if you can fix the first two steps of the process, you will have an overall improvement impact to the remainder of the process.) In reviewing federal requirements, Cal Poly realized it had unnecessarily been performing a 100 percent review of applications when only 30 percent of applications needed to be reviewed. In the first year, they immediately implemented this change to reduce processing time for FAFSAs. The second year, a new “edit check” program identified files with the eleven most common errors so that these files could be reviewed manually. This process reduced the review by over 60 percent. Another “quick fix”: In the verification process the number of documents (e.g., tax forms, rental contracts, etc.) needed to complete a student’s financial aid file was reduced. Cal Poly reviewed each type of document it requested of students, asking: Is this a federal requirement? Does the document add value to the verification process? Is there an easier or better way to get the information? As a result of this review, the number of documents requested was reduced by over 50 percent!

Step Four: Continuous Improvement

As a result of the first year’s effort, Cal Poly realized that the financial aid award process needed to be more thoroughly reviewed on an annual basis. A new process improvement team now is created each year to monitor the process and facilitate changes. Twice a year the office goes on a retreat where they recognize accomplishments and set new goals. The process improvement team prioritizes goals, re-mapping the award process and reviewing and refining each step to maximize customer service. Annual site visits to other campuses help staff learn how colleagues per form their financial aid functions. To date, t he department has visited CSU Dominguez Hills, San Diego State University, CSU San Bernardino, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, CSULA, Mt. San Antonio College, Riverside Community College, and Pasadena City College. Sometimes Cal Poly Pomona staff learn better ways to do things; other times they recognize that they already have a “best practice.”

For the 2001-02 financial aid processing year, the process improvement team will begin mapping each aid program in the office. Currently, counselors who oversee a program write the procedures and train staff on policies and procedures for their area of responsibility. If these process mapping efforts are as successful as the one made for the awarding process, staff will be able to devote more time to direct student contact and spend less time pushing paper.

By building a culture that accepts the need to change through continuous improvement efforts, Cal Poly Pomona’s Financial Aid Office has solved the processing problems it experienced in 1996. Customer satisfaction has increased. Staff satisfaction has increased. Quality Improvement is a win-win situation!