Agent of change

Last updated: February 7, 2023

A killer virus drastically changed how UW staff serve students outside the classroom. And the changes are here to stay.

By Ignacio Lobos

Kay Lewis and her small staff were accustomed to talking to students concerned about financial aid in person. The students would visit Schmitz Hall, a central home to many support services, where they would get in-person advice from financial aid counselors.

But that all changed in early 2020, when the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended person-to-person contact and everyone was directed to work remotely. Lewis, executive director of the UW’s Office of Student Financial Aid (OSFA), had to move their operations online and face the additional repercussions from the pandemic.

Businesses in Washington state and around the country were shuttered in an effort to keep people safe. So with jobs on hold or eliminated, the pandemic caused a financial ripple effect. How were students going to pay their bills?

An avalanche of emails and phone calls from anxious students soon followed, threatening to bury OSFA’s operations.

“In a typical year, we get 300 to 400 requests for emergency aid. Suddenly, we were dealing with 3,600 requests,” Lewis recalled. “Our inbox was filled with thousands of emails from students — many dealing with complex financial aid scenarios. Some students lost their jobs, or their parents lost their jobs. They needed someone to talk to, and they needed answers.”

How OSFA and other departments at the University managed to respond to student needs even while they worked remotely highlights their deep commitment to students and their ability to pivot and innovate despite the odds.

Their operational fluidness also highlights strategic decisions made several years ago to modernize the student management systems and enhance the student experience, partnering with UW Information Technology to tackle multiple IT challenges.

Going paperless in a pandemic

When Lewis looks back at how her office has been able to serve students in 2020, what stands out is the multi-year financial aid modernization effort that has touched every aspect of how OSFA operates and handles students’ financial aid applications.

Over the past four years, OSFA adopted new IT tools to digitize paper applications and to move from a paper-based process to an electronic one. Most recently, students and parents can sign forms electronically using the UW’s eSignatures service.

“With the modernization effort that shifted our application process online, we are able to continue our work remotely,” Lewis said. “If we were still handling 75,000 paper-based documents from students, we would have been dead in the water.”

With the number of requests for financial aid growing rapidly in the last decade, the changes have come at the right time. OSFA now manages about $700 million in aid and receives nearly 80,000 requests for aid each year.

But with the situations of students applying for financial aid and the rules governing that aid growing in complexity, face time with applicants is not something that can be dispensed with easily, even in an emergency.

“When we lost the face-to-face contact, we really had to scramble to find a solution,” said Tim Wold, director of student services in OSFA. “The volume of calls was so great that students often had to wait on the phone for more than an hour. And email volumes quickly grew from 200 to 2,400 to 3,800. We would answer several hundred in one day, and hundreds more would come in.”

To close the communications gap with students, OSFA worked with UW-IT to improve its email process, make changes to its website and create an online form for students to sign up for 15-minute phone sessions with a counselor.

Students shared their questions on the form so counselors could prepare in advance and the phone meetings were more productive. Within a week of the system going live in early September, more than 1,000 students had requested a phone session.

“Many of these operational changes are going to make us more efficient in the long run,” said Megan Davis, systems and analysis director with OSFA, “and probably will remain in use when people return to campus.”

Even COVID-19 can’t keep applicants from becoming Huskies

The Office of Admissions also has been reinventing itself to better serve a new generation of Huskies, and its first test came early during the pandemic, when applications from transfer and post-baccalaureate students were due.

Over the past couple of years, the UW has moved from a paper-based admissions process to an entirely paperless one. So, despite nearly everyone working remotely, staff processed about 8,000 applications. Then in the fall, through the online Coalition Application, staff received about 48,000 freshman applications electronically.

“When Admissions Modernization was first envisioned, a major reason for the investment was to mitigate risk,” said Paul Seegert, director of admissions in the Division of Enrollment Management. “However, the types of risks we imagined at the time were long snow events, earthquakes or fires. It turned out that the first actual disaster was one that none of us predicted. Modernization came just in time.”

Partnering with UW-IT’s Academic Services Student Program, the Office of Admissions completed the latest phase of the Undergraduate Admissions Modernization project last year, integrating Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Ellucian Recruit software into the admissions process.

“Now, 95 percent of the Admissions workflow can be completely done online, from reviewing an application to sending an acceptance letter,” said Wes Greenberg, business system analyst in UW-IT’s Student Program. “With the new system in place, Admissions was perfectly set up to weather this storm.”

“Admissions Modernization saved us. It saved the University and preserved the educational dreams of thousands of Washingtonians,” Seegert said.

Envisioning a new post-COVID world

These days, Helen Garrett prefers to see the move to remote delivery of courses and support services as a powerful incentive to continue to reshape how the UW serves its students.

“The Office of the University Registrar has a goal to serve students online instead of “in line,” said Garrett, who is the University registrar and chief officer of enrollment information services and is referring to bygone days when students queued up outside the Registrar’s Office in Schmitz Hall. “And we have been able to implement a wide variety of changes that have made this a reality,” she said.

Garrett envisions a University where the busy, administrative side of being a student is done mostly online, with a self-service approach that allows them to save precious time and money.

Usually, universities move slowly and changing a single procedure can take a long time. Dropping a single class or changing a major requires person-to-person contact.

But without classes on campus, students are taking University courses from their homes in every time zone around the world, Garrett explains. How things were done before no longer work.

So Garrett partnered with the registrars at UW Tacoma and UW Bothell, and worked closely with student advisors and hundreds of other decision-makers across three campuses to alter the policies and allow students to make some of these changes online, including using eSignatures for major and minors changes requiring advisor signatures.

Garrett held weekly town halls via Zoom for the advising community to triage pandemic-related problems, often drawing more than 150 advisers from all three campuses.

They also built a residency online portal so students seeking Washington state residency would not have to come to campus with all their paperwork.

Another big win came with the Access Program, which lets state residents aged 60 and older audit one or two university courses per quarter on a space-available basis on all three campuses, and draws around 650 participants. In the past, they had to register in person, but with a pandemic that became impossible — until the system moved online.

Also, in the midst of the pandemic, Garrett and her team launched a new 24/7 self-service online service to replace in-person transcript ordering for faster and easier transcript delivery.

“We get 50,000 requests for transcripts every year, and that takes a lot of staff hours,” she said.

Students will soon be able to authenticate their credentials online, track their orders by email or text and get their transcripts at any time of day.

“We have an amazing group of individuals here at the UW, and when the pandemic began, they started doing incredible things to keep helping our students,” she said. “They are literally building the house as people are walking through it. My job, our job, is to improve the student experience from entry point to exit point, and not even a pandemic can put a stop to that.”