COVID-19 caused the world of higher education to change how institutions support students, work together, and advance the mission of growth and education as a whole. Business offices across the country have met unique challenges — and have found unique ways of adapting to solve them. In the second edition of our June 2020 webinar series, David Glezerman, former vice president and bursar at Temple University, moderated a conversation between four business office leaders in higher education.
David Glezerman, former vice president and bursar, Temple University
- Maria Brown, cashier’s office director, North Carolina State University
- Jared Church, associate director of university billing, University of California San Diego
- Tonya Helm, director of budget and student financial services, Oral Roberts University
- Jean Wolfgang, bursar, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh
Business continuity and preparations for COVID-19
In early 2020, COVID-19 wasn’t really on anyone’s radar. It’s tough to prepare for, but many institutions have some sort of plan in place for events like these. Planning ahead and actually executing are two separate things — but these institutions were able to learn and adapt quickly.
Maria: We thought we were prepared at NC State for something like this. We had a business continuity plan already in place and we’ve tested it on campus — and then we realized that we didn’t really have a great plan because we had seven of our key staff that didn’t even have laptops. Within 24 hours we had to really pivot fast at a time when everyone else was on campus was doing the same thing. So we weren’t as prepared as we thought we were.
I learned that we were pretty good at pivoting fast, and that gave me a lot of confidence that we were going to be able to pull this work-from-home thing off and keep our students and our parents informed. Quick lessons learned in 24 hours.
Jared: We found that our department was well-prepared — actually we had, two years earlier, gotten everybody laptops and so the transition to working remotely (at least for our department) was a little bit seamless. We set up late fee waivers, we suspended assessing holds, and we coordinated to delay deadlines. It forced us to take a closer look at our continuity plan — one of those things you do when you were pushed to do it. But this really forced us to update it quickly and we learned that we have to ensure that thing are ready to go on an annual basis.
Tonya: Well, we’re fortunate that last year we had purchased a lot of new computers in the business office and most of those (even though they weren’t laptops) had Wi-Fi ability built into the computer. Other than people having to pick up their computers and move them home, it worked really well.
The one struggle that we had would be that if someone needed a cashier to actually process a payment for them — that was a little difficult. We had them come into the office once a week and do that. Otherwise, we directed students to the online payment site and probably educated a lot of people on how to do that. That was a positive thing, but it was not as challenging as I expected it to be.
Jean: So from our perspective we had the online payment platform with Nelnet Campus Commerce. We’ve had online payment options for decades now, but we are a first-generational school serving a lot of rural communities and we had a lot of parents and students who have opted not to take advantage of those online platforms. So there was a learning curve there assisting our students and their families with the payment a digital payments.
The telephones were the most difficult side of things. It took us a little bit of extra time to get Cisco Jabber installed and fully operational — once that was done, we could go back to our normal phone conversations with students and families.
So I feel like we learned a lot, we’ve made a lot of adjustments. I removed a lot of paper processes and went fully digital. So there were some bumps in the road, but we’ve been able to remain fully operational this entire time
How business offices are working from home
The focus, unsurprisingly, is on supporting students first. But the transition is just as much of a shift for business offices. Staff have had to become experts in new software and tools in a very short period of time — and find new ways to connect with students, families, and coworkers.
Jared: We’ve been using our customer relationship management tool to manage incoming questions and phone calls for about two years before this hit. So we were primed to transition to this kind of work. Phones were an issue for us — we didn’t have a tool in place to take phone calls, so we have really been simply responding to student inquiries through email and our relationship tool.
Microsoft Teams and Zoom have become critical tools. Teams is certainly an internal platform that we communicate with each other on and share documents. We’re building processes all the time and that has really become a great spot for internal meetings. We are using that to communicate with our process partners and collaborate that way. We seem to get a faster response using that platform than we do via email.
There’s this desire to maintain communications. I do one-on-ones with my team on a regular basis and I’m always chatting with them over video on Teams, so in other ways it’s brought us closer together, which is kind of interesting.
Tonya: Well, one thing that I can say we did not have any challenges with were phones. We use Mitel and it was super easy. You just go in and click a button and you can transfer the phone call to your cell phone, but it still appears as if you’re speaking on your desk phone. That worked great for us as far as opportunities go. We could educate kids on how to use online payments or how to research things on their account, whereas before they had to walk into the bursar’s office and get that information.
We’re very fortunate that most of our classes have a distance learning component to them. When we went remote, most professors were resuming their lectures online and kids were able to you know continue on as normal working and watching their professors speak through Zoom. We are trying to incorporate some Zoom meetings for the business office as we get towards fall registration.
But we learned a lot. Many people are resistant to electronic documents — when you’re not all together an on campus, you have no choice but to use those systems.
Jean: Yeah, I think the greatest opportunity is how mobile my office is. I feel like I can better serve our additional campuses. It really has created an atmosphere and that communication network like Jared mentioned.
You still have your same office/team atmosphere, but in different locations, so that’s been wonderful. The only portion of our operation that has not been mobile is our cash sharing system — and we are working to go mobile on that.
Maria: One of our managers comes in Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to process the mail and get departmental deposits from campus partners. And we realized that some people were coming in on Tuesdays and Thursdays and it wasn’t convenient for them to come in to drop off their deposits. So we went back to “the dark ages.” We now have an overnight drop box — that’s been something I think we’re going to keep after this is all over with.
Adjustments for new student orientation
Orientation is a special time on campus — new students are beginning the next stage of their education, meeting new friends, and exploring the place they’ll come to know as home. Transitioning that experience to an online environment is a big task, but these institutions are prepared to do as much as they can to make it happen.
Jared: We’re prepared for online orientations. Our office specifically has developed a series of both recorded and online webinars. Our recorded webinars have been done in multiple languages, and we’re trying to facilitate access to this information remotely. At this point there’s no plan for physical orientations.
Maria: NC State and NC State’s orientation is also going to be completely online. We had just revamped our orientation presentation and had to kind of start over again to do it recorded. It’s not ideal — at orientation we get a lot of live questions. We have a big long Q&A at the end of orientation, so not ideal. But hopefully the parents and students will feel free to reach out to us.
Jean: At Oshkosh, we had to procure a new online orientation platform. Our first session was May 22 and the purchase of that new platform occurred the week before. The nice thing about the content is it will be available to the student for their entire duration with us, so they can go back and look at it again.
Tonya: We also will be doing mostly virtual orientations. One thing that we did this year is when students come on campus, their textbooks will be boxed up and ready for them. So it’s going to be part of their tuition and fees and we won’t have the traffic in and out of the bookstore that we normally would have. Other than that, we’ve been moving toward this electronic orientation for a while and I think so far so good. We’ll see when we get to August.
To hear the live Q&A portion and full remarks from our guests, view the full webinar.