Digital Process Automation Helps a Nonprofit

By Brian Curtis

According to the most-recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2014-2015 academic year, annual tuition at a private nonprofit university averaged $45,760, and the cost for a public university was $22,750. That might seem out of reach for most people. But American Student Assistance (ASA), a private nonprofit that provides financial-education programs and loan counselors, works to eliminate finance as a barrier to anyone hoping to earn a post-secondary degree.

We also focus on keeping student loans from holding borrowers back financially after they leave college. Our staff and 140 counselors help students successfully repay their loans and look for the best way to finance their higher education. Our statistics show that if students pay the first five years of their loan, they’re likely to pay off the whole amount. ASA counseling helps students stay on track financially.

To keep informed about each student’s situation and respond quickly with the right advice, we purchased a digital process automation (DPA) platform, the IBM Business Process Manager, to run the majority of our business.

Before we bought the DPA solution, we were working in a convoluted, manual way that caused problems tracking how we serviced customers. ASA’s counselors didn’t know consistently which students their fellow counselors were helping, and they didn’t have access to the comments from counseling sessions.

Our goal was to systematize the critical outreach to students and their families throughout the lifecycle of their loan—from origination to final payoff.

The system helped us document when students were delinquent on loans and it provided counselors with student profiles and past conversations. But, when it came time for us to upgrade to new releases of the application, the process was painful. In at least one instance, the system was down altogether, which affected customer service and reliability.

Tapping Specialists Versus Generalists

By bringing in consultants who understood our specific application, instead of relying on our software vendor or IT generalists, we felt we could develop DPA functions that would keep our counselors operating and documenting their conversations with students.

We found a third-party tech consultancy called BP3 Global that had experience configuring IBM BPM. BP3 knew how to take down servers and bring them back online in the correct order, look at a process database, and purge data or configure systems to keep them running. They used a DPA portal and user interface tool called Brazos UI and assigned an on-site consultant focused on developing the DPA technology to meet our needs.

We also worked with a support group of DPA experts who advised us on how to configure the platform. The support included writing code to enhance how the DPA system distributed and received student information from ASA’s homegrown enterprise application via an extract, transform, load (ETL) transaction.

Now when a student calls ASA for help, our counselors have the information they need to assist the student.

Higher education finance counseling traditionally has been reactionary in nature, in that service is provided only after the student encounters a problem paying for their education or repaying their loans. The tools and services we found by seeking outside assistance helped us satisfy the outreach and counseling to maintain our desired level of service in line with our mission.

If our systems are not up and running, the counselors end up increasing a student’s level of frustration because an informed level of counseling can’t take place at the moment of immediate need for the student. 

With experts behind the scenes supporting us, we’re now able to maintain our DPA platform for counselors at 100 percent uptime, 15 hours a day from Monday through Saturday. Our outreach has to be flawless because there’s a lot of information about college financing out there, and higher education consumers can go elsewhere to get what they need.

Brian Curtis is the CIO and vice president of Information Services at American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that provides financial-education programs and loan counselors.