True for many comprehensive institutions, graduate assistant positions and postdoctoral fellowships are highly sought-after at St. John’s University in Jamaica, N.Y. Not only do such opportunities provide important work experience, but they also offer full tuition and stipend payments.
But for many years, the process of applying for these programs was cumbersome and paper-driven, requiring students to courier documents around campus and wait for various approvals and sign-offs. In many cases, the process was delayed, meaning assistantships and fellowships were awarded late. That meant financial aid might not be posted until after the semester began. Students would then have to handle even more paperwork to get their tuition bills covered—and often pay late fees, because they were stuck waiting for financial aid approval.
We realized that we may be losing some of the best students each year to schools that made earlier offers, and we had to do better.
Last year, teams from the academic and operations sectors of the university collaborated to automate and streamline the granting process for the institution’s 600 graduate assistant and doctoral fellow positions. That collaboration resulted in a significantly improved system, both for students and the university.
Leaving the Status Quo Behind
Simplifying the process of applying for and awarding assistantships and fellowships wasn’t just about trying out new technology in back-end operations; it was a campuswide priority. For example, each year, more than 100 different departments and 28 different sectors at St. John’s hire graduate assistants and doctoral fellows. About 60 university staff members are involved in making those hires, including 56 academic and operational department staff, two financial aid staff, and three human resources staff. Because of the paper-based process, staffers were annually reviewing a total of approximately 3,000 paper applications.
The legacy process was also difficult for applicants. Students who were interested in these positions were caught in a campus runaround, delivering various documents to numerous offices. And potential graduate students who were not already on our campus faced significant hurdles in managing the application process.
In many cases, graduate assistants started out as student workers whose faculty supervisors simply appreciated their work and subsequently hired them or recommended them for assistantship positions. While that’s very nice and works well in many cases, it isn’t a reliable method of making sure that we are hiring the best student for each position.
Developing a New Process
Revamping the application system for graduate assistantships and doctoral fellowships couldn’t be done in a vacuum. It required collaboration among teams in information technology, financial aid, human resources, and payroll, as well as input from academic leaders. We worked with the provost to determine a system for identifying students whose academic qualifications are a match for specific positions, and integrated the assistantship or fellowship application process into the student’s application to graduate school.
While we wanted to automate the entire process, we didn’t think it was necessary to make a large capital expenditure into new software systems. And working with IT staff, we were able to leverage existing university technologies—such as Ellucian, Banner Xtender, and APEX—and use them in new ways. For instance, we use APEX reporting software to generate reports, and it allows us to access data stored on Banner Xtender.
We started by designing a single application for all assistantships and fellowships, rather than continuing to use a different application for each of the five colleges. That application and related contractual agreements were converted to electronic form, and we created a website to house the forms and all grad assistant position descriptions.
Because we know that students and potential students—especially international students—are awake and online while we may be sleeping, we wanted to be able to serve them at all hours. Our team worked together to build a self-serve online application system and create an automated workflow for department chairs and dean’s offices.
Today, the simplified process follows six general steps:
1. Application. At the same time a student applies to St. John’s graduate school, he or she has the opportunity to complete an online application for a graduate assistantship or doctoral fellowship. There’s no more waiting to be accepted into the program before applying for the assistantship or fellowship, and no more paper applications. Because the entire application process is available online, it’s much easier for international or non-local students to apply for these positions.
2. Academic review. When applications are submitted, academic chairs or graduate directors, along with the graduate education policy committee, review the applications for open positions and forward selected candidates to the dean’s office.
3. Agreement generation. The dean’s office completes an electronic personnel change form for each student selected, and this information generates an online agreement on the student self-service university information system (UIS).
4. Award offer e-mails. An automated e-mail is sent to the graduate student to inform the student that he or she is the recipient of an assistantship or fellowship, and provides the instructions for logging on to UIS and accessing the agreement.
5. Award offer acceptance. The student may review and accept the agreement online. Throughout the process, e-mails are generated to inform both the hiring department and the candidate of the status and the next steps.
6. Follow-up. Department and academic unit staff members can identify and track students who applied and received or did not receive awards, and they can refer students who were not selected for an academic assistantship to other open nonacademic assistantships. Because the academic sector can now easily call up the pool of applicants and recommend them to human resources for operational sector positions, students are better served and more likely to be retained.
With the new system, applications and agreements are automated—reducing paper, time, and steps, and ensuring a fair and consistent electronic workflow. In addition, it allows tracking and reporting, and generates e-mails so that students and supervisors are kept in the loop during all stages of the process. It significantly enhances service to students, while improving back-end administration and reducing expenditures of effort and resources. Finally, the process allows for more transparency and more input from the academic sector faculty, providing them with the ability to attract the best candidates—from our own campus or around the world.
We initially rolled out the system as a pilot project for the summer semester of 2015, and the university hired about 60 to 70 graduate assistants and doctoral fellows in record time. For fall 2015, we hired more than 500 assistants and fellows, and the system was widely proclaimed a success.
In the past, our graduate assistant agreement had to be typed up and sent to different departments for various signatures. Now, since the agreement and the signature process are all online, the hiring process has become conveniently up-to-the-minute.
For instance, last fall, when we made hiring decisions and posted agreements for students, many students were going online and signing the agreements before we could even communicate the offers to them. In the past, by the time we could get all the necessary signatures on the agreement and send a copy to the financial aid office to inform them to waive applicants’ tuition, students were already getting late fees on tuition bills.
With the new process, students save an average of $200 each in late fees assessed due to late agreements. They are also saving significant time and effort and the cost of postage stamps, and there are more opportunities available to a more diverse student population.
Not only are students being better served with this new process, but it also has simplified work for numerous staff members across campus. It has eliminated 1,800 paper contracts (three copies for each assistant or fellow) and saved many hours of work for a number of departments. We estimate that the project has saved deans’ offices 150 hours of work—100 hours for human resources, and 50 hours for financial aid. It has also eliminated the need for 80 percent of paperwork and avoided the duplication of effort and paper files.
The project was deemed a success all around. Students can now make informed decisions about their college choice, because awards are no longer granted and posted late to student accounts; and a more transparent, fair process also gives faculty more input for both academic and non-academic assistantships with a shorter turnaround. Through this multidepartment, collaborative effort, we made better use of our resources, HR and otherwise, and we responded to the university’s strategic priority to ensure student success and enhance the teaching and learning environment. At the same time, we were able to align our business objectives with integrated technology solutions to accomplish goals and attract more qualified graduate students.
DAVID MARTINEZ is director of payroll and human resources, at St. John’s University, Jamaica, N.Y.