By Dr, David K. Rehr, and Mr. Dorin Munteanu, co-founders of The Robotic Process Automation Initiative at George Mason University.
President Biden’s call for elimination of college student loan debt is being widely debated in households across the nation. One unintended but logical consequence has been the call for restraints on college and university tuition costs and overall reduction of higher education expenses for America’s youth. For example. the cost of tuition at public four-year institutions nationally increased 31.4% from 2010 to 2020, a substantial increase over just one decade. But after adjusting for inflation, college tuition has increased 747.8% since 1963. And these statistics do not reflect the cost of private schools which are no doubt even higher.
Responsible institutions must seek ways to get costs under control to keep the value of college affordable in the minds of Americans, let alone honoring their pledge of equity and opportunity.
A partial and new solution to help institutions reduce cost pressures (which are passed on to students) is to adopt Robotic Process Automation (RPA) also known as “software automation” applied to appropriate institution programs, so resources can be better used for additional and enhanced student achievement.
An additional incentive for educational institutions to adopt software automation is to increase quality assurance and reduce mundane and tedious work of administrative staff. In this way the institution can redirect employees to address higher-value issues that need attention and solutions, without witnessing increased expenses.
RPA is a relatively new software technology used to automate tasks and business processes — both in government and the private sector — to increase effectiveness and efficiency. Although it was used in the government (NASA was the first federal agency to use RPA in 2017) and the private sector, it is relatively untapped in higher education. With tuition costs ever increasing, RPA applied to appropriate programs can reallocate resources to be used for additional and enhanced student achievement.
The RPA Initiative was formed at George Mason University, minutes from downtown Washington, DC, in 2021 to spur greater use of this easily understood and implemented technology. The mission of the Initiative is to research, educate, and communicate how the adoption of this technology can improve the productivity, operations, and service delivery in public sector organizations. The Initiative also studies and recommends possible governance models and public policy initiatives for RPA deployment in the context of the broader economic outlook and the future of work. The response to the RPA Initiative among the private and public sectors has been tremendous.
Recently, the Initiative began looking at how RPA can make a difference in higher education. Earlier this year, the Initiative hosted a webinar on the benefits of RPA in Virginia universities. We spotlighted several of the programs underway in the commonwealth:
The College of William & Mary – Utilized RPA, when the school was closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, to assess student engagement due to physical constraints (no computer access, slow or no internet connectivity, etc.) or potential learning issues. W&M uses Blackboard for their course materials and offered 120 courses during the shutdown period. Student engagement on Blackboard served as a proxy for in-person learning. The challenge was that professors could only run student engagement by a single course, so it would be a significant labor and time burden to undertake the process manually to produce the reports, which could be fraught with human data errors. As a result, W&M set up an automation process that allowed student tracking once per week. Students identified with physical constraints were offered laptops and suggestions for internet connection or provided help with course material.
The savings using the automation was 1,000 labor hours per week, a 50% saving in one full time employee (FTE) weekly. Specific students, especially disadvantaged students, who experienced challenges (determined early in the pandemic), allowed meaningful intervention through the curriculum team. Student feedback was significant, as most pointed to inclusivity as one of the program’s best features.
George Mason University – Mason’s IT, Finance, and Administration teams identified multiple business processes that would yield a significant return on investment using RPA but focused on creating more efficiency in their Vendor Management System (VMS). The manual process of updating the VMS was historically a time-intensive task. Mason staff first need to log into the system, read and write the data into the system, attach W-9 documentation, and submit the completed vendor record. This process took Mason staff 15-20 hours to complete each week. A robust automation was deployed to read multiple vendor spreadsheets, sign into the VMS, input the data, submit the documentation, and follow up with an email to the Mason team to alert staff that the process has been completed and identify any exceptions found.
Implementing the RPA technology reduced the VMS process from 15-20 hours per week to just minutes, saving GMU employees valuable time and increasing productivity and organizational capacity for high value work. Allowing the software digital automation to complete this data entry also reduced human error rates to zero and increased data entry accuracy to 100%. Additionally, this project included configuring an automation platform that can be used for rapidly integrating RPA into processes throughout the university, allowing new departments to benefit from streamlined workflows and business processes.
Virginia Commonwealth University – Leveraged RPA to efficiently manage its grants program of more than $365 million annually, which was a 25% increase over the previous three years. The RPA program was established to increase the VCU finance team’s productivity to help write grants. Targeting grant creation processes enabled the project team to score some quick wins, doubling grant processing capabilities and setting the stage for further expansion. Prior to RPA implementation, a grant approval would take 20-60 minutes per grant. Moreover, staff needed to input grant information eight different times, on ten different screens. The RPA process also reduced mistyped grant numbers and reduced wrongly applying grant expenses which caused grant errors that consumed additional labor hours to fix manually downstream.
As a result, grants were processed two times faster, and an average of 300 grants could be completed in 5-10 minutes saving significant labor time. Overall, VCU achieved 100% accuracy on grant and financial aid processing tasks and achieved and 73% reduction in time to production.
Outside of Virginia, other prestigious universities are using RPA (automation software) as well. Georgia Southern University’s IT and Finance departments, for example, adopted RPA to simplify operations, deliver incremental capacity to counterbalance the challenges of an aging workforce, and enabled resource reallocation and scale for enrollment pressures. Similarly, Auburn University’s Finance and Procurement organizations, leveraged automation to enhance operational efficiency across different departments, modernized the user experience and delivered measurable gains in cost control.
Indeed, innovative and entrepreneurial colleges and universities across America are implementing RPA to solve a variety of issues confronting higher educational institutions which don’t immediately come to mind. They include:
- NCAA Eligibility Requirements
- Student/Athlete Enrollment
- GPA Qualifications compliance
Audit/Finance & HR
- Purchase Order Cycle Management
- Invoicing & Reconciliations
- Auditing & Sarbanes-Oxley Compliance
- Payroll Management
- Leave/Travel Approvals
- Expense Reporting
- Credit Card Reconciliation
- Staff Expenses Management
- Financial Reporting (EOY)
- Academic Letters
- Admissions Requirements
- Post Interview Support
- Student Transcripts
- Grading Support
- Department Funding Support and Audits
- Purchase Order Prep/Fulfillment
- Payment Management
- Supplier Enrollment
IT or Shared Services
- Systems Access & Migrations
- Password Reset
- Call Center/Help Desk Support
Student Services & Financial Aid (FA)
- Course Enrollment
- Student Registration
- FA Enrollment
- FAFSA Support
- Student Awards & Letters
- Scholarships Management
- Credit Transfer Support
- Alumni Relations
Imagine the impact for Virginia’s more than 100 colleges and universities, and America’s approximately 4,000 institutions which could benefit from widespread adoption of RPA across campuses solving the important, yet tedious and mundane work done today. Personnel would be free to tackle higher-value issues, costs would be constrained, education quality would be improved, and savings would allow for greater student engagement.
From the University President to the administrative staff, to faculty, automation software can be part of a solution to signal government, parents, and students that higher educational institutions are exceptional stewards of resources, while delivering maximum student educational value.
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