Our new Financial Aid features

In the wee hours of Wednesday, June 8, we released our overhaul of Populi Financial Aid into the wild after months of development, testing, and refinement. The new features (together with the U.S. Department of Ed's proprietary EdExpress software) will let your Financial Aid office handle the entire aid process—everything from importing ISIRs to managing aid applications to batch disbursement of funds. We previewed the new stuff in some recent posts; here's a summary of what we just released:

Navigation overhaul

All of Populi Financial has been moved over to the new tab-based layout, which clarifies the navigation (and works better on mobile devices).

Aid applications

We built out aid applications so your aid office can track FAFSA data for each applicant, attach files to applications, and interact with student applicants from the application or via email. Students can upload files, ask questions, and accept or decline awards.

ISIRs imports

The new ISIRs importer converts the gobbledygook text file into all kinds of useful information for your school. FAFSA data automatically creates aid applications. Updated files plug new data right into existing apps. You can even create new Prospects if you receive an ISIRs file for someone you haven't heard of before.

New workflows and reports

Use Populi Financial Aid to track Federal Work Study awards. Create batch disbursements and aid refunds. Automate your disbursement schedules for the entire aid year. A new academic progress report lets you find students in trouble. Existing reports have been combined and redesigned to give you a wider, more comprehensive look at your school's Financial Aid data.

Other stuff

As usual, we took the opportunity to work in some bugfixes and performance improvements. We've made some architecture changes that will enable us to do a lot of cool things with future development.

And Financial Aid now has its own forum in the Populi help desk.

Thoughts on outsourcing IT to us vs. going in-house

As we're wont to say here, we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges. We do that, in part, by giving them access to high-octane technology, otherwise out of reach to most schools, but made affordable by the wonders of economies of scale. This lets our customers offload much of their IT burden—infrastructure, processes, and maintenance—to us. Of course, there's more. Gliding atop those servers and databases and terabytes of storage is some elegant, easy-to-use, ever-improving software that helps a small school do more with its data. And, there's yet another layer: the people who use Populi have access to the people who run Populi. Need help with something? Wanna know how something works? Did something break? Support is always near at hand.

That, in a paragraph, is what's for sale here: high-end technology, excellent software, and people to back you up. And if it doesn't work for you, there's no long-term contract forcing you to continue.

Every now and then, we lose a sale not to an established competitor, but to a school's in-house IT staff. Now, don't get us wrong—if Populi doesn't fit, don't try to wear it (to abuse the old proverb). If a school needs something different than Populi, we're the last ones who'll try to talk you into signing up. But the decision, from what we've heard, usually has little to do with service or functionality. A lot of times when a school says, "We're gonna build it ourselves..." the next line is usually something like, "...because we wanna keep expenses down."*

Now, on the surface, this might make some sense. Your 400-student college didn't get that way without some sort of IT staff and technology investment. And if IT is already baked-in to your institution, then you already have a lot of what you need covered. A little extra development time, judicious use of free open-source technology, a stopgap Access database in the meantime...

Yeah, it could be done. But what will you end up with? Going by our experience, here's the bare minimum of what you'd need to build something comparable to Populi:

  1. A team of ten to twelve full-time employees.
  2. Ultra-conservatively, about a million bucks.
  3. Four years of continuous design, development, implementation, and refinement.
  4. A roadmap for the next several years of the same.
  5. Dedicated support staff, including a full-time writer to manage documentation (we'll assume you won't need to maintain a blog or a Twitter feed).
  6. A well thought-out approach to user interaction design.
  7. Top-end, incredibly secure servers, data centers, backups, file storage, etc.

Here's some of what you'd need to make the month-to-month cost comparable:

  1. No dedicated staff on your payroll (but wait... what about point #2, above?).
  2. Server and infrastructure costs shared among 90+ other colleges.
  3. The ability to deal with problems quickly so your operations don't grind to a halt.
  4. Nimble, proactive security protocols to ward off information thieves.
  5. Justin Bieber haircuts for your staff.**

Now, let's put this in stark economic terms. Say you take a look at what Populi would cost your 400-student college over a five-year period:

  • During the 9-month academic year, you're sending us $2,899 a month (under the Medium pricing plan)
  • During the 3-month Winter and/or Summer downtime, you opt for Small, and send us $199 a month.
  • So, for the year, $26,688. Over five years, you've parted with $133,440, give or take.

So, over five years, you've spent on Populi what you'd spend on—let's assume your saintly staff works for peanuts—three annual IT salaries. All you need now is another seven people, items 2-7 from the first list and 1-5 from the second list. And someone to take over what your three IT guys were doing before you pulled the trigger on a new, in-house system.

So, yeah: we built Populi to put good software within reach of small colleges... because the service we offer—taken as a whole—is generally out-of-reach by other means.

Post script: Read about our own approach to outsourcing software here. To summarize, don't outsource just to outsource—make it part of your strategy to focus on your core competencies.

*The decision to build in-house sometimes comes down to finances, but often also hinges on a perceived need for a different kind of feature or a different way of handling a certain workflow. We'll look at that in another blog post.

**Isaac and Toby like to get their hair cut every three days! It's a good thing that expense is spread out over 90-something customers.

Videos of some upcoming Financial Aid workflow changes

Covering Aid by Year, Batch Disbursement, ISIRs Imports, Aid Classifications, and Aid Year Schedules

We recently posted a brief rundown of the exciting new financial aid features we will soon release. And now, here's a couple of videos demonstrating how we are improving the process of adding and disbursing aid on student accounts. To summarize, currently we treat Financial Aid as a payment method managed strictly on a by-term basis. But soon Populi will let you handle Aid more accurately: you'll be able to manage awards on the by-year basis and manage disbursements on the by-term level. This will permit all kinds of really handy automations and ought to really speed up your financial workflows.

Coming Soon: a refresh for Populi Financial Aid

Some big updates are coming to Populi Financial in a few weeks. In addition to moving Financial over to our simpler, cleaner layout (which works great on mobile devices), we're expanding Populi's Financial Aid capabilities. Soon, you'll be able to:

  • Download ISIRs and automatically integrate the wealth of information they collect about prospects, students, and their parents
  • Manage financial aid awards at the year level
  • Automate batch disbursements at the Academic Term level
  • Automatically calculate Pell awards
  • Let students and prospects view and interact with their financial aid applications
  • Let students and prospects accept and decline awards online

Here's an overview of what's coming to Populi Financial:

Billing & Accounting

No big surprises in Billing and Accounting—we're simply updating them to the tabbed layout.

Financial Aid

Financial Aid, on the other hand, will look quite different.

Currently, Financial Aid is organized under Current (which shows Alerts, Disbursements, and Aid Applications), Reporting (which shows Aid by Year/Term, Disbursements, and 1098-Ts), and Settings (Application Components and Award Types). This reflects our earlier approach to Financial Aid as, primarily, as simply a way to pay down student balances in Billing.

After the upcoming release, Financial Aid will be organized under Awards, Aid Applications, Reporting, and Settings.

Awards

The new Awards tab will track awarded aid by year and student (effectively replacing the old Aid by Year and Aid by Term reports). It will also give you more useful tools for tracking Disbursements (including aid refunds) and enable Batch processing for awards and refunds.

Aid Applications

Aid Applications, once covered by a single report, now get a dedicated tab. In addition to the Aid Applications tracking tool, there's a new interface for Application Questions, which lets your Financial Aid staff interact with students puzzling over parts of their application.

Reporting

In Reporting, you'll find Academic Progress and 1098-Ts. Academic Progress will replace Financial Aid Alerts and give you filtering tools to quickly find any students who've run afoul of any GPA or Credits/Hours requirements. 1098-Ts, of course, will be as simple as ever, with some improvements to how it collects and reports the relevant data.

Settings

Settings will be expanded. In addition to Application Components and Award Types , you'll be able to create Aid Classifications and Aid Year Schedules. Aid Classifications are "templates" which automatically add certain data and application components to your financial aid applicants. Aid Year Schedules let you set up batch disbursements set up for your Academic Years, allowing different schedules by Classification and Award Type.

Student Profiles

To accommodate the new functionality, we're giving the Financial tab on student profiles a new Financial Aid tab (and making some according changes on By Term). The new tab is devoted to Financial Aid information and summarizes Awards and Applications by year. It lets view all aspects of the student's (or prospect's!) aid application, manually manage disbursements,  and even print award letters. Students can come here to interact with their financial aid application—to ask questions, review their app, and accept or decline awards.

Of course, we're still hard at work on the new features, and so some of what's pictured here may change. But you get the general idea—soon you'll be able to use Populi (together with proprietary FSA* software like EDExpress) to manage the entire Financial Aid process for your students, from application all the way to disbursement.

We'll be following up with some more posts and some videos explaining the new workflows as we count down to the release.

*That is, Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education. It's a necessary evil, unfortunately.

Library Links

We released Library Links earlier this week. Now you can add organized lists of useful links and make them available to all your patrons. Very simple and, judging by our users' response to it thus far, very useful.