Fostering Easier Access to Financial Aid

Arkansas YOUniversal system integrates scholarship program applications.

There was a time when the state of Arkansas' scholarship process generated a lot of paper, was time-consuming and left unused funds on the table. Today, our YOUniversal Financial Aid System is a national model for administering higher education financial aid programs. The Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE) manages and distributes all state financial aid funds -- 21 scholarship, grant and loan reimbursement programs totaling $170 million annually. In the past, students, parents and high school counselors were often overwhelmed by the time-consuming and complicated process of determining eligibility and completing separate paper applications for each of the programs. Those who did apply found the application process so cumbersome that more than $53 million sat unused in the state scholarship reserve fund.

Compounding the situation, the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery was planning to infuse the system in 2010 with an estimated $112 million in additional funding for scholarships, which would in turn significantly increase the number of students applying and seeking help in the process. ADHE set out to streamline the process of searching and applying for scholarships. The goals were twofold:

  • To help citizens determine scholarship eligibility and preview estimated amounts of financial aid available on an individual basis;
  • To reduce the manual effort associated with the awarding of funds and ongoing management of individual scholarships.

Building a Better Way

ADHE and the Information Network of Arkansas worked to build a unified financial aid system, beginning with initial discussions in February 2009 and culminating with the unveiling of the YOUniversal Financial Aid System on Jan. 1, 2010. Simplifying processes through cross-boundary data integration was key to success.

In the past, the agency managed the individual program applications separately in 21 unique SQL and Access databases and spreadsheets. To create the YOUniversal program, the IT team normalized and standardized the data to create a single centralized database and a standard rules engine. The team of subject-matter experts, project managers, developers and testers built the application using Microsoft .NET 3.5 framework and on a Windows server 2008/IIS platform.

With the YOUniversal system, potential scholarship recipients create a simple profile and answer a few basic questions, then the application generates a list of scholarships. The student can change criteria and perform multiple searches. For example, a student can perform a "what if" search to see the different programs he or she would be eligible for if the grade point was raised by 0.5 points.

Once a student has given permission via electronic signature, the system automatically pulls pertinent data from Arkansas' centralized K–12 student database and updates the student's profile. The system also matches, collects and verifies additional data pulled from third-party sources, such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to determine citizenship, evaluate income for scholarships with a need-based component, and verify that the student has registered for military service (if required) and is not in default on any federal student loans. Using standard SSL protocol, the system generates e-mails to request additional information or notify students when they have been awarded financial aid.

YOUniversal should facilitate an 80 percent reduction in mailing and paper costs, along with significant savings in administrative work. In its first year of operation, the number of applicants increased dramatically to 125,000, compared with 23,000 in 2009. More than 51,000 students received state scholarships, totaling $168 million in funding.

Apr 07 2011