Within Education, there are many processes which require documents be signed by students, their parents, or even faculty and staff. As higher education institutions increasingly take these documents and processes digital, it is vital that institutions ensure compliance with the various laws and regulations around the use of electronic records and signatures. This article presents a review of basic requirements that institutions must meet, as well as a brief introduction to how Enterprise Content Management (ECM) satisfies these requirements—as a right-fit solution for many higher education institutions today.

There are four basic requirements that electronic signatures should fulfill, including the signer must intend for the signature to have the same force and effect as a signature affixed by hand.

1. The signature must be unique to the person using it.

This first point addresses the concept of intent. A signature captures a person’s intent to approve, authenticate, or agree to the contents of a document. The purpose is explicitly dependent on the document, the process used to review, and the mechanism used to sign.

Also, the signature must be able to demonstrate that the intent is for the signature to be captured. If the process is weak or poorly implemented, a signer can dispute the intent of their signature, rendering the signed document ineffective. Remember, many legal disputes over signed documents are about intent and not about fraudulent signatures or documents.

2. The signature must be verifiable as belonging to the user.

3. The signature must be under the sole control of the person using it.

4. The signature must be attached or linked to the document in a way that authenticates the integrity of the electronic signature and document contents.

These other three points address the authenticity of a signature and the document. Meeting these requirements in signature authenticity will ensure a solution complies with most e-signature regulations.

Ensuring Document Authenticity and Accuracy

In addition, laws concerning electronic documents and signatures have two basic requirements for electronic documents.

1. The electronic document, with or without an electronic signature, must remain accurate and unchanged over time.

This first requirement reflects how we expect documents to behave in general. When dealing with the types of documents discussed earlier, it is essential that documents do not change without indicating that it has changed. This is a requirement in all laws addressing the use of electronic documents.

2. The electronic document, with or without an electronic signature, must continue to be accessible over time.

This second requirement is more peculiar to the use of electronic records since it addresses the possibility that an electronic document, signed or unsigned, may not always be stored in a format or system that is always accessible to the parties involved with the document. However, if we choose to use electronic documents and signatures in our business application, we must be confident that the stored electronic documents will remain accessible to various users over the life cycle of the documents.

Electronic Signatures within Enterprise Content Management Solutions

As a longtime partner within the Education space and provider of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions, all of us at Softdocs are often asked about e-signatures, the role of e-signatures in ECM, and the differences between our e-signatures capabilities and those provided by other systems. Many institutions are in need of e-signature capabilities but are overwhelmed by the cost of per-signature options. While my intention is not to provide a complete side-by-side comparison of what every vendor in the market provides, I felt that presenting a few reasons why our customers chose to meet their e-signature needs with ECM would be helpful.

As a way of background, true ECM solutions possess functionality within three, specific categories: electronic forms, workflow automation, and document/content management. The electronic forms and workflow automation capabilities were designed for forms that are routinely filled out and “walked” around campus today. Turning those paper-based forms into electronic workflow processes simplifies, secures, and speeds up student (and other) services across campus. When leveraged in conjunction with ECM’s document management functionality, institutions can completely digitize entire processes—from completion of electronic forms, to automated routing for review and approval, even archival of approved forms in a secure, digital content repository for convenient, mobile-friendly access.

For example:

  • Financial Aid forms can be integrated with data from ERP and CRM solutions (Banner, Colleague, PeopleSoft, Jenzabar, etc.) to prepopulate data directly onto the form.
  • Employees can submit expense reports and attach pictures of their receipts for processing.
  • Students can initiate an Add/Drop form, electronically sign it, and submit it to the Registrar’s office for processing.
  • HR can streamline the on-boarding process by having new hires electronically submit and sign their new hire forms.

But how do Enterprise Content Management solutions satisfy the laws and requirements around e-signatures? Well, with Etrieve by Softdocs for example, a form recipient’s electronic signature is created by requiring the user to provide a user name, password, and an additional code if necessary. This series of login credentials creates a unique login for each user. This process is similar to how income tax documents can be processed with only a PIN. The complete history of the approval becomes part of the document, allowing originators to view all approval actions, times, and dates.

For users without an institution account, say a student’s parent or a vendor, Etrieve provides a way for institutions to extend workflows to include those without internal accounts. While typically workflows are isolated to move forms and documents among users within the institution, this provides the ability for anyone with an email address to take part in the e-signature process—while satisfying the requirements outlined above. For example, consider the benefits provided in just the dependent verification process, and around dual enrollment forms. With ECM in place, required e-signatures are collected on electronic forms, routed internally for review and approval, before being archived in an electronic content repository—all while the system maintains a detailed document history and audit trail ensuring your institution remains compliant with all applicable requirements. Departments can enjoy streamlined operations, documents and information is kept secured, and your staff can spend more time focusing on the work that really counts.

In summary, for institutions looking to increase their e-signature capabilities, without costly per-signature or per-submission licensing, ECM provides needed functionality and flexibility with one platform that serves all of campus.