There is no question that CARES Act funding breathed life and hope into institutions that were desperately trying to pivot in March 2020. Without the additional funding provided at that time, there were very real needs of students, families and the community that could not have been met.

Recognizing that the needs may still outweigh the means for some institutions and organizations, additional funding was made available to educational institutions in 2021 through American Rescue Plan Funds. As you consider how your institution can potentially leverage these funds, here are five trends we have observed at Softdocs as we work with higher education institutions day in and day out.

Paperless Document Management

Though there are exceptions, many higher education institutions, started as much as a decade ago to eliminate paper and transition to a content repository of paperless records. With a model of scanners in the offices, higher education has been progressing towards digital files in the largest student-facing offices, such as Financial Aid and Registrar. However, there can be more than 100 specialized offices (international students, disability services, student affairs, student conduct, etc.) that are still operating mostly paper-based and highly inefficiently. There are very simple steps these offices can take to begin digitizing every document, reducing the need for paper and creating a new hybrid model that can help sustain their institution for the future.

Electronic Forms and Workflow

At any institution, there are likely still paper forms that students, parents and employees are required to complete. Data is routinely requested that is already in the system, creating frustration for those repeatedly providing it. In addition, these forms circulate with important personal information, which increases security risks and has the potential to expose the institution to privacy and compliance issues. Since the pandemic began in 2020, this is one of the largest reasons why educational institutions have been turning to Softdocs’ Enterprise Content Management (ECM) solutions—to streamline and standardize how information is collected, managed and distributed.

With electronic forms, existing data can be prepopulated on the form. And once additional information has been submitted through the form, it can be automatically routed for approvals and notifications through a workflow, after which a permanent record of the form is automatically sent to the current content repository.

E-signature Requirements Require a Conversation

We need to start having more conversations across education around the role of e-signatures and what the real needs are at the campus level. Many institutions in their haste to stand up a forms solution, automatically assume that these forms require a specialized e-signature solution and, in some cases, they might (for example, specific construction contracts or a unique donor gift agreement). But in many cases, a box checked as a legal and binding signature submitted through the institution portal is sufficient and legally binding. Since e-signature solutions often have a per-transaction fee, they can become expensive, very quickly. Oftentimes, ECM can serve as an all-in-one platform that provides every department with needed e-forms, workflow automation and document management functionality—eliminating the need for more costly, niche applications.

Cloud is the New Normal

It has been refreshing to see education progress quickly to accepting the cloud for what it is: faster deployment, less maintenance, new features added routinely and layers of security that on-prem solutions cannot provide. With cloud deployments, the expertise on campus is focused on business analysts deploying solutions using the software, rather than deploying the software itself. The pandemic revealed that the cloud is a central component of the approach many institutions take with education technology today.

COVID-19 Requires its own Data Collection

Many Softdocs customers have begun sharing COVID-specific use cases for our electronic forms, workflow automation and document management ECM solution—Etrieve by Softdocs. These use cases include instances where requests to miss classes, documentation of coronavirus tests, and special student services checklists were all handled through ECM. Other customer success stories include accounts of how ECM facilitated requests for student housing or electronic forms supporting an institution’s return to campus. And recently, one institution shared how they became a community vaccination site, using electronic forms and workflow automation to set up and track appointments. The disruption that began in 2020 carries through today and ECM makes it easy to stand up new forms and processes that become necessary along the way.

Looking Beyond 2021 – Operationalize New Models and Make Them Sustainable

Together, we have kept students learning in spite of all the challenges that have faced the Education space. We have found ways to collect, process and manage new information while evolving our processes. Now, we need to operationalize that model and make it sustainable. We need to continue embracing change and new expectations. If you haven’t begun to realize the value provided by electronic forms, workflow automation and document management, available Congressional funding may just be the opportunity you need to bring an ECM solution to bear in solving the challenges facing your institution now, and the ones that may come in the months ahead.