For every person who loves paper, there are two who absolutely hate it. Every office has at least one of those folks who feel like they can’t remember to get the task done without a print out of a email in their hand, but I would venture to guess that more and more of us are becoming comfortable with digital systems of organization. Yet despite our love for digital, it doesn’t solve the problem of living in a world still so dependent on paper. Perhaps you are at an institution that still has paper housing applications, triplicate withdrawal forms, or paper break sign up sheets. All of that paper has a home in one of the hundreds or possibility thousands of student folders in your office. It doesn’t have to be this way. I’ll take you through 4 steps that my office has taken to go digital, be greener, and much more efficient.
1. Get your housing applications online
Housing applications were the most important aspect of our digital transition. While I assume that most institutions have already gone online at this point, I imagine there are a few institution still struggling with paper apps each year. Whether it’s a stubborn IT department, or just not taking the time, you can really improve your student experience one you get those apps online. Not only do students see paper systems as archaic, there is a tremendous delay in collecting information if students have to send it by mail, especially since many of them probably don’t bother to buy stamps regularly.
How: Large schools clearly can purchase software systems to manage applications, but if you are a small school or on a budget you can try the following approach. We worked with our IT department to create a form that is emailed to a main email account whenever a student fills it out. At the bottom of that application is a “comma delimited” line of code which allows us to import the information to an excel spreadsheet, making the information easy to work with. If your IT can’t help you set this up, you may want to consider going to an outside provider for forms such as google.com or wufoo.com.
2. Create digital (shared) student folders
Once getting applications online, the next step is creating digital folders. File applications, judicial documents, and any important email correspondence in a student’s folder for easy reference. Being online you can create quick shortcuts to these files to other places, such as a main judicial file. So instead of creating 5-6 paper copies of an IR for each student involved, you just get to create a quick link to one file. We have also made our “Resident Student efolders” accessible to the Student Life Deans office. This allows for better information sharing between professionals that need to track a student’s progress, or look up his or her history.
How: On our department shared drive we have created a folder with each student in resident’s last name and then first name. While it can be a bit tedious to create, you can make the process faster by formatting your excel spreadsheet to be in the format you with wish to paste into each folder name. Each summer we will archive folders for students who have moved off campus or graduated just like we would with paper folders.
3. Transition all office forms online
Moving to online forms is probably the single most important time saver for our office. When I first started at my institution we had many paper systems, triplicate forms and paper break sign ups. Even when we did allow students to submit emails as part of the process, it would sometimes take 2-3 emails back and forth with a student to get all of the information we needed. Forms solve that problem. They don’t let a student press submit until they have filled it out completely, and when the information is submitted it comes to you nice and neatly in a spreadsheet format!
How: Our office is a heavy user of google forms. While we could work with our IT department to create forms similar to our housing application, we know that each time we need to create a form can be a time consuming process, so that more formal type of form is reserved for applications that don’t change much. Simple forms, such as Thanksgiving break sign ups, or interest in becoming an RA are all created using google docs form creator. The best part about this type of form is once you download the information into an excel spreadsheet you have a clean document ready for mail merging emails to students, or emailing to other departments.
4. Scan all paper & shred or archive what’s left
As I am sure you are aware from your own office not everything can be made digital. You might be wondering, “What about judicial documents that have a signature on them or Room Condition Reports (RCRs)?” Part of this problem can be solved by scanning. Many offices have copy machines that also serve as printers. If your copy machine does this it probably also has the ability to scan documents. If you aren’t sure, check with your IT and see which nearby offices may have this ability. Consider doing this also with your notes from meetings. How many different notebooks do you have with scribbles of meeting notes? If you keep each topic on a separate page, it is very easy to scan this page to save in a folder online for easy access later rather than flipping through dozens of pages trying to find the right one!
How: If you can pre-set up emails in your scanner, do so. We keep a bin to collect anything that needs to be scanned and our student Office Assistants will periodically scan all of the documents in the bin and file each document in their respective student folders. After scanning, all paper with either be boxed to be sent to the college archives or shred. RCRs are not something we have been able to eliminate altogether, but we have been able to cut down on waste. Instead of making the usual duplicate or triplicate RCR we instead put a statement at the top telling students that if they wanted a copy they can request it from the RA who would make them one. Very few students hold onto those RCR copies, so it is best to offer the option rather than waste all of the extra paper. This also saves the RAs time. They get to fill out one copy of an RCR, make two copies and they then have a copy for each roommate to sign at the beginning of the year. You could even consider making this one form with two signatures if you don’t have a lot of mid-semester moves on your hands. You can scan these RCRs too, or if you have a few small filing cabinets left, keeping those RCRs together by year might be your best option. A lot less file cabinets, no more paper piles!
If you have any questions, or have your own paper eliminating tips please share them with us on the comments below. Good luck cutting the paper out of your life!