Managing Housing With Advanced Technology

Advancing technology ignored college and university housing departments for years. While other departments received arrays of shiny new software with powerful and flexible features, housing managers dealt with aging systems designed to make room assignments, manage billing and do little else. Life was tough.

Such software cannot manage a modern campus housing system with residence halls, apartment housing and off-campus apartments, all connected to assigned furniture, extra keys, name changes, pro-ration needs and other details that have become part of life on campus today.

What if a student spends six weeks studying overseas? What if a female student marries, hyphenates her name and moves into a married housing apartment? Older housing management systems offer little flexibility to accommodate such changes.

What if a housing manager needs a report on available space to plan for next year? Many old-style systems cannot generate management reports.

A new generation of housing software has begun to address these problems, offering new features, great flexibility and powerful reporting capabilities. For example, the University of Michigan, Duke University and UCLA are currently beta testing CS Housing, a new product being developed by Diebold, Inc., of North Canton, Ohio. And Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has installed the latest housing application developed by Residential Management Systems of Raleigh, N.C.

Housing managers from both the University of Michigan and Wright State University express enthusiasm for the capabilities of this new generation of products.

The CS Housing Beta Test

With 94,000 residence hall beds and 1,500 apartments, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor maintains the sixth-largest campus housing system in the country. For years, the university’s housing department managed the data contained in their basic room assignment system by requesting reports from the campus mainframe. Mainframe programmers developed the reports in-house and back-charged the housing department for the work and the computer time.

“In 1995, we began looking for a software application that would enable us to get away from the university mainframe and its accompanying expenses,” says Alan J. Levy, the university’s director of housing public affairs. “We selected a company called Griffin, which was later bought by Diebold. We knew the Diebold-Griffin system wouldn’t meet our overall needs. But it was clearly better than the mainframe system we were leaving -- and considerably less expensive.”

A year or so later, Diebold approached the University of Michigan, UCLA and Duke, all three of which were using the Griffin-Diebold housing management system. Diebold asked each to serve as a strategic partner in overhauling the old system. “Through the years, the older product had been customized by many of our customers,” says Gary Lorenz, general manager of the Card Systems Line of Business for Diebold. “We couldn’t incorporate such customized requirements into a baseline commercial product, but we could develop a system flexible enough to accommodate a variety of needs. We challenged our partners to benchmark their practices, and they challenged us to build in flexibility.”

The result, CS Housing, now in beta test at each of the three partner schools, goes far beyond the basic tasks of capturing data and billing for housing. The new product can handle room changes, room swaps, pro-ration, automatic billing, wait lists, alerts/holds, incident reporting, room inventory tracking, check-in/check-out reports, maintenance work order tracking, utilities assessments and more. It provides security for card users as well as features designed to comply with the confidentiality issues related to the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

At the University of Michigan, Levy reports that the housing department no longer relies on or pays for the university mainframe, has cut costs substantially and has improved productivity within the department, even after creating a full-time data management position.

While CS Housing may accommodate the needs of large systems such as Michigan -- and Diebold’s other strategic partners -- will smaller institutions find it useful?

“If this software works only for Duke, Michigan and UCLA, we will have failed,” Levy says. “It must be commercially viable for Diebold, or they won’t be able to support it, and we’ll all be out of luck. We kept this issue in mind throughout the development process. We think that the result will be affordable and useful for a small liberal arts college as well as a mega-university. A small college may not use all the fields, but they will still gain significant management advantages.”

Do-It-Yourself Room Assignments

Some older housing software applications simply didn’t work. “For two years, because our room assignment software didn’t work, I assigned 1,600 students to rooms by hand; that was not fun,” says Carol Rader, assistant director for systems administration and marketing at Wright State University.

Residential Management System (RMS) software has solved that problem for Rader, who now looks forward to a virtually paperless housing management operation in the years to come. In addition to many of the features offered by the Diebold system, RMS has a web module that allows students to apply for housing, update their addresses and keep their university records current online.

“We are still building the Web module,” Rader says. “When it’s completed, students will be able to apply online for rooms, send requests related to their rooms online and check the status of these communications online.” When a housing application arrives, an operator will click an icon, and the system will assign the student to an open bed space, taking into account any special needs on the student’s application.

What if an application arrives incomplete? The RMS system notes the missing data and e-mails the student requesting further information.

“The system takes care of a lot of the busy back-and-forth paperwork,” Rader says. “It also automates billing. For example, you can do a mass billing for a quarter. In this process the system will match students with their room types and billing amounts and create a bill for each. Then we upload these data to our mainframe, and the billing department sends out a paper billing.”

The Web connection also eases the process of upgrading the housing software. According to Rader, RMS announces upgrades through e-mails specifying the changes and providing an on-screen connection to the download site. “We can click into the RMS Website, download the upgrade and life is easy,” she says.

Ahh, technology.