August 22, 2012 in City

WSU software glitch stymies students

By The Spokesman-Review
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Jennifer Nguyen, a first-year student in the College of Pharmacy, waits in line with other students outside WSU’s Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships Tuesday at the Lighty Student Services building in Pullman. Nguyen said had been waiting in line for more than an hour.
(Full-size photo)

Washington State University is experiencing a financial aid fiasco.

A glitch in a new, multimillion-dollar software system designed to streamline everything from registering for classes to paying tuition is disrupting an already hectic first week of classes for students and parents who depend on financial aid.

“It is a disaster, it is a debacle, it is ridiculous,” said Shannon Seiler, whose daughter is a sophomore and son is a senior at WSU. “Nobody really seems to know exactly what’s going on and nobody really has a clear answer.”

As school gets under way this week, many students are frustrated by long lines outside the financial aid office and delays in their funding. Officials blame the new software, called Zzusis. The $15 million software system, developed and implemented over two years, aims to function as an online hub where students can take care of almost anything school-related, from applying for admission to registering for classes to getting advising.

John Fraire, vice president of student affairs and enrollment, said as of Tuesday afternoon said they had disbursed $55 million of the $100 million they expected to disburse this week. About $300 million in financial aid is distributed to 20,000 students over the course of the academic year. They hope to resolve the problem by the end of this week or early next week.

Seiler said the wait to get through to the financial aid office on the phone has been about 45 minutes, and the lines at the office are “out the building, down the hallways and you just stand there and you don’t go to class,” so she took money out of her individual retirement account to get her kids some cash and borrowed a friend’s credit card to buy books.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” she said, adding, “We’re trying to make do and we’re trying to come up with creative solutions.”

Officials there say the beginning of the year is always a busy time for the financial aid office, but glitches in the new system, coupled with the learning curve of how to use it, are adding to the wait time, along with a near-record incoming class of 4,100 freshmen.

The student accounts portion of the software, which includes financial aid, was the last module to be implemented, and it was implemented on a tight timeline and budget, said Fraire.

“We had a very small amount of time to do testing,” Fraire said. “All of these bugs we would have liked to have caught in advance, but given our timetable and tight budget, we’re just seeing some of the mistakes now. We implemented it this year on a very tight and austere budget.”

About two-thirds of WSU students receive some sort of financial aid in the form of grants, loans or scholarships. Students who depend on those funds for tuition, books, housing and food can apply for short-term loans of up to $2,000, and those caught in the financial aid mess won’t have to pay the 3 percent late fee typically applied to tardy tuition payments.

Systems like the new one often cost about $25 million, said Viji Murali, vice president for information systems. Three years ago, WSU’s prior system, which was 30 years old, crashed during the first week of classes and needed to be replaced.

“The students were standing in long lines,” Murali said. “They couldn’t get anything done. It was a pretty old system and we needed to update the software. It took us two years because it’s pretty complex new software. This is the first time after two years that students are seeing the full system.”

Murali said, “Any time you install such a complex system there’s always glitches.

“We have all of these pieces that have to work perfectly,” she said. “Up to this point, other than the glitches we are seeing with financial aid, the system has actually done extremely well.”

Students in line have been offered refreshments to make the wait more bearable.

“We’re trying to do what we can to process it quickly, trying to make students’ wait in line a little easier,” Fraire said. “We’re working on the problems as we process.”

In the meantime, parents and students like Seiler and her kids are left waiting.

“It’s widespread,” Seiler said. ”It’s affecting a lot of people. It’s affecting a lot of students. I don’t know where the breakdown is, but the deal is, it needs to get fixed and it needs to get resolved.”

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