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Software glitches leaves students without loans

Glitches encountered during a five-year, $52m (£29m) PeopleSoft software implementation at a US university system have left thousands of students without their promised financial aid. 

Staff at Indiana University are scrambling to manually work around the system bugs, which began cropping up late last month just as classes began.

Officials have estimated that about 3,000 students out of 60,000 were denied financial aid that was already pledged to them. The majority of those students attend the Indiana University-Purdue University campus in Indianapolis. 

Since 1988, Indiana University has been working to retire systems, some of which are more than 20 years old, in favour of PeopleSoft Enterprise. The loan problems arose during the installation of the financial aid module, part of the Campus Solutions 8 package. 

"As is often the case with a systems implementation of this size and scope, the first time some modules have been used [has] not been without complications," said Norma Holland, associate vice-president at Indiana University.

She said the glitches are not the "result of the system proper", but apparently surfaced "at those places where fine-tuning was needed to align the university's business processes to the system specifications and functionality". 

She also said the start of classes limited the time for comprehensive testing of the software and staff training. 

To compensate for the unexpected shortfall of funds, the university has had to dip into its own reserve accounts and issue no-interest short-term loans to students for things such as tuition, said Sue Williams, a university spokeswoman.

Other measures included getting landlords to promise not to charge students interest on late rent and letting students draw from the bursar's office account for textbook purchases. 

The origins of the financial aid problems are still under investigation. But it appears that most of the problems were caused by interface issues between the loan systems at lending institutions such as the Student Loan Marketing Association and the PeopleSoft application.

Without offering the technical details, Williams said that the financial aid module is as big and complex as all the other installed modules combined. 

It's also more "sensitive" to exceptions than the legacy system was. For instance, if there was a discrepancy between the amount the lending system issued and what the university had already earmarked, the financial aid application would block the transaction. 

In addition, although the system is centralised, it has to take into account variables throughout the different campuses, including the differences between part-time and full-time students or multiple lenders. Despite these problems, the staff has manually been able to clear up about 300 accounts per day and hopes to have them all corrected within three weeks, said Williams. 

PeopleSoft officials remained upbeat. 

"Indiana University is a happy customer, and they're saying it's an internal issue and not a problem with the software," said spokesman Steve Swasey.

"It's a complex roll out, and we're working very closely with them. We have our consulting group in there and will continue to support them in every phase of the implementation."

Marc L Songini writes for Computerworld


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