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Western Illinois University Improves School-to-Student Interaction With More Eye-Catching Financial Aid Documents

Chris Smith Western Illinois University
Chris Smith application programmer III, Western Illinois University - Photo by Seth Lowe

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Customer: Western Illinois University
Headquarters: Macomb, Illinois
Business: Higher education
Challenge: Improving general school awareness
Solution: Creating more attractive and flexible financial aid documents
Hardware: IBM zEnterprise 114
Software: CASI Software’s CICS2PDF and JES2MAIL

We get them every day: personalized mailers. “Dear Mr. Jones, We’re pleased to inform you that your credit limit has increased to …” And then there are the graphics that come with them, like company logos, fancy font types and images of all the cool things you can buy with your new credit limit.

There are, of course, many ways to build these personalized forms, but some methods are haphazard, with some data coming from one source and other data coming from another source, with the merged data going, well, who knows? It’s most likely going in some siloed bin never to be seen again—or perhaps deleted entirely.

New freshmen applicants for fall 2015 grew by 3.3% and the number of accepted freshmen went up by nearly 7%

Western Illinois University is having none of that. In addition to using CASI Software’s CICS2PDF to create graphic and highly personalized financial aid letters, it’s saving them for future reference, allowing both students and school administrators to get access to them online and print them if they so choose.

As Chris Smith, application programmer III with the university, explains, “We wanted to make sure our employees are seeing the exact same thing the students are seeing. So we decided to create PDFs and simply store them on the mainframe for easy access. So far, everyone is really happy with this. And if they’re happy, I’m happy.”

Window Dressing

Established in 1899—and opening its doors in 1902—the school was first known as Western Illinois Normal and Training School. It became Western Illinois State College and, in 1957, Western Illinois University. Its original class of 229 students has since climbed to more than 11,000 who are enrolled in a variety of preprofessional and certificate programs, bachelor and master’s programs, and two doctoral programs.

Supporting many aspects of its operations is the school’s Administrative Information Managements Systems department, of which Smith is a part. An IBM zEnterprise* 114, which hosts, among other operations, the Student/Alumni Records System (STARS) for students and the Western Illinois University Production (WIUP) system for employees, handles such crucial operations as student services, student records, billing and receivables, and payroll, depending on the user.

One critical aspect of this is student financial aid, which is one of Smith’s primary focuses. When students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, the university notifies them of their eligibility via a financial aid award letter.

Originally, these letters were accessible only online through STARS. Students, whether already enrolled or prospective, would have to log in to the system to view the award letter, which was in simple plain text along with, according to Smith, some sparse “window dressing.”

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at

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