Tough questions welcome at askBen

Navigating the complex world of financial aid, class registration and tuition payment can be a daunting task. How does Penn award financial aid? What do you do if a class you need is already full? And how can people pay their tuition bills anyway?

A new tool introduced in September by Penn’s office of Student Registration and Financial Services answers all of these questions—and many more. The askBen feature found at the top of every page on the office’s website,, is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to prospective and current students, parents and other interested parties around the world. It’s designed to make finding the facts you need easy. Instead of working from a keyword, the askBen feature answers complete questions, resulting in more complete answers.

“The primary motive is to improve customer service in SRFS, to enhance our online services, and to provide 24/7 service for frequently asked questions,” says Marlene Bruno, Student Registration and Financial Services communications manager.

Already, inquiring minds are turning to askBen for answers. December 2009 tallies show, for the first time, a drop in phone calls and visits to the SRFS office. Phone calls for that month totaled 4,136—a drop of 437 from December 2008. Last month, askBen got 5,426 hits.

From September to early December, more than 118,500 unique visitors asked nearly 22,000 questions on the website. Top questions tend to vary, depending on the time of year. Last month, for example, there was a spike in questions about the cost of tuition, presumably from prospective students seeking basic information about Penn.

To create the database, staff collected 300 questions from students, parents and other stakeholders, says Jackie Smith, senior director of operations in Student Financial Services. They also assessed how questions are asked, since financial matters can be complex, and people may not know the proper nomenclature.

“The system is to return one right answer,” says Valerie Sandillo, senior director of the Student Financial Center. “We did have on our website a section called ‘Frequently Asked Questions.’ Because our business is so complex and cyclical, it required a lot of maintenance. AskBen is set up so the system actually tells us what questions are being asked.”

To read the “Top 10” questions, and ask a query of your own, visit the SRFS website at and type in a question in the askBen box at the top of the page.

Originally published Jan. 21, 2010

Originally published on January 21, 2010