How e-signatures transformed educational institutions in only a year

E-signatures are critical to our education system. Explore a recent study from IDC and Adobe Document Cloud covering Digital Transformation for K-12 and Higher Ed.

Top view shop of kids at desks on electronic devices.

The U.S. education system has undergone massive transformation over the past year. The disruption of COVID-19 has compelled half of all American schools to go fully remote, while another 20 percent have adopted hybrid models. Many educators believe this shift has permanently altered the landscape of student-teacher engagement, which will remain primarily digital even in a post-pandemic world.

Now that many students, teachers and administrators work remotely, paper-centric processes have become more unsustainable than ever. For example, wet signatures can only be authenticated if signed in person — a process that often takes days, which can turn into weeks when a document has to travel to multiple remote locations. Paper forms are also highly vulnerable to error and can even pose risks to regulatory compliance.

In response, a growing number of schools are implementing paperless signing processes — not only for student-facing forms like individualized education programs (IEPs) in K-12, but also for higher-ed student-facing forms like course add/drops, and even operational forms like onboarding packets and vendor contracts. As a result, these organizations are realizing significant time savings in the immediate term, while preparing their institutions for a future in which more education takes place virtually.

Let’s take a closer look at how these schools are implementing e-signatures — and what has changed for them as a result.

The realities of virtual education have made paper signatures impractical.

Expectations for educational environments have evolved rapidly over the past 12 months. According to a recent IDC Digital Transformation study in partnership with Adobe Document Cloud, a full 63 percent of U.S. parents report feeling concerned about their child’s risk of contracting COVID on campus, and almost one-fifth of those parents say they would like to see virtual learning opportunities continue even after the pandemic ends.

In response to COVID-related expectations like these, a full 70 percent of U.S. educational institutions have increased their focus on business continuity and cost optimization in a remote-education world. Among K-12 schools, colleges and universities, 39 percent say they are actively accelerating their digital transformation efforts, while 65 percent report that they are “willing to take risks” over the next six months to become leaders in digital education.

This transformation is particularly crucial in the area of document processing. In 2020, educational institutions in the U.S. processed an average of 85,000 signed documents every single week — and 35 percent of educational institutions expect document volumes to increase over the next 18 to 21 months. That adds up to a major problem when 77 percent of U.S. education workflows involve time-consuming, error-prone paper-based processes.

The good news is that e-signatures eliminate many of the costs and risks of paper-based signatures, while providing immediate returns in speed and security — as many institutions have discovered for themselves over the past year.

Schools who have adopted electronic signatures enjoy a wide range of practical benefits.

When education went remote in early 2020, decision makers at The University of New Mexico (UNM) did not hesitate: they quickly rolled out e-signatures across their human resources (HR), procurement and finance departments and the UNM Health System, using digital signing in every process from tuition payments to scholarship applications and benefits paperwork to access requests.

As a result, purchasing admins for UNM Health Systems can now process outside vendor agreements in just days instead of weeks, while their grant department can easily track awards from a single centralized app. E-signed PDFs enabled the university to keep admissions coming in — even during a data center blackout. And digital registration made it easy to coordinate emergency childcare for more than 300 workers and their families.

UNM has reaped substantial rewards from a small initial investment in a seemingly minor piece of technology. These benefits have proven so transformative that UNM has now rolled out digital signatures across all departments — and is even developing brand-new forms designed to take full advantage of the speed, security and automation of electronic document processes.

Implementing e-signatures is easier — and more necessary — than ever.

Even for schools that don’t operate multiple campuses serving thousands of students, digital signatures begin delivering immediate practical benefits from day one. A full 62 percent of schools who have implemented e-signatures report enhanced security around their documents — while 34 percent report shorter turnaround times, and another 26 percent report stronger compliance with regulations like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Even beyond the pandemic, e-signing provides resiliency and flexibility in today’s increasingly unpredictable education world. Digital signatures safeguard consistent workflows in response to changing conditions like weather or health emergencies. In fact, access to digital services like e-signatures is a crucial component of technology parity: ensuring that all employees and students have secure access to the resources required to perform their work.

E-signatures have become far more than just beneficial — they have become essential to the long-term stability of our education system. By streamlining applications and vendor agreements, minimizing error, safeguarding private data, and increasing operational agility, seamless digital signing serves as a key administrative cornerstone for forward-looking educational institutions.

Learn more about incorporating e-signatures into your institution’s forms processes here.