How changing expectations are shaping the student experience and influencing the value of higher education (and how you can keep up)

From Pathify Magazine

Students may be returning to higher ed campuses, but their expectations aren’t resetting. After a tumultuous 18 months, they’re placing even more emphasis on student experience and keeping a careful eye on the value of their education. To combat dropping enrolling numbers and a looming enrollment cliff, standout higher ed institutions are paying special attention to shifting expectations and providing a more well-rounded student experience.

“Higher ed was already changing before the pandemic. There’s a lot of competition out there,” said Dr. Gerald Jones, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs at Tallahassee Community College. “We’re in a very competitive market. How do we meet the needs of our students during these critical times?”

Student Consumers & the Demand for Educational ROI

Those in higher education have noticed evolving student expectations for several years. From how classes are conducted to what support services are offered to the tech solutions and communication channels in place, the consumer-minded nature of incoming students is leading them to expect more from their higher ed experience. To meet these evolving demands, schools need to consider that students see themselves as consumers and keep that perspective in mind when strategizing student experience goals, according to Dr. Jason Ruckert, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“Even if this is something we might not want to hear, if you were to see a group of students on campus and ask them if they see themselves as a consumer of the university, I believe their answer probably would be yes,” said Dr. Ruckert. “Students have come to expect a high level of service in return for their investment. They’re used to brands forming and maintaining relationships with them, and they view colleges and universities similarly. In a really fiercely competitive global market for higher education, we as educational providers need to ensure that student experience is a top priority.”

As students take a more consumer-minded approach to higher education, they’re often focusing on the return on investment (ROI) offered by their educational experience. This increasing emphasis on educational ROI is likely tied to the drastically increasing price tag for a higher education coupled with a fluctuating job market. With students acutely aware of the burden of student loan debt and spooked by several economic recessions during their childhoods, they’re now carefully weighing the cost of higher education. “Going to college” is no longer the assumed next step for many students as they evaluate the value behind that decision.

“Student expectations are evolving around a lot of things like affordability and return on investment,” said Dr. Ruckert. “We’re hearing a lot more of that in higher education than we did in the past decades. People are hyper focused on the value proposition that an institution provides. What will their return on investment be after graduation.” 

This means having solid job prospects and the skills to be successful post-graduation. To align with those expectations, higher ed institutions need to pay close attention to the programs they offer, according to Dr. Jones. Courses, degrees and certifications need to focus on enabling student economic mobility post-graduation, he noted.

The Importance of a Holistic College Experience

While job prospects and earning potential are a top priority for most students, they want more from the college experience overall to make it worth their time and investment. For today’s students, educational ROI also means having an enriching and supportive experience while taking courses. For the money they’re paying, they expect more than just classes and a degree. They want to feel like they’re valued by the institution and have access to support services to help them transition into the next phases of their lives. If these services aren’t available or prioritized, students may second guess spending the money on a degree.

“Previously, higher education was very focused on a student’s academic success and getting them from course to course. Now it’s all about making sure the student is supported 360 degrees,” said Dr. Matthew Gregory, Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs at Labouré College. “That has made it more enticing for a student to go to college, more enticing for them to earn a degree.”

Dr. Gregory notes that “everything that impacts a student outside of a classroom impacts their ability to be successful in the classroom.” Higher ed institutions now have to take a more comprehensive approach to student support. On the academic front, this means making courses and academic help more readily available, something that shifted and evolved during the pandemic. Even with the return to campus, hybrid learning modalities are emerging as a lasting model at many higher ed institutions. Students have shown a reluctance to let go of lecture recordings, virtual office hours and on-demand help, even as many of them are eager to return to in-person learning. In many instances, the technology solutions put in place to handle a forced remote learning situation better align with the “on-demand, anytime” life students are used to leading.

For Labouré College, this includes solutions like an online tutoring platform where students can ask questions off hours and receive an answer within minutes, rather than waiting for official tutors to be available during business hours. Labouré also moved advising sessions online, allowing students to drop into virtual office hours instead of attending an on-campus advising appointment.

“Creating things that can be accessed at the time that’s convenient to students, that has been very beneficial to them,” said Dr. Gregory.

Non-academic student support services are also increasingly important. The pandemic took a noticeable toll on the mental and social well being of many people. Higher ed institutions can’t ignore these challenges and need to find creative ways to address them. This can look like anything from a mental health counseling mobile app to an on-campus food pantry to address food insecurity, according to Dr. Jones. 

“At TCC we just launched a model we call CARE, which is a comprehensive student services model,” Dr. Jones explained. “CARE stands for Connections, Academics, Resources and Engagement. Through those four angels we aim at providing students an exceptional student experience to meet their needs as they study and graduate. Within that particular model we offer out of the classroom support both academic and non-academic.”

Making Support Matter

Offering support services is important, but it does little good if students don’t participate.  That’s why many schools are taking steps to actively put resources in front of students.

“In the past, you had to go seek out services,” Dr. Gregory said. “Now we follow an intrusive advising model. We want to give students those services in advance, whether they like them or not, because we know that they may actually need them at some point. I much prefer this model because it allows us to have conversations that students never realized they needed to have in the first place.” 

It all comes down to making the higher education experience match the consumer-world experience, Dr. Ruckert explained.

“We’re in an era of Amazon Prime, Grubhub and online grocery orders and deliveries,” he said. “Students expect their interactions across campus to be seamless, not cumbersome. They don’t expect to run across the entire campus just to get simple tasks completed. When they want assistance, they certainly want it quicker than maybe we’ve been able to provide in the past. That’s where chatbots and a lot of the technology out there can be an advantage for institutions.”

“We’re in an era of Amazon Prime, Grubhub and online grocery orders and deliveries. Students expect their interactions across campus to be seamless, not cumbersome.”

— Dr. Jason Ruckert
Vice President of Enrollment Management
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University 

Higher ed institutions had been using technology to help students connect long before the pandemic, but over the past year ed tech solutions became even more important. In many cases, it became a lifeline to keep college communities together. For many institutions, including TCC and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, that has taken the form of an app that allows students and faculty to connect and engage online. These apps are vital to connecting different student groups — such as remote students, adult learners and student populations spread across different campuses. Giving students from different walks of life the ability to engage creates a sense of belonging and community, something that’s increasingly important to overall student success and wellbeing.

“We have an app called MyTTC, which is the gateway for student connections and engagement on our campus,” Dr. Jones said. “Faculty is there, staff is there, students even have the opportunity to meet new friends via the app through the various groups, such as our first year experience program, which is designed to offer high impact programs to build a sense of belonging to all new students at TCC.”

“At our own institution we created a virtual community for adult learners to join clubs and be part of the SGA and things like that so that they could feel just as connected as the residential students,” said Dr. Ruckert. “We also have a lot of our faculty that are engaging in the virtual community as a way to connect with students outside of the classroom, which I think is critically important.”

Your Magic Wand: Student Input

The key to keeping up with student expectations and creating a worthwhile experience is listening to students, all three experts agreed. Expectations change so quickly that new programs one year may not be the right fit next year. Schools that value student experience understand the need to be flexible and adjust quickly.

“Creating a positive experience for your students is a moving target, it’s not a stationary one,” said Dr. Ruckert. “The things we’re doing right now to enhance the students’ experience is a great starting point, but I think it’s one that we should constantly look to evolve and continue to get better at.”

Tools like student surveys, listening sessions, focus groups and feedback portals give students the opportunity to influence their experience. For institutions, these tools are an invaluable way to stay connected with the student body and ensure services and initiatives align with real student wants and needs. 

“We’re always evolving. It’s so important that as we grow that we value the students’ input. That we value the students’ voice and that we be on the cutting edge of innovation and change in higher education,” said Dr. Jones. “What we may offer students today via their input may not be the same as what we value and offer them tomorrow because systems change, seasons change and we just want to be on the cutting edge of change.”

While shifting student expectations may be challenging for higher ed institutions to keep up with, institutions don’t have a choice. At the end of the day, they wouldn’t exist without students. Keeping the student experience, expectations and needs at the heart of planning and decision making will help higher ed remain attractive as students expect more from their experience.

“We should be reminded that we are here because of the students,” Dr. Jones said. “My motto is ‘Always Students, Always First.’ In everything we do, if we remember that then you can’t go wrong because it should always be about the student experience.”

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