David Glezerman, founder of DRG Group, describes how institutions can better utilize technology to create better communications with students.
With the higher education industry reaching yet another crossroads in its never-ending journey to create knowledge paths, teach expertise and train new generations of students in the skills and instructions to manage their lives, colleges and universities across the spectrum are encountering multiple challenges and dilemmas in how to efficiently manage their campus and online operations, while also creating and guiding a greatly expanded student experience.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited many instructional and operational changes out of necessity – and demonstrated how change does not require extensive use of committees and long periods of time – many other issues and events have arisen to open up new debates and discussions about best practices and new directions.
As the 21st century’s “Roaring 20’s” progress, higher education institutions must again look to retool how they do business that impacts its current and future students in an environment where academic and administrative needs often clash amid conflicts between affordability, funding, proving educational quality and creating a student success-driven experience.
Higher education also must simultaneously recognize and manage students’ concerns in this changing world. Issues such as mental health, food insecurity and equity are now thrown under the same umbrella as student debt, financing an education, career placement and just trying to have some fun. All of these issues appearing on the radar at this same moment in time have many students and their families asking whether their investment to earn a college degree really provides value.
How can higher education professionals create and maintain the changing culture needed to attract and convert prospects into students, offer a high-quality student experience to retain these individuals, construct a student success-driven environment and graduate their students with such positive feelings about the school that they become active alumni and donors? Let’s explore some issues and concerns that higher education institutions must address and resolve so that students and school, alike, can experience mutual benefits and successes.
The Next Generations of Students
Where are the next generations of students coming from? We already know that the demographic models show the traditional prospect pool of 18 to 22-year-olds is shrinking and will continue its downward trend. Community colleges already have identified this, and are recruiting larger numbers of adult learners and individuals desiring retraining as new enrollment and, thus, revenue sources.
Traditional four-year public and private institutions also are shifting direction to compete for these same student populations, as well as working with the community college sector through various agreements that facilitate student transfers from the two-year schools. Many institutions are resuming and strengthening their initiatives to attract greater numbers of international students back into the United States, in lieu of opening or growing programs in other countries.
Meanwhile, there are rumblings that the traditional higher education model must shift and adjust to a world where employers are more concerned about competencies than degrees. Creating and offering more certificate-based programs that are more competency-based can potentially lead to shorter time frames to complete programs and faster access into new jobs or careers while reducing tuition costs for students – and much less student loan debt.
Rather than sending employees to colleges and universities for training and development, many companies, such as Amazon, are now investigating how they can offer their own educational programs that can be tailored more closely to corporate needs and desired skills. Designing these new programs could greatly reduce the student pool and seriously impact revenues. Small private colleges and some for-profit schools are especially at risk because of their dependence on tuition revenues and sensitivity to enrollment shifts.
As institutions seek out their own formulas to maintain or grow enrollments, how they manage the student experience will be one of their key success factors. Successful prospecting and admissions processes can easily deteriorate, not just through traditional and expected summer melts, but, more importantly, establishing a clear and easy path for students to navigate through their academic “career” and the related administrative processes that are required by reasons tied to both institutional and student finances as well as regulatory compliance.
A key element to starting students down the right path to an outstanding experience is setting expectations at the beginning of the journey. How a school communicates with its students (both new and continuing) as well as their families and other related constituents will set the tone of how the institution functions and what’s important to know and do.
Throughout the admissions process, there’s usually an open and easily accessible or navigable path to information. Why not – when you’re wanted and needed, we’ve got to keep it simple. Campus marketing departments focus on clear and concise messaging to bring prospective students on-board to apply. Successful applicants know they are wanted by the school, but don’t necessarily know what the institution wants next.
Whether it’s related to academic programs or financial aid, getting on-campus housing or paying one’s bill, institutions must continue to proactively communicate what students need to do and how to get it done. The acceptance letter from Admissions not only sets the congratulatory tone for becoming “one of the family,” it should start to set the expectations for what a student needs, when it’s due and why it’s important.
In more traditional settings, student orientation programs often provide a crucial opportunity to set the direction for student success and a positive experience. Unfortunately, orientation programs try to accommodate every and all needs and wants from a multitude of offices, while simultaneously attempting to set out the path for students’ academic careers. Add in the need to create a “fun” atmosphere for these new community members forces organizers to find the right balance between information, knowledge sharing and enjoyment.
These issues can be exacerbated when working with late admitted or transfer students. Having little or no lead time to share necessary information such as financial aid and billing deadlines, course registration and/or academic advising appointments or other “routine” knowledge that students eventually acquire on their own, these students start out at a higher risk of failure because the school cannot adequately provide the levels of knowledge and information needed to navigate through the institutional processes.
Best practice institutions have discovered, sometimes through trial and error, that working with and actively communicating with students between the times that they confirm their admission by paying their deposits through the time they actually set foot on campus (or officially log in for online programs) can ease the burdens of “learning the system” and better prepare students for their experiences.
Establishing a system to identify what data or consents are wanted or needed from students as well as what information must be provided to students is a key first step in creating a positive student experience. These needs and wants will vary depending on whether the information is related academic or administrative processes, if there is a time-critical element involved with the information sharing (deadline driven, inability to proceed with other tasks, etc.) or if there’s just some other need to know (i.e., personal preferences vs. academic requirements).
How Can Technology Help Us to Help Them?
In a data-driven world of decision making and knowledge building, there should be no qualms about leveraging any and all technology resources to share information to enhance two-way communications and facilitate information sharing and data acquisition. Often, we tend not to optimize communications channels or technology platforms because of conflicting priorities, lack of information technology (IT) resources or differences in philosophies or opinions among functional users. These reasons and many other similar viewpoints cause colleges and universities to minimize or even ignore that creating a positive student experience is the key element in retention, graduation and in the longer term, donations and alumni engagement.
How can schools best leverage technology to communicate with students and enhance both their experiences and performance? Start simply by looking at how you are messaging and delivering your notification or request. While students are primarily your target audience, consider if and when your outreach is being directed to parents, prospects, alumni or other constituents in the campus community
Outbound communications are another area where institutions need to better recognize and adjust their messages and requests to different student populations and their related characteristics. First generation families may not have knowledge of the college experience and its requirements that are found in other groups where parents and siblings already have navigated through campus life. Language barriers may impact international students’ understanding of expectations. Other categories of students may also require either more targeted or neutral language to respect diversity or similar issues.
Taking advantage of institutional marketing departments and their expertise in crafting language and messaging should become a best practice that’s implemented for other student-facing business units and departments, not just focused on the admissions process. Clear and concise language is crucial in any outbound message, whether via email, text, portal or website posts or even with a snail mail letter.
Another best practice that schools can easily implement is to create or maintain a coordinating committee that incorporates stakeholders from student servicing academic and administrative offices to identify required information and data needed from or disseminated to students. Through use of online checklists that sequence information categories and completion dates, students can be directed to a portal site or web link to complete and return necessary information (i.e., FERPA waivers, student loan counseling, housing selection, etc.) based on institutionally-determined priorities and due dates. At the same time, the committee can coordinate outbound communications to both students, parents and other constituents based on time sensitivity and due dates. Having a coordinated communications plan minimizes the volume of emails or other correspondence sent to students and reduces information overload coming from multiple college offices which likely leads to students ignoring all of these messages, despite their value or importance.
IT and marketing requirements and resources must always be factored into the communications process, particularly when individual departments are overly dependent on a central IT department or resources. While there may be full-time employees or student workers within a department who are adept with social media usage, these offices may lack expertise in proprietary systems or software applications used for email, portal or web-based communications (both outbound and inbound). Although it may be a luxury at some colleges to have skilled staff within individual offices, it is beneficial to have control of departmental messaging for quick responses and handling of trending situations or notifications rather than a reliance on a central IT source where you must justify a request and wait for prioritization and action.
Using a portal-based approach to gather information and obtain student contents can maximize institutional efficiencies and priorities since the portal will become the “one-stop” place to find and return data while allowing multiple departments to piggyback into the application. Through quality branding and effective communication to educate students and other users for the portal, institutions can greatly enhance their messaging and make it consistent rather than risking inaccurate or outdated information popping up on individually-managed websites.
Portals provide the most efficient vehicle not only for sharing information, but also for obtaining required and even optional student consent to meet various compliance requirements, such as FERPA waivers, accepting financial aid awards, student loan entrance counseling and, most recently, financial responsibility agreements acknowledging rights and responsibilities inherent with paying for one’s education, as well as potential consequences for non-payment.
Equally important, students and other users who have been authorized to look at specific information, particularly billing statements and payment links, can easily find necessary information without having to navigate through numerous sites and applications. Simplicity found through the portal creates an easier journey through the administrative processes that are necessary as part of the student experience.
When considering how to best use changing technologies, look to mobile applications and accessibility through personal devices rather than force users into laptops, desktops or kiosks. Enabling students to do their business on their phones or pads will encourage them to act sooner and meet deadlines with less friction and pushback.
However, it’s important to make sure that all communications options are available since one size does not fit all for any group of students, parents or other customers. Recent surveys show that while students don’t necessarily like email, they will use that tool to communicate when it’s most convenient for them to respond or share information.
As you’re looking to create a best practice environment, enable “choice” when considering how you’re going to communicate with students and other campus constituents. Think about how to best use multi-channel communications deftly so your important messages are not lost in junk…or just ignored. Develop a well-honed and thought out “3-C” communications plan for reaching out to students, parents, prospects, alumni, and employees that offers messaging which is:
Bring together representatives of student-facing offices, both administrative and academic, to consider how and when to reach out to receive and deliver important information so as not to create an information overload, which eventually leads to a complete tune-out of the school’s notifications and requests. Ignoring or disregarding messages leads to missed deadlines, additional fees, many more inbound calls, emails and office visits, and ultimately to a poor customer service and student experience.
Creating Your Students’ Checklists
Best practice institutions help new students help themselves and feel part of the campus community by providing them with a to-do list of items requiring their attention and action. Usually coordinated by the campus office responsible for student orientation programs, these online checklists help students gather necessary information and complete required forms on a timely basis without need for persistent follow-up.
Taking advantage of portal-based checklists with real-time updating can simplify and ease the path for two-way transfer of information and data needed by students and school, alike. These checklists and online forms also facilitate the gathering of required student consent or acceptance for various functions and processes, such as FERPA waivers, agreement of financial rights and responsibilities, or input of designated emergency contacts.
Here are some helpful hints (though not a complete list) of items to consider for building your student checklists:
- Identify the responsible office(s) that will gather and disseminate requirements and design the checklist.
- Determine how/where the student checklist will be housed (i.e., portal, website).
- Involve all academic and administrative offices to build out their requirements.
- Centralize the information gathering functions.
- Engage your IT department to design and/or build the pages and links to other related pages or sites.
- Determine where completed information will be housed, considering institutional data privacy and security requirements for maintaining personally identifiable information (PII).
- Establish a feedback loop to inform students how to complete required forms and notifications that task(s) are completed or require action.
Managing a successful orientation process and positive student experience requires much planning and constant tweaking of your processes. Starting with a basic outline of what’s needed by the school and what should be shared with students before they arrive on campus can make or break how your “customers” feel about you and your institution.
At a time when colleges and universities are facing decreasing enrollments, more scrutiny from legislators, regulators and accrediting agencies, in addition to questions from students and parents about the value of a college education, it’s important to take advantage of technology and marketing resources to enhance our communications to students, recognize their differences and tailor our messaging to maximize an effective and efficient environment that creates not just a positive student experience while in school, but builds an outcome for student success that will last for a lifetime.
David R. Glezerman is currently the Managing Partner of The DRG Group, LLC, which works with colleges and universities as well as third party business partners on training and business process management issues. David spent 40 years in higher education management, retiring from Temple University as an assistant vice president.