Published on 2016/11/18
The EvoLLLution | Technology-Enhanced Service Transformative for Students and Institutions
The higher expectations of today’s students aren’t going away, and as corporations continue to hone and improve their customer experiences, students’ expectations will only rise. Institutions are nearing the “adapt or perish” point.

Today’s students expect more from their institutions than ever before. Self-service, immediate responses, live insights and support are all features of the corporate world, but colleges and universities have been slow to adapt. As a result, delivering an Amazon-like customer service experience has risen as a differentiator that helps to set institutions apart from one another. In this interview, Timothy Renick reflects on what it takes to develop contextual, data-driven relationships with students and shares his thoughts on how institutions can benefit from investing in their student experience.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What does it mean when we talk about institutions being able to forge contextual relations with students?

Timothy Renick (TR): We’ve known for a long time in higher education that personal relationships between students, the faculty and staff create really positive results. Small liberal arts colleges are based on the premise that what they can offer—oftentimes for a premium price—is a personal experience, smaller classrooms, more individualized advice and more contact with instructors and other campus staff. One of the challenges for large public universities was that this level of personal attention is elusive for us to deliver.

At Georgia State, which this fall enrolled over 51,000 students—27,000 of whom are Pell eligible—our challenge is trying to create those same kinds of personal interactions at the scale of a large public university. The exciting thing about some of the developments of the past few years, including some of the technologies that Georgia State is using, is that we began to approximate that experience through technology-enabled personal interactions. Through phone calls, emails, texts and in-person meetings. The kind of individualized attention that students had long received at smaller institutions can now be delivered at a large public university.

Evo: In a previous EvoLLLution interview, you pointed out the significant financial benefits for an institution that’s able to retain its students. What impact do personal relationships from the institution have on a student’s willingness to persist through their program?

TR: The benefits to institutions of building contextual, personalized relationships with students are multifaceted. The most direct benefit is that these kind of personal interactions improve retention and graduation rates. Four years ago, Georgia State launched a dedicated analytic system that tracks every student across 800 different analytic factors on a nightly basis. We’re looking for risk factors—like students who choose the wrong courses or underperform on a test—so that we can contact them when they run into trouble and help them take steps that can mitigate any kind of problems that may exist. For example, there may be resources on campus that we can direct them to. If it’s a registration issue, there may be a better course they can register for. If it’s the academic program, there may be a more appropriate major for them to pursue.

We’ve done that at scale at Georgia State for several years now and, over the last 12 months, we’ve had more than 51,000 one-on-one interactions between our advising staff and students prompted by alerts coming out of the system. We’ve seen the net effect of this on the bottom line, but the most important bottom line is benefits to the students. What we found is that students are being retained at a considerably higher rate because they’re getting this kind of daily personalized tracking and attention. Our retention rates are up 5 to 6 points and our graduation rates are up 5 to 6 points. We have students succeeding who in the past struggled. We have at-risk populations like low-income students, first-generation students and part-time students getting the white glove treatment because they are being tracked in a way that just didn’t exist a few years ago. These students are getting the personal touch—the reach out from advising staff to talk to them when there’s something amiss—and it creates really positive results.

Over the last five years, Georgia State has increased the number of degrees it confers every year by 1800 degrees annually—a 30 percent increase in the number of degrees conferred—which translates to good things for the bottom line of the university. Every 1 percent Georgia State increases its overall retention rate is worth about $3 million dollars a year in revenues from tuition and fees.

This is one of the nice instances in life where we’re doing the right thing from a moral perspective, and is also the prudent thing from a financial perspective. If your institution holds on to and supports its students, your revenue will increase because students who would otherwise drop out are able to persist over the long haul.

Another benefit for students is that they graduate more quickly. In the four years since we’ve launched the analytics-backed system, with all these interventions, the average time to degree at Georgia State has declined by about half a semester per student. Students are able to navigate the requirements of their programs more efficiently. They’re passing a higher percentage of the courses, they’re taking fewer wasted credit hours, they’re getting fitted into the right majors more quickly and, as a result, they’re graduating more quickly. What this increased time-to-completion translates to, from a dollar perspective, is a savings of about $12 million in tuition and fees for the class of 2016 compared to the class of 2013.

One additional benefit of delivering this kind of personal outreach and attention to students at scale is that it creates a different relationship between the student and the institution. In our survey and interview of graduating students we’ve seen, over the last four years, a significant change in student perception about their relationship with the university. There are a number of questions that, in the past, we didn’t do well in—questions around the provision of a supportive environment—that now students are far more positive about. While this new initiative is still fresh and we don’t know the long term implications, it’s a strong sign. We’re also interested in cultivating strong alumni relations and donations from graduates of Georgia State, as other institutions are as well, and the fact that students graduate with the impression that Georgia State provided a supportive environment that cared for them as individuals is a real bonus by just about any measure.

Evo: What would it take to be able to deliver the kind of experience you’re able to deliver now, but without the data, analytics and tracking that you have in place?

TR: There is one thing beneath the surface that people misunderstand when they hear we’re being proactive and sitting at the cutting edge of student-facing technology. They think, as a result, that we have less personnel and fewer in-person interactions with students.

We’ve actually hired about 50 additional advisors over the last four years since we went live with some of these interventions so that we could have more face-to-face meetings with students. Advisor meeting are now more targeted than before. Before we introduced these tools, an advisor might reach out to a student who had just earned their 60th credit to try to establish a path for their students. Now an advisor will reach out to a student and say, “We see you’re an accounting major and you just took your first quiz in a math course and didn’t do very well, so let’s talk about all the resources we have available to you so you can be sure that you can improve your grades in this math course to remain on-track for your accounting major.” The result of this improved targeting has resulted in students responding to such invitations at a much higher rate and it’s also helped to cultivate this personal relationship between advisors and students. There are some added expenses to using this approach, but on the other hand the technology has provided great reductions in what would otherwise be huge expenses.

A recent example is a knowledge-based texting system we’re now piloting. This system has thousands of commonly asked questions and answers programmed in, and when students go onto our website and ask a question—like “What’s the deadline for turning in my FAFSA?” or “When is the midterm break?” or any of thousands of other questions—they will get an immediate response from that knowledge base. When students ask or text a question, the system taps into the knowledge base and, if it’s one of the questions that the knowledge base already has within it’s repository, they’ll get an immediate response. If it’s not, then the question gets elevated to a higher level and somebody writes the response to the question, that response gets vetted and approved, and then that becomes part of the knowledge base for future. We launched this system in April 2016 and, in the first three months, the system sent 249,000 text responses to Georgia State students.

Could you imagine what would be the cost of providing that kind of immediate feedback at this scale to students without the use of technology? The average response time for one of those texts was 7 seconds.

To your question of what would it would cost if you tried to do this exclusively with people? Honestly, it’s not possible. There is no number of people that you could hire where you could get that quality and that volume of questions answered with an average response time of 7 seconds, but this is what student have come to expect. They text questions to or raise issues with companies like Amazon and Apple and getting immediate responses. The idea that a student might submit an email request and get a response two or three days later is no longer acceptable—it no longer meets their service expectations.

Evo: How have those advances outside the higher education space impacted the way the entire bureaucracy of the institution needs to operate to be able to meet the expectations of today’s learners?

TR: It’s a real challenge to offer that level of service, and it’s a good challenge. Hopefully it will make our institutions much stronger but it is a matter of us trying to catch up, because the sheer resources that the for-profit sector and large corporations have clearly outweigh what most universities can muster.

From 2008 to 2012, during the recession, Georgia State lost $40 million in state appropriations, and almost none of that has been restored. We’re not American Express, we’re not Amazon, we don’t have the same resources. But students are out there in a world where they’ve developed those expectations and have come to expect that customer service will be delivered at that level. One example—and it’s not a happy example for Georgia State—is from this past summer. We had 27,000 Pell students enrolled for the fall semester and we had a huge number of phone calls coming in to our financial aid office from students with questions, issues, documents and all kinds of concerns trying to get their financial aid settled for the new semester. Through July and August, we averaged 2000 phone calls each day coming into our financial aid office. People have come to expect, from interactions with major corporations, a network of people at their disposal, 24/7, to respond to their phone calls and who are able to deliver immediate service. At times we struggle to live up to those expectations. We don’t have the resources and funding to have a call center open 24/7, and when we get 2000 phone calls in a day, we don’t often have enough people to ensure a short (or even nonexistent) wait time.

Customer service advances in the corporate world are raising the bar for us and requiring us to go out and find new technologies. We’re trying to take steps to better serve the students while reducing some of the load on our staff.

Evo: What are a few other ways that institutions can leverage data and personalization to improve students’ experiences?

TR: The good news is the possibilities are almost limitless for higher education institutions in how we can leverage data and personalization technologies.

We’re experimenting at Georgia State with various sorts of portals, one of which is a financial aid portal that will allow students—without interacting with anybody—to post their own documents. After all, one of the complexities of financial aid is there’s more than just the FAFSA to complete, but in many instances there are all kinds of other supporting documentation—from tax records to other sorts of documents—that may be needed and vary by student. At Georgia State, with our 50,000 students, we’re talking about a volume of hundreds of thousands of financial aid-relevant documents being submitted at any moment. So rather than trying to have a student fax a document, then have a staff member attach it to a student file and have another staff member look at that file and process it, it why aren’t we having students simply upload the documents directly? Many banks now allow you upload deposit cheques on their apps. Why aren’t we facilitating that level of self-service, while at the same time guaranteeing that there’s no loss of documentation, no loss of time and that the student is ready to progress to the next step in processing immediately?

That’s what we’ve move to over the last few months and we’re continuing to explore just those kinds of technologies.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of data collection and analysis to actually building contextual relationships with students?

TR: We’ve always used data to guide one-on-one interactions with students. The talented professor who cares for each student is somebody who understands the importance of context—who understands the difference between what’s led different students to enroll in their classes.

Now, we have the ability to approximate that same kind of interaction through the data we collect. What’s more, if we use it intelligently, it’s not just a cold, calculated use of data to make money off students—it’s actually increasing their chances of success and delivering them the educational experience they deserve and want.

As we’ve scaled these programs with hundreds of thousands of technology-enabled interactions with students, we’ve learned that students really appreciate it and when we introduce these new technologies. We actually hear from the students that this is what they have come to expect from their interactions with other organizations, and they’re happy that Georgia State is catching up and delivering those same kinds of opportunities. To upload a document by just taking a picture of it on their phones, by providing personalized recommendations to students about majors, courses and careers based on an analytics run—these are all things students experience on a daily basis outside the university context. It’s great that we’re able to begin to deliver that kind of an experience as well.

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Key Takeaways

  • Students’ customer expectations have been shaped and molded by industry leaders outside the postsecondary industry, and it’s critical that higher education institutions begin to mirror that experience to students inside the academy.
  • Higher education leaders need to leverage tech tools and data to deliver the personalized experience students are looking for at scale.
  • By improving the student experience, institutions can improve their retention and graduation rates, which further improves their institutional standing and also impacts the bottom line.
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