Published on 2014/10/24

Greater Efficiency Shows Students that Institutions Put Them First

AUDIO | Greater Efficiency Shows Students that Institutions Put Them First
The student experience is vastly improved when institutions turn the spotlight on improving back-end and bureaucratic efficiency.
The following interview is with Meg Benke, a professor in the School for Graduate Studies at Empire State College. Benke, a board member of the Online Learning Consortium and former provost and acting president at Empire State, is a leader in higher education transformation and change. She helped to grow Empire State’s Center for Distance Learning and has been involved in issues around postsecondary access for adult students and improving student services in online programs throughout her career. In this interview, Benke discusses the impact increased efficiency has on an institution’s capacity to serve students and shares her thoughts on whether or not students actually notice the difference.

1. How does an institution’s operational efficiency impact students?

Institutions expert at serving adult learners respect the fact that our students are busy with many priorities, such as families and work, above college. In fact, we hear sometimes we’re  their third, fourth or fifth priority. So recognition of operational efficiency shows students our respect of them and their goals in this larger context of their lives. Here at Empire State College, when we ask students to assess us, through focus groups or surveys, they consistently rate us very high on both student services and faculty services. In fact, we’re consistently ranked the highest in State University of New York (SUNY) as far as student satisfaction. As adults, our students work daily in getting other services such as online banking or buying services through sites like Amazon, and in some cases these same students also work in service-related industries, so they do absolutely have high expectations. So while we would hesitate to make the admissions process as seamless as making an L.L. Bean purchase, we do make transactional services seamless and the more transformative student services of advising and mentoring much more highly personalized.

Our institution uses a combination of a centralized student services through a call center with highly-trained and personalized local resources. Call center analytics are merged with staff feedback and considerations of how technology can better support what we do. This is a continuous model of studying and improving what we do to support students in an era of reduced resources for higher education.

Updated technology is a key aspect of service delivery, but the front-line staff of a call center and the advising staff [are] also a high-level differentiator. If staff are freed up from routine interactions by technology, they then have the time to be more proactive in their work with students. Here at Empire State College we conducted significant analysis between our call center and our financial aid staff to determine at which points students needed access to advisors and how to free up staff for that effort by using technology and data analysis. This has resulted in significant improvement in students’ perception of support and the capability of staff to have aid processed in a much more timely way.

2. Building on this, how important is staff proactiveness and involvement to the student experience?

Staff proactiveness is very important but it’s also important as you look not only at the individual as being proactive, but also as the entire unit and the system collaborating as a set of college resources and departments. The student financial services example I just shared was the result of efforts between multiple departments to create dashboards, knowledge resources and conduct significant staff training.

An additional area to illustrate this point of staff proactiveness is with the provision of library supports. Librarians have been at the forefront of using staff and technology both efficiently and effectively. First-generation online library supports included well-designed library resource pages and FAQs. So, librarians spent time managing these resources, but also responding to individual student questions online. The next generation of library services included orientations, webinars and online chats. The current generation of library services includes a much greater use of analytics, direct resources and webinars within key courses in programs when they’re judged most to be in need by faculty and students.

3. Do students actually notice when an institution is particularly efficient in its operations and processes?

The first-line contact with many adult students in online programs is our faculty, and we know students rate their interaction with faculty as key to their success. Interaction with faculty has many elements. Students care about the quality and reputation of the faculty as a whole and their academic experience. But in the online environment, they also care about operational issues that surround the online classrooms, such as timely feedback and the capability of the faculty to interact comfortably through technology.

So an important aspect of operational efficiency of an institution is bolstering our faculty supports for tools, technology and training so faculty can spend their time on the most important aspect, their academic work with students. Faculty must have easy ways to use technology or other student services. For example, in the academic support area, we’ve automated faculty referrals to resources such as time management, study skills, academic integrity and other online resources that are available 24/7 and self-managed by students.  These are backed up by academic advisors and other professionals who analyze data on student referrals and reach out when there are patterns [that show the need] for more specialized interventions.

I have also worked at the national level for many years on improving access for adult learners to higher education through online education. An institution’s service perspective is an integral aspect of overall quality. From our earliest days with the Online Learning Consortium, formerly the Sloan Consortium, we’ve had five pillars of quality, and student satisfaction is one of these key elements. Through the consortium, we now have a quality scorecard that helps institutions to do [a] self-assessment of their services perspective with 14 dimensions in this category. For example, institutions rate themselves on an element such as “The Program demonstrates a student-centered focus rather than trying to fit existing on-campus services to the online student; or another element such as, “Efforts are made to engage students to minimize isolation in online learning.” Institutions can use instruments such as these to benchmark against other institutions, to do self-assessment, to help prepare for accreditation and to improve their services overall.

4. Is efficiency something that impresses students, or something they have simply come to expect from higher education institutions?

Students do expect an institution to be efficient. The emergence of online programs had impact on traditional student services throughout the country, so that now much of higher education’s operational services are provided online. But what differentiates a high-performing adult-serving institution is when it’s clear the services are also respectfully provided and are personalized as much as possible. They expect efficiency but what they look for is efficiency with quality and personalization.

So personalized mentoring and academic advising are just as integral as having automated just-in-time transcripts or student records. Institutions are now using data and analytics to personalize and adapt services and resources for when they’re needed rather than expecting students to ask for a particular service. Younger adult learners are looking more and more for things like mobile alerts and media management from staff and faculty. From services such as embedded resources in courses to automated advising checks to adaptive courseware, higher education institutions are becoming not only efficient, but also more effective. We’re working with technology partners, and between our institutions, to improve degree completion and the quality of our education programs.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of efficiency to today’s student experience, especially in the online space and what institutions can do to actually achieve that efficient level of operations?

One of the areas we haven’t talked about yet is the importance related to cost in higher education. Higher education is being criticized at the national level with the cost of education and the time to degree completion and the success of our institutions. Our institutions and our students in particular are also concerned about the cost of higher education, both in terms of the tuition dollars and in the terms of time to degree completion. An area where Empire State College and through the SUNY system has excelled is through supported transfer credit practices between institutions and enhanced assessment of prior learning practices. No longer in the state system do institutions work alone; they work more collaboratively. Through a statewide effort called OPEN SUNY, [the university system] has been reducing redundancies and increasing quality and efficiency through online learning. In addition to being the largest provider of online education in the SUNY system, Empire State College has also been leading efforts in SUNY to assist institutions in validating college-level learning acquired from work experience. Efforts such as these, where institutions work together as a system to help adult learners to have efficient and effective transfer between institutions and recognition of learning from their work experience, and the help to move more seamlessly between our institutions, reduce the cost of their degree and the time to completion. This has a compounded positive impact on working adults and improves our society at large.

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Key Takeaways

  • Efficiency is critical because it frees staff up from routine, rote tasks and allows them to be proactive in delivering personalized services to students.
  • An efficiency mandate can be central to greater collaboration across various departments and units within an institution.
  • Improving back-end and bureaucratic efficiency shows non-traditional students that the institution cares about making the educational process easier for them.
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Readers Comments

Tyler Flegg 2014/10/24 at 11:08 am

I think for the time being, efficiency in higher ed is still seen as a pleasant surprise by our students (unfortunately). But I agree with Benke that we’re quickly moving to a scenario where efficiency is expected and will no longer be a point of differentiation among institutions.

Parker Emmett 2014/10/24 at 3:28 pm

One area where I really see the value of efficient operations is in academic advising. Advising offices tend to have low staffing levels, and being able to free up staff from the rote tasks of registering students for courses allows them to focus on those “personalized” services Benke discusses, like helping students plan their academic paths or dealing with other issues that arise. It’s all part of serving students better, especially in a time when the student demographic is rapidly changing.

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