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Leveraging Technology Personalize the Student Experience

As more older learners begin choosing a school that’s best for them, it’s critical for institutions to create a personalized experience to stand out to prospective students. 

Each student is unique, and wants to feel like more than a number. When they see that an institution cares about them, they’re more likely to stay with them throughout their lifelong learning journey. As there’s more noise in the digital space, institutions need to deliver on the personalized experience students demand. In this interview, Richard Hudnett discusses what’s on the mind of prospective learners, how to market to these learners, and how personalization is the key to meeting the needs of the modern learner. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When prospective learners are considering which college university they’re going to apply to and enroll in, what’s the experience they expect?

Richard Hudnett (RH): It really depends on why they’re attending the university. There’s that population that they have their mindset early on going to a particular university. Maybe they visited the school, maybe there’s an athletic team that they really are a big fan of. But then there are others, the ones with options. Their expectations are a little bit higher. They were picky when they chose the school they were going to. And they chose that school, they compared it to others. They went through the process of saying, “If I go here, it’s going to cost this. If I go here, it’s going to cost that. Or, if I go here, I could do this and join this program.” 

Evo: What would you say that the percentage breakdown is, in terms of students who are dead set on a particular institution versus students who are behaving as shoppers?

RH: You have the undergrad population, then you have the graduate school population. The graduate school population is a lot older, wiser. They have their mind set; they went through the drill already, they know what’s going on. But the undergrad is a bit younger, just graduated from high school. So, that population is more easily persuaded to go to a certain university by their parents, by their advisors, by different people. Now, as they get older, when they select a graduate school, that process is now more on them. It’s them driving the ship or directing the boat. So, the percentage is much higher for the undergraduate population compared to the graduate population. 

Evo: How can you leverage the website to build that narrative to make sure you’re providing the right information to the right learner, so they can make an informed choice?

RH: Let’s say graduate school, it’s important to be very clear, cut and dry with the tuition. Some universities will give the total cost of a program. Giving a clear, definitive number for tuition and providing explanation is very important. Graduate students are typically working professionals. So, some of the factors that would be important to that population would be class time and delivery modality. 

Laying out key information for undergrad gets a lot more complicated because there are a lot more factors, like room and board, where it’s located. Unfortunately many schools aren’t clear because it is intricate. But to know if they like a particular school, students have to know what the cost is going to be. 

Evo: How does an institution deliver personalization at the scale that a modern college university needs to bring in the enrollments it needs?

RH: You have to make it very welcoming. And people need to feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling a number and getting answers. They don’t want to be harassed or put in the queue—they want quick answers. That type of unique service really helps them because, if people have their mindset on a university and it’s hard work to look at other options, they’ll go with their first choice. The motivation has to be there. So, you want to reduce the amount of effort prospective students have, to put into getting important information and making that decision.

Evo: How could technology be leveraged to create more information that’s tailored on demand to each learner, rather than becoming reliant on taking that step to contact an individual at the institution? 

RH: There’s a lot of information out there, and understanding the information costs money and time. With the website, you can start to analyze where people are coming from, where they are getting information, how long they are spending, how much time they are spending on the initial page, the second page they visit, etc. Managing that will give school administrators key information about the university.

If 75% of the people that come and check out our MBA program on the website visit the tuition page second, you can start to develop a roadmap of what the average prospective student is looking for and what’s important to them. Then, you can encourage them to reach out and get additional information, or to take the next step in the relationship, whatever that looks like.

Evo: What would a personalized experience look like for a learner who’s grown up with Amazon?

RH: I’m doing a lot of online stuff and have been for a few years now. And so, what happens is that you run into these situations, where the first thing that comes to my mind is, “Oh, I’ve experienced this.” And then the second thing that happens is I stop listening.

Personalizing the experience is about listening to what it is that students want. And the trick lies in going from, “Okay, let me erase that and just embrace it, like it’s the first time, every time with each student.” And that creates a win-win situation because they feel like you’re listening—because you are—and that allows the relationship to develop. Each student is unique, each student is not going into that automatic mood.

They prefer for the experience to feel a little bit more human and understanding. You could tell when the other person on the other end is actually taking the time to hear you and embrace, whatever frustration you’re dealing with. The process in that experience is so much better when you feel like you’re heard or like you’re understood. And often it’s tough to do that because we’re like, “Oh, I have already been there, I’ve had this situation.” And then we shut down, and we don’t listen as a university.

Evo: What impact do you see personalization having on enrollment and retention growth?

RH: Right now, it’s massive on enrollment and retention. If you think about it, it can manifest into a very long-term relationship. It can take an undergrad and enroll them into a graduate program. It can develop if it’s good. With a personalized relationship, students have a better experience and could evolve into very strong alumni that go out and promote the university. It keeps students engaged, it keeps them feeling like they’re not just a number. They’re here, they’re part of this community, they’re part of this university, they represent the university.

If you want good customers that last a while, you have to listen to them and make them feel as if they’re important, which they are. You can’t just cut them off and move on because that affects retention, that affects what they share about the university. 

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about personalization scale and creating this environment for today’s learners?

RH: Everyone is different, everyone is unique. We need to develop a system, where we’re not just going through the motions, but looking at each individual. Even though some universities have tons of students, each student has the potential to be the next Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. With that approach, that level of seriousness, that level of care for each student really matters and makes a tremendous difference with their long-term relationship with the university. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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