Top-To-Bottom Commitment to Student-Centricity Critical for Institutions Today
The days of higher education’s norm being exclusive, closed academies that dictate to students from above are numbered. Today’s learners are looking for more engagement with their institution, a more immersive experience and a higher level of service. In the continuing education and extension space, this is not so much a deviation from the norm as it is a distillation of the norm. In this interview, Wayne Smutz shares his thoughts on what it takes for a college or university to be truly student-centric—and how institutions can benefit from this—and reflects on the role of technology in delivering a student-centric experience.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the factors that that really define a “student-centric” institution?
Wayne Smutz (WS): The first question to ask when determining whether your institution is student-centric is this: “Is it welcoming?” The institution needs to project the fact that we want the students to be here, that we’re here to serve them.
You have to know if this is evident in every aspect of the institution. Does that come though in the architecture? Does that feeling come from the branding? Does it come from the staff? Is it present online? It needs to be present in every way you can imagine. Projecting the idea, “We want you to be here and we want to serve you,” is absolutely critical.
After that, you need to make sure you have processes in place that allow you to follow through on delivering that impression, processes that don’t make students stand in line for 15 minutes. Just this week, I personally stood in line for over an hour to deal with a parking issue. It’s nuts! What business can run like this?
Student-centricity is in the projection, it’s in the processes, and it’s in the commitment to constantly look at everything you do to make sure that it’s student-friendly.
We have a strategic plan outlining four priorities and one of them is putting students first. Everybody in the organization knows it. Now, we’re not always there yet but it’s critical to signal constantly to staff that student-centricity needs to be part of everything we do.
Evo: Why is it so important for today’s colleges and universities to focus on delivering a student-centric experience?
WS: We are going through a really key change in the way people think about universities. For a long time, students thought of institutions as places that guided the way; universities were very well-respected and they provided students an education.
Today, we’re in an environment where people are questioning why students and external stakeholders don’t have a greater stake in postsecondary programming. What’s more, there’s a sense that students’ postsecondary outcomes are being acquired as part of a transaction because of the immense cost of higher education. The cost is driving this change of perspective, alongside the wider questioning of the role and work of universities that really hadn’t happened in the past. The third dimension of this is the fact that students are not necessarily getting jobs—or jobs that are relevant to their education—after graduating. It’s pushing a lot of people to ask whether higher education is worth the investment.
Even in the learning context, we are moving away from a very faculty-driven and content-driven educational process. Now we’re asking, “What does the student need to learn?” as opposed to, “What do we want to teach the students?” That revised learning focus looks at how we facilitate student development most effectively. This is a large, philosophical swing that’s going on and it underpins and fuels the need to be more student-centric.
Now, it can go too far. I don’t think 18- to 22-year-olds necessarily know what a good education should be and they should not be in charge of designing their own curriculum. However, that doesn’t mean the way we treat them or the way we respond to them should be anything other than respectful.
Evo: How is the importance of student-centricity magnified in the continuing education and extension context?
WS: The need for student-centricity is magnified in the extension space because we tend to be self-supporting organizations, which means we need to operate more like a business than the rest of the university.
We’ve always been moving towards this end of the spectrum in terms of how we provide service and how we respond to needs because our customers really have to be happy. That’s particularly important in the online environment, because students can up and leave in an instant if they’re dissatisfied. If you move to Los Angeles to go to UCLA and you have a bad experience in the first month, you’re unlikely to leave the institution right away because you’ve made a major commitment to be there. But if you’re online and you have a bad experience, you can go to lots of other institutions almost immediately. It doesn’t cost a whole lot and the barriers to movement between institutions are exceedingly low.
As CE units, we tend to have to be more responsive to students and hopefully we are influencing the rest of the campus. The academic leaders on campus tend to really bristle at the concept of customer service. However, one of the things we can agree upon is that, when a student is in a classroom, they’re not a customer—they are something else. That doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect—and in this way we need to change the way we’re doing things—but in the classroom they’re not a customer in the sense that they’re paying for something. But when they’re registering for classes, when they’re being advised, when they are doing all the things the student has to do that has nothing to do with the classroom, they’re customers. They pay a lot of money to the university and we need to serve them efficiently and effectively, which clearly labels students as customers. One way to handle this divide is to think of their different roles: customer outside the classroom; student inside the classroom; respected everywhere.
Evo: What role does technology play in an institution’s student-centricity?
WS: Technology can enable us to provide more efficient services to individuals. This is something I’ve discussed on The EvoLLLution in previous pieces. We know that, in general, the world is increasingly moving to more self-service-oriented technologies, which means students are used to taking care of numerous functions themselves using technology rather than having other people do it for them.
Technology can help institutions offload work and become much more efficient. Using technology frees up staff time, allowing them to provide more high-touch service to students. They can be freed up to do the things that are really important—the things that really make an impact on the student experience, like advising—more personally. I really like the high-tech/high-touch approach and we try to use both here because they are both essential.
Evo: How can delivering a student-centric experience help institutions differentiate themselves in today’s competitive postsecondary marketplace?
WS: Being able to distinguish yourself in the marketplace is absolutely critical and a commitment to high-touch student services is one of the things that can do that. When people have good experiences with you, it makes them want to come back. Student-centricity gives you a very distinctive place in the market because a lot of institutions still struggle with moving away from the older higher education model.
At UCLA Extension, we’re trying to move our organization toward student-centric experiences at every level, not just in terms of services but in terms of the learning environment as well. Those learning experiences increasingly have to emotionally connect to students so that they really get excited about the learning. It has to transform in a way that it becomes something people want to continue with because they engage and enjoy that learning experience so much. We’re not there yet but that’s where we’re trying to take this organization.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes to truly accomplish student-centricity in the postsecondary context?
WS: When it comes to student-centricity, you will never get to a finish line or a point where it’s done. You just have to keep at. Institutions constantly have new staff coming in, so new people have to be oriented to this way of thinking and working.
You never reach “student-centricity.” It’s something that needs to be pursued. It’s an ongoing effort.
Author Perspective: Administrator