Retaining Non-Traditional Students with a High-Touch, High-Tech Experience
If student enrollment rates are declining, the issue may lie right in front of you—the student experience. Today’s learners are looking for that Amazon experience that provides a seamless search and checkout when finding the right courses for them. With their busy lifestyles, they don’t want to jump over multiple hurdles to get to where they need to go. Institutions need to ensure they’re providing that seamless experience that will get students from point A to point B with the least amount of stress for both staff and students. In this interview, Chris Moir and Suzanne Ortiz discuss the barriers they faced when it came to enrollments, how they were able to overcome them, and how they’re leveraging Destiny One to retain learners over their lifetime.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the main barriers that adult students face when it comes to enrollment and assistance?
Chris Moir (CM): The student experience was one of the first things we looked at when going through the process of determining our online registration. We want students to be able to go in, register, pay and receive a registration confirmation in one smooth transaction.
Although that sounds like it should be simple, our past process didn’t allow students to navigate the registration process in a few clicks. A cumbersome registration process will lead to lost students.
Most students who are looking for workforce education, non-credit courses, are not willing to systematically navigate a particular college’s website. If you don’t have a system that’s very user friendly and delivers a seamless experience, chances are that they’re going to become really frustrated.
When they’re frustrated, they’ll either go look for another institution that can provide a better experience, or they’ll give up. Either way, it creates the potential to lose a registration completely. And they won’t do any follow-up because we know that our students are working full time jobs and are probably trying to take care of families.
In that instance that we’ve got them on our website, we want to make sure that the registration process is extremely user friendly, so they convert.
Evo: From a college perspective, why is it that students who register in credit-bearing courses and who register in non-credit courses are treated completely separately?
CM: That gap is part of what we discovered as a self-imposed barrier. Whether a student is credit or non-credit, their total experience—including their student number—should be the same.
Over time, we as a college have kept those separated. It was really important for us to step back and align the credit and non-credit student experience. This way, all of our students had the same identifier and were engaged with the same experience, without separating them out into two silos.
It takes time as an institution to realize that a student number is important whether you’re a credit, non-credit, or a community member just trying to come in to take community ed courses.
Suzanne Ortiz (SO): That student number (S-number) is key to every process at Tri-C. And a lot of our non-credit students, though they were students, had no idea they had an S-number or student status here.
Evo: How has your shift to the Destiny One platform addressed these challenges?
SO: Now, once students register online and get an S-number, they have access to services across the institution, and it simplifies their sign-in process to re-enroll or engage with the college. They don’t have to wait for someone to call them back.
This has taken a huge amount of pressure off of our enrollment center. Because of our previous system’s limitations, a lot of individuals registered by visiting or calling the enrollment center. That put a lot of pressure on enrollment center representatives, who might not necessarily know the full catalog of course and program offerings.
With Destiny One, students can find and register for courses and programs quickly and easily. So, we’re freeing up time for the enrollment center, and those enrollment center individuals can advise students and have deep conversations. Destiny One is a user-friendly system and it allows us to provide a much better customer experience.
From an administrative perspective, we can also get new programs to market incredibly quickly. We can put a class in the system and within five minutes it’ll be put out there for people to register. That’s huge. We used to have to wait 24 or even 48 hours because everything was manual.
Evo: What impact does this high-touch, high-tech experience have on your ability to retain learners over their lifetime?
CM: As a college, we’ve focused squarely on access and completion—both on the credit side and the non-credit side. Not only is it important to make sure that the user experience on the front end allows students access and into Cuyahoga Community College, but we want to make sure that we retain those students.
Even if they come in for a non-credit workforce offering, if there’s three courses in a series that lead to a certificate, we want to make sure that they complete all three courses and obtain the certificate. You can eliminate all the barriers to come in, but we also need to focus on persistence and attainment. A student may only take one out of three courses and gain short-term value. But we really want them to get the certificate, and then progress to an associate’s degree. That starts with completing the series of courses in the certificate.
SO: Destiny One’s certificate feature is helping us meet the attainment goal. Say we have a certificate that’s composed of 10 courses. If someone takes one or two courses, we can see in the system that they haven’t taken the other eight. Destiny One makes it easy for us to contact those students and let them know there’s more offerings on the horizon that can help them meet their goals.
That really helps us to retain those and keep them engaged. What’s more, if we launch a new certificate program—or a new program that might interest them—we can email the right prospective students because we know who’s completed what.
CM: Cuyahoga Community College is composed of four campuses and two additional facility sites. We truly are our community’s college. We have a responsibility to provide easy access to relevant courses that help our community enhance their job skills or lead to an associate’s degree that supports transfer to a four-year school. We always have to be thinking about access and completion. It’s our mission.
Destiny One allows us to be incredibly robust in meeting our community and workforce mission. Its features provide a great opportunity for us to do a lot more follow-up with students and enhance their overall experience.
Evo: From the perspective of that community growth piece, as you guys have shifted to this new system, how has it helped Tri-C ingrain itself further into its local community?
SO: The Encore program has students who are 55 and over. And this program enables senior adults to take courses as part of their lifelong learning experience. We do have 80-year-olds and 90-year-olds who have been with the program for 20 years. But we’re starting to see a lot of the baby boomers coming into Encore who are very technology savvy.
In the past, Encore students would literally sit on the phone for two or three hours listening to our classical music, waiting for an enrollment center representative to come to them. This is approximately 1500 students waiting for support from a single small team. Just imagine four people working the phones trying to serve all those individuals.
With Destiny One, instead of those 1500 people waiting on the phone, they’re now able to register themselves online. We use the bundle feature and the certificate features in Destiny, and that’s helped increase our enrollment in the Encore program. Almost half of those individuals—if not a little bit more—are using the online registration system for the Encore program.
Evo: How does providing students with self-service functionality support staff operational efficiency?
CM: The self-service functionality extends even beyond people independently registering for their classes online. We’ve been able to wrap this into a college-wide approach where, even if you go into any one of our campuses or facilities, enrollment center staff will take you to a self-serve kiosk and assist you in the registration process.
That was a huge fundamental shift for us. And by freeing up the time they used to spend manually processing enrollments, our enrollment center staff can provide students with other wraparound services they just didn’t have time to do in the past.
There are also some efficiencies in the way that we create course reference numbers (CRNs) now. In our previous system, we had one individual within the workforce division manually creating thousands of CRNs. Now, each program goes directly into Destiny One, and CRNs are generated automatically.
These efficiencies created across the board have allowed staff to really concentrate on improving all aspects of the non-credit student experience.
This goes beyond simply improving student service. For example, it also may include finding or creating opportunities at the college for financial aid and scholarships, which we never really focused before on with non-credit students. Now, we have the time to do that and to really guide them through a completely different academic experience than before.
SO: From an administrative perspective, more self-service functionality and back-end automation really helps individuals. For me and my team members, we can plug major assets into the system and they’re processed automatically, where previously everything was manual. Not only are things processed more quickly, but it gives us time to think about what else we can do.
CM: When you really think about it, it was a huge cultural shift for us here at Cuyahoga Community College on a lot of fronts. Not only from the technical aspect of the new platform, but also taking a look at all of our business processes.
All the barriers that we created for students, regardless of whether they were at home or on one of our campuses, we addressed with Destiny One. It completely shifted our thought process on the non-credit community registration piece.
Evo: What kind of revenue and enrollment growth has Tri-C experienced since implementing Destiny One?
SO: For all non-credit across the board, we saw a 33% increase right when we implemented the system. I looked back at the numbers from when we first had our original system. Over two years, we have had a 64% increase in people registering online since we’ve implemented. And that was the whole purpose of this; growth. It really shows exactly the purpose of having a user-friendly online system.
Our customer base is not necessarily “technology savvy”. But people have found the Destiny One system so easy to use, just like a general shopping experience. And I think that that is really a tribute to the work that we did here, as well as the work that Destiny had done to really make this system, so that it works really well for our students and can help with that enrollment increase.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about this shift and the broad impact it’s had on the customer experience that you’re able to deliver to learners enrolling in non-credit programs?
CM: We are in a much better place today than we were three years ago. Not only have we enhanced the student experience, but we’ve also found some efficiencies in our enrollment centers. We’ve looked at it now and we’re taking more of a college wide approach to the non-credit student, which was a lot different than what we had done before in the past.
And we just couldn’t be happier with the fact that instead of our individuals on the phone, trying to take registration, we can now focus on some wraparound services for students. In total, it’s just a completely different experience for a non-credit student coming into Cuyahoga Community College than it was previously. We couldn’t be happier with the results. And, as we continue to grow, we’ll look at some of the other enhancements that Destiny also offers, that we really just have not had a chance to look at yet.
SO: It’s the fact that information is able to get out there quickly, and for me I’m on the student side of it. So really having a lot more enrollment and having those individuals who call us looking more from a counseling perspective, is key. They aren’t always asking us those questions that they can find online. So I think that that really helps with the efficiency and the support that we have received.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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