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Student Experience and Efficiency Go Hand-in-Hand

AUDIO | Student Experience and Efficiency Go Hand-in-Hand
Operational efficiency is central to providing a strong student experience for today’s postsecondary institutions, especially when it comes to serving non-traditional learners.
The following interview is with Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and a member of the Online Learning Consortium’s board of directors. UMUC has been working in recent years to develop innovative approaches to the online learning marketplace and, like other institutions in this position, is trying to determine how to accomplish better outcomes with fewer available resources. In this interview, Cini expands on this challenge and shares her thoughts on the important role operational efficiency plays in supporting this end.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As operational budgets start to shrink, but student expectations grow, operational efficiency has started to take center stage as a silver bullet for higher education administrators. When an institution is really efficient, though, do students notice the difference?

Marie Cini (MC): Operational efficiency is now starting to be viewed almost as an imperative; it’s not even a choice any more. Do students notice the difference? Absolutely.

We’re working very hard right now internally to improve the student experience, especially when it comes to the administrative side of things. At many universities, we didn’t used to talk about operational efficiency. We didn’t think in terms of customer service as much as we might have.

I know our students notice this shift for two reasons. We have some research we’ve done internally that shows the impact of inefficiency on our students. Secondly, as provost, I end up hearing from the most upset students and often what upsets them is that they’ve gotten conflicting answers from varying departments when it comes to something like financial aid or when they can actually enroll in a course.

Evo: How does operational efficiency actually support the student experience?

MC: UMUC serves adult and non-traditional students. They’re looking for ways to achieve an undergraduate or graduate degree while at the same time they often have a full-time job or they’re serving in the military and they often have family responsibilities.

We don’t want them to spend their precious time on administrative bureaucracy. We want them to focus their attention and energy on learning. They don’t have the whole day to call different departments or investigate things on our website or even stop into one of our service centers. They need to be able to look things up on their own so they can get moving.

Let’s say they need to find out when they’re getting their financial aid. We should be able to get that information to them quickly or they should be able to do a self-service method where they can find that out and then they can get back to studying.

Evo: Would you consider operational efficiency and administrative process streamlining to be a differentiator for institutions?

MC: It will be. Some universities have actually tried to do this already. For the for-profits, many of them realized they needed to be very efficient and they needed to give their students a streamlined experience on the way in, which is why they grew and were so successful for so many years.

We have some research we’ve done internally on our students. We lose them when they’ve had approximately three problems with administrative bureaucracy. If they call about financial aid and they don’t get an answer they understand and then they stop in and they try to enroll with a face-to-face advisor and then they’re not given accurate information and then one other thing occurs, they leave us. We know that’s an incredible impact on student’s retention and success. We need to fix that.

Universities can create a better experience for students in terms of the customer service on the business side. Students see it as calling and having their questions answered just like we might with a bank so they can get into the educational experience. Universities will catch up fast. Some of us hopefully will get ahead with this, but it won’t be a differentiator for long.

Evo: What impact does an institution’s efficiency have on student retention and completion and what can institutions do to help leverage that going forward to increase the value?

MC: We aren’t trying to become more efficient just for the sake of greater efficiency. What we’re trying to do is help our students have that better experience because now we have real data that shows if we’re inefficient in helping maneuver our students through, that has a deleterious impact on retention and success.

Secondly, as we become more efficient, we can then take those resources and put them toward greater academic quality and innovation.

For example, we have a great financial aid group but we don’t have a self-service module for our students. They can’t just go online and see what their status is in terms of financial aid. They have to call and interrupt these folks who are trying to get all of this done behind the scenes, and students don’t always know what they’re asking or they don’t always know what the answer means. If we can have a self-service module where students can actually look it up on a website, then all of those people in financial aid can spend their time actually processing and helping to get what the students really want.

The efficiency will always help serve the students better and that’s what we really are thinking about. The inefficiency is actually taking away our focus from student retention and success and student learning and that’s not okay; we need to do better than that.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value of operational efficiency to meeting these institutional goals of creating a better student experience and also improving their own capacity to serve students in terms of improving retention and completion?

MC: The culture of higher ed in the past has been that we’re kind of messy and we’re a little sloppy because we focus on learning. What we’re learning now is that the equation has shifted. We need to become more efficient and less sloppy so we can actually do a better job of helping students learn and stay in college.

This interview has been edited for length.

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