Big Names Don’t Trump Good Service When it Comes to Student Satisfaction
While the higher education marketplace is becoming increasingly competitive, both analysts and leaders have suggested that elite, big-name universities are protected from the change. However, this is not necessarily the case. Although students still want to be aligned with big names, they have the same heightened expectations of the institution as learners industry-wide. In this interview, Diana Wu discusses these heightened expectations, and shares her thoughts on why big-name institutions are not immune from this industry shift.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): When a student enrolls at an elite institution like Berkeley Extension, what are they often hoping to get out of the experience?
Diana Wu (DW): I don’t think of Berkeley Extension as elite, although I understand why you would frame it as such. I think that students enroll at Berkeley Extension because of the quality associated with Berkeley. They’re expecting the level of instruction to be at a very high standard. They are expecting a peer group that is like themselves and an experience that sometimes matches their prior learning experiences.
We’re seeing a more sophisticated audience in terms of the value. In other words, we can’t afford to rest on our laurels because if students can get a similar experience at another institution—whether it’s for profit or non-profit—that’s serious competition for us. The student is not just looking for the Berkeley experience; they’re looking for convenience and flexibility in scheduling and location. All of that has to be considered in terms of giving the student what they want.
Evo: What are the most important factors students consider when they determine whether their postsecondary investment was worthwhile?
DW: The experience itself is made up of a few critical factors. One of the most important ones is the customer service that they receive when they try to enroll in a course. We’ve always had Student Services, but there’s this newfound attention to resourcing it better and training our staff better. This is not just Extension. The Berkeley campus is realizing this as well.
At institutions like ours, so much focus goes into the course material, the content, the level of instruction, everything around the classroom experience and now there’s the realization that we need to pay more attention to the entire student experience.
Evo: Obviously students have very specific expectations. What responsibility does the institution have in managing the expectations of their students?
DW: When we don’t deliver what students are expecting, that leads to the worst possible outcome. We think that we are generally delivering what students expect in classes and that’s based on course evaluations. Most of our classes are open enrollment meaning students come into a class without an admissions process. We want to make it as flexible and easy on them as possible.
However, this means that they’re not getting the type of guidance they need when they come into a course or a program, so their expectations have everything to do with their specific needs. That type of expectation setting goes to the type of service we’re trying to provide more of—advising and mentoring. We cannot do that for close to 40,000 enrollments but we can get better at it by developing more systematized types of advising.
In continuing education, there’s sometimes a misperception that our courses will be easier, and students coming in are oftentimes shocked and surprised when this is not the case. For those students it’s a natural attrition process; they just fall away. What would be preferable is if they knew from the beginning what they were getting into so they could choose more selectively. We could do better at that kind of expectation setting in continuing education.
Evo: How do you differentiate yourself based on the Berkeley brand while still following through on the employability promise that for-profits have championed for years?
DW: It’s a tough challenge for us that I don’t think we do very well yet. We’re talking career placement, tracking how well our graduates do once they leave us and hopefully enter the job market.
What we do know is more anecdotal, but we have the systems in place to start measuring some of it. It has to do with the repeat customers in the form of companies and corporations who continue to sponsor their employees and send new employees to Berkeley Extension. For us, it’s an imperfect measure but it’s a measure of our success.
Evo: To your mind, how important is having strong business processes to actually being able to foster those strong experiences and relationships to keep that positive feeling going?
DW: We’re learning how critical it is. In a prior life, the experience was all about your class experience, and we’re realizing that a student’s experience can be predicated on an interaction with the person at the front desk, or waiting 20 minutes for someone’s voicemail to pick up and not getting a live person at the other end. Any one of those things could be a huge turnoff and result in someone not coming back to us as a result. Regardless of how much they want Berkeley classes, if they are not well served from the get-go, we’re in real trouble. That’s what we’re trying to pay some attention to.
In terms of business processes, one of the critical areas that we identified for transformation a couple of years ago was corporate training. It was always very reactive and now we’re becoming much more proactive and service oriented. We are developing relationships and putting ourselves in a position where we’re asking what corporations want, what they need and what they would they like to see. It sounds so simple and yet that’s a relatively new process for us.
The other aspect of this is realizing that corporations have very different expectations in terms of turnaround time for responses. As an academic institution, we simply don’t have business-friendly processes—something that would take a week or two to put together by a private vendor could take us months because of our internal processes. We are reexamining those things and figuring out how to change our internal processes to better serve the expectations of our corporate partners.
Evo: Is leveraging relationships to create deeper engagement supported by your new approaches to management, or is it facilitated by your new business processes?
DW: Technology is making it easier for us to leverage and grow existing relationships by making the businesses processes easier.
Corporations send us students simply through our open enrollment processes. That’s already a hugely important part of our business and we want to expand on it by actively reaching out to these companies and figuring out how we can expand the relationship into customized training, new course development, opportunities like that.
We used to have to go back and manually track where these students came from and how many of them were coming from which companies. Now we’re building reports that can instantly tell us that information.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes as the extension unit of an elite university to meet the expectations of students when they come in the door both on the academic side but also on the customer side?
DW: The expectations are so high that it constantly makes us think about how and where we need to improve in order to meet them. We have an added responsibility, an added pressure, of being Berkeley. We’re not good in all areas yet, and it’s a continuous improvement. It’s also our responsibility because students’ expectations change. We can’t assume that one generation is going to be like the next in terms of what they are looking for and what they are expecting to get from us. It’s our responsibility to know what that is. It’s important to be constantly in communication with our various audiences—students and corporations.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator