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Creating Value by Meeting Service and Outcome Demands

The EvoLLLution | Creating Value by Meeting Service and Outcome Expectations
Focusing on student learning outcomes and ensuring that they have access to the services they need in the ways they expect are critical to maximizing value for students.

Outside the classroom, students are customers above all else. They have very specific expectations of how they want to interact with the institution, shaped largely by their experience as customers in other industries. Colleges and universities, then, have a responsibility to ensure they are serving students in the way they expect to be served. Of course, institutions are very well positioned to make these critical changes. In this interview, Cathy Sandeen shares her thoughts on the factors that define value for today’s learners and shares her thoughts on the kinds of changes institutions need to make to serve today’s value-focused students.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are students today so focused on the value of their higher education experience?

Cathy Sandeen (CS):  Students and their families are making big investments in higher education and whenever you make a big financial investment, you think about the return.

There’s also an overall trend in our country towards greater consumerism and that’s related to the vast access we have to information over the Internet. People are becoming much more astute consumers across all aspects of their purchases and that’s entering into decisions about higher education as well.

We also have to look at experience over the economic downturn of the past where we had high unemployment. People naturally link their education to employment prospects. For all those broad reasons, there’s much more focus on the value of an educational program.

Evo: The term “ROI” carries a great deal of baggage in higher education parlance; why is it so important that we focus on value?

CS: From a business perspective the term ROI is shorthand for, “What do I get from this?” We use it sometimes in higher education and in a certain sense it works and makes sense. However, we have to remember that higher education institutions are really mission-driven and that we’re looking at broader social results, positive social impacts beyond strictly financial impacts that are implied when we use a term like ROI.

We do know that there are definite positive financial impacts from higher education. There’s also a broader social impact. From the broad knowledge that students gain from our program, that enables students to be better consumers, better participants in democracy and in civic life, better parents.

In my particular work, we work a lot with first-generation college students, and what we see is that it has a ripple effect. Their children are likely to attend a university and complete postsecondary education and their participation as an individual student is multiplied in subsequent generations. There’s a lot of broader impact, positive results of postsecondary education that may not be captured in that term ROI.

Evo: How do factors other than academic outcomes—like student experience and campus life—play into non-traditional students’ decisions to enroll?

CS: The wonderful thing about higher education in North America is the diversity of institutions that we have. More and more we are talking about weaving in co-curricular experiences, high-impact practices, into the academic experience so that it becomes part of it. We know that students who participate in high-impact educational practices like being a student athlete, being involved in student government, in undergraduate research opportunities, in service learning, and students involved in experiential and project-based learning, they are more likely to persist in their programs and complete their programs.

Evo: Is there a responsibility for institutional leaders to make extracurricular programs more accessible to non-traditional students?

CS: We have about 30 percent non-traditional students across our institutions in the UW Colleges. I was visiting one of our campuses yesterday and meeting with the student government and about half of them were non-traditional students. I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the opportunities are not available to non-traditional students. I don’t know that I’ve seen data that they participate less than other traditional students. Maybe it’s true that they wouldn’t be student athletes, but they do participate in service learning.

We can incorporate experiential and project-based and team learning very easily in courses that are highly enrolled by non-traditional students. It’s important for us to think about how we integrate these experiences. Are we optimizing them, are they fully taking advantage of these experiences?

Evo: What are some changes that institutions can make to the learning models that can increase the value for students?

CS: Institutions need to keep a laser focus on student outcomes to increase value for students. That can filter down all the way to very sophisticated learning analytics systems where we can peel back the curtain on what’s happening in the teaching and learning process and see how individual students are doing in a particular course. A faculty member can adjust practices and communication methods in order to optimize that learning.

At the end of the day, it’s the learning that’s important; it’s the competencies achieved that interest employers. A focus on learning outcomes helps the students prove what they have learned, an approach that may further their career. Focusing on outcomes creates a lot of value and that’s something institutions could start improving upon and implementing right away. 

Evo: What kinds of changes to business models can institutions make to meet student expectations and provide them maximum value?

CS: We talk about treating students as customers, and everything leading up to the point where they’re in the classroom with the faculty member, we should think of students as customers. How do we make it easier for them? Take the example of online or non-traditional students attending a classroom-based program. They’re probably attending evenings and weekends so institutions need to think about what are the services that should be available to those students outside of regular business hours and to what extent are students happy to help themselves via online and mobile devices.

We do so much online: banking, shopping and so forth. We need to think about what aspects of various student services students would prefer to handle in an online format. If we assume that everything needs to be face-to-face—because that’s how we’ve always done it—we may be missing some opportunities to provide better service to students where they are now and with what they need now.

Evo: What are some of the most significant changes universities need to make to be relevant in an era of increased skepticism of the value of higher education?

CS: A focus on learner outcomes will help a lot in showing the value of what we actually do. We need to be more data-centric than we are now. We need to capture important metrics in order to tell our story about what we are achieving and the impact that we’re having. In addition, we can use that data to increasingly and continuously improve what we’re doing in terms of student learning.

Evo: What are the biggest roadblocks to making these process changes?

CS: The roadblocks are breaking down, especially in an era when there’s so much focus on this notion of value and so much financial pressure on institutions to do things differently. There are downward pressures on revenue that force us to look at things a different way. Many institutions are being very creative. Roadblocks or resistance to change is being broken down both by these external financial factors but also internal. When we’re looking at the focus on learning outcomes, it changes how we look at things. We’re breaking down traditional ways of doing things.

Colleges and universities are places where we have the most creative people, the smartest people and the people who are more committed to the mission than probably any other sector in our economy. These are people who really care and when they are brought to the table and posed the question “how might we do this” they will come up with great ideas. A lot of the time, it’s how you ask the question—not, “Can we do this?” or “Should we do this?

It’s up to the leadership to light a fire to speed up the process a little bit. We always work through our shared governance processes, but there are different ways in order to work within the system to speed up some of our projects and initiatives that are focused on new ways of doing things to serve our students.

This interview has been edited for length.

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