Customer-Mindedness and the Student Value QuestionSandra Woodley | Senior Fellow, AASCU
Although the debate around whether to treat students as customers continues to rage at higher education institutions across the United States, changing market circumstances are dictating a more customer-minded focus. After all, the cost for students continues to skyrocket and the majority non-traditional student demographic already defines themselves as customers. In this interview, Sandra Woodley shares her thoughts on how institutions need to adapt to serve this value-focused student population and discusses what that means from the perspective of a system administrator.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are students today so focused on the value of their higher education experience?
Sandra Woodley (SW): One of the reasons students are so focused on value is because it’s more expensive than it used to be. The cost of attendance has gone up, the state has divested from higher education and the tuition rates have risen. Students have to pay a lot more and for those who have to take out student debt, that’s a bite out of their discretionary income after they get their jobs and have to pay for their house payments, car insurance and everything.
The costs mean that higher education is a business proposition for students. They understand that the value they get for what they put into their education has to matter. It’s really important particularly for non-traditional students to feel like when they make this investment, that the investment’s going to pay off.
Evo: Was the value and return on investment top of mind for you when you were travelling your own postsecondary pathway?
SW: When I was going through college, it was a given fact that if I earned a four-year degree, that investment’s going to be worth it. It was a forgone conclusion that you’re going to be able to get an ROI that’s meaningful out of that. As the cost has risen—and not just at public institutions but at some of the private and proprietary institutions as well—there are instances where students pay a lot for their education and their long-term salary doesn’t give them an ROI, depending on the students’ major.
Evo: How do non-outcome factors—like customer experience and non-academic participation—play into students’ ROI calculations?
SW: Students need to feel like they’re being served. A number of university services have to be able to give them value in their education. The problem is, with the budget cuts rolled out over our institutions over the last eight years, sometimes those support services are the first to go because you have to make sure you maintain the quality faculty for the academic experience on the core side.
There’s a lot of research out there that shows engagement outside the classroom, participation in extra-curricular activities and access to a quality educational experience positively impacts students’ progression toward a degree. Opportunities like service learning and undergraduate research add real value to the students.
Evo: When it comes to things like ease of registration, ease of payment, ease of transferring credits, how important are factors like that in determining whether a non-traditional student feels like they’re really getting the best value for their money?
SW: Sometimes that can mean the difference between a non-traditional student staying in school and not, especially if it’s a jungle to try to get registered in your classes. Institutions serving non-traditional students have to make sure they offer the classes that students need in the sequence they need in ways that students need. People who are working have to go to school at night. People who are working need weekend classes. They need to make sure that those with the constraints and schedules because they have a job maybe have some level of certainly that they’re going to be able to have some priority or at least get into their required classes so they can stay on track and graduate.
You do want to make sure there’s a clear pathway for those students to complete as quickly as they can, because that cuts down on their cost and increases the value of their experience at that university.
Evo: How are higher education’s ‘traditional’ business processes hindering universities from meeting the value expectations of students?
SW: Students need technology to help them. They need institutions to embrace technology so that things like registration, core scheduling and bill paying can be done on mobile applications or online.
Some of our institutions are better at that than others. It can be a big expense to have these kinds of options available to students, but they’re really important. We also need to make the processes that we have as flexible as possible so that students can take advantage of them on their own schedule.
Evo: What are some of the most significant changes that you have made across the University of Louisiana System to remain competitive in this era where students are more focused on value?
SW: It has been challenging at a time when the budgets have been so unstable to take on new initiatives and do things that can help us in this area. We have made some progress and are continuing on initiatives that can be helpful. We have more online courses and program options than we ever had. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that we streamline our processes and we have really good courses and programs available to students who can’t come in or who need them to supplement their on-campus options and we also have more collaborative degrees. Some of our campuses are also doing online degree mapping for students.
Evo: What does it take for public institutions within the system to really collaborate so that the system itself can almost leverage the expertise that can be found system-wide to create a better experience for students?
SW: One thing that it takes to leverage the expertise across the system, and one thing we don’t have enough of, is resources.
Our system is very small and our resources are minimal. When I worked for the University of Texas System, we had lots of resources. There, they centralized their ERP systems and their purchasing and procurement, but it takes resources and people to own that and plan and coordinate that for the system.
Evo: What were some of the biggest roadblocks to making these process changes, and how did your team overcome them?
SW: One of the things we need more of is data to understand the benefits students gain from these kinds of process changes, both in terms of time and financial benefits. We put together a peer analysis to help the institutions understand their performance rates with statistical peers in other states. We can start to understand where there may be problems and what issues are most important to address.
One other area we have to navigate when we’re changing these processes—particularly from the system level—is making sure that we gain the support and the leadership from the campuses. That’s really the only way that we can get it done. The campuses have to think the changes are good ideas; they have to be involved in developing the idea, they have to help find the idea and then from the system, we can support those ideas in that way. Ultimately, though, it takes buy-in from the institutions so that we can get projects funded and underway.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it take for modern universities to really make the changes that students see as adding value to their educational experience?
SW: The institutions that do this best are those that see students as customers and wake up every day with their primary focus on customer service. If you’ve got a problem in your bursar’s office that results in a huge delay in getting back to students, that loses progress for students and ultimately it loses students themselves.
It’s not a minor point. When everyone thinks that student satisfaction and student services is their job, even if you’re in accounting or registration, if they understand that, you can focus on creating value for students and make progress.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator