Higher Ed Must Enhance Administrative Self-Service Options to Meet Student Expectations
Adult students today are experienced consumers. With companies like Amazon dominating the retail industry, these students’ expectations for service and patience for bureaucracy have significantly diminished. Universities, then, must significantly update their business processes to ensure they can meet and exceed the expectations of their core customer demographic. In this interview, Marie Cini discusses some of the factors today’s adult students highlight as significant value-adding elements and shares her thoughts on how institutions can evolve to meet those needs.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do adult students want from their college education?
Marie Cini (MC): There are two major elements adult students want from their college education: the pathway to a career and an expanded sense of purpose and accomplishment. We get many students who come back to us and tell us about a moment at work where they get a promotion or they’re asked to take on a special project. They can use what they’ve learned in our programs immediately on the job and it makes them feel very capable.
Evo: Building on this idea, what factors do students take into account when deciding whether earning their degree was worth the time and money invested?
MC: Universities are actively trying to clearly define value-adding factors that really improve the experience for students. One of the factors our students talk about is how difficult it was to have their administrative tasks accomplished without needing to show up or talk to several folks on the phone or navigate a difficult website. We are trying to make the administrative side simpler for our students to navigate because we want them to focus their efforts on their education, not on trying to reach the right person in the department. The non-academic experience is critical to our students’ desire to remain with us.
In terms of their academic experience, they look for faculty engagement. Did faculty show up and engage them in their courses, did they receive timely feedback from their faculty, were they treated fairly, were they able to take what they wanted and apply it in their career or their community? There’s a stereotype that adult students just want a piece of paper, but I don’t find that at all. They are really looking for an engaging experience with their faculty.
The third thing that they look back on is whether the degree can help them with a new job or a promotion. Were they able to move into a new professional position, and did this help them and their family?
Evo: How important are customer factors—like seamless administrative experiences or ease of registration and payment—in the discussion of value-add?
MC: The idea of using modern business practices that lead to more online and self-service help for students is very important. Most of our students interact with us either online or on the phone, and if they don’t have a positive experience getting their questions answered it becomes a nuisance. Amazon sets the stage for what we all expect. We’re going to see more and more universities paying more attention to the administrative side of things.
Evo: What are some of the most important changes UMUC has made to its academic programs to maximize value for students?
MC: By being more efficient, and by not having to spend a lot of money on inefficient administrative practices, we can put more into quality education. Technology has a large part to play with that. The first thing that we’re asking and really constantly iterating is, “Are our students learning the right things?” We are constantly looking for input to keep the curriculum up to date so the students can learn what they want to be learning, learning what they need to learn.
The second piece is, “Are they learning in well-designed ways?” Higher ed for years had the traditional model of a faculty member lecturing students, students taking notes, etc. We now know that that isn’t the optimum way for students to learn so you’re seeing a whole revolution in more engaged student learning experiences, using technology that can help students learn in ways that can really augment a teacher’s time, or assessment. The human touch is very important and our faculty are very much a part of this redesign of the learning experience.
Evo: On the administrative side, what are some of the critical changes UMUC has made to maximize value for students?
MC: We have 84,000 students around the word so we have to have well-trained advisors who can answer a myriad of student questions. One of the things we have done is develop a knowledge-base system so that the folks who are answering the phones and answering our students’ questions via email have access to the most up-to-date information. If there’s even a loss of 12 hours between a change in policy and what our frontline staff are telling our students, that could have a really bad impact on the students who called in that period of time.
We also have a tiered system now. There’s a number of very easy-to-answer questions that students call with so we’re moving to a much more self-service model. We’re trying to figure out the right balance so that a student who wants to do most of the things self-service can, but if they need that intervention they can get that quickly.
We are more attuned to seeing patterns of student problems or questions. We try to get to the root cause of it, rather than just answering the question repeatedly. We’re seeing a difference. Student satisfaction is going up and so we hope to continue that.
We’re ultimately improving our entire digital experience for students. This is especially important for us since most of our students will not set foot into our buildings or any of our teaching sites.
Evo: What are some of those investments you’re making on the IT side to create a more self-service, high-value consumer experience for students?
MC: It is the digital experience. We have individuals who are on our staff who are thinking through how to redesign our website, our portal, the various functions in ways that are very much student focused. The technology under that is an investment. Every university at some level makes the mistake of designing their website for what they think is important as opposed to what students really need. We’ve really just flipped that and we’re making investments in all the technology that will help our students have a much better experience.
Evo: What are some of the most common roadblocks to making value-focused change to institutions?
MC: It’s not just public universities; any organization that has been around for a while and has become very large suffers from some of these roadblocks. The first one is just legacy systems that don’t talk to one another. We may be ahead of the curve in online learning and using a lot of technology to serve students, but we need to continuously evolve and update because the world’s moving ahead.
Now particularly for public higher ed—although private institutions are struggling too— budgets are being reduced and it’s harder to invest in major upgrades. Costs are going up for all sorts of things, and the investments in technology need to be large. These are not cheap things to do but they’re very important. Figuring out how to make sure you have the kind of reinvestment funds is very important and it’s a struggle.
Silos within departments might not talk to each other and don’t see the gaps in service. You really have to help staff and faculty think about working as teams for the whole student experience, not just focusing on what is happening in one department.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what it takes for an institution to adapt to today’s value-conscious consumer student?
MC: It starts with the highest level of the institution, with leadership taking seriously the fact that an institution has to understand the students they serve. It’s critical we find out a lot about those students and what they need and then work in very smart ways to redesign the administrative side, the courses and, generally, the way students engage with the institution.
At the end of the day, we still want them to have very good high-quality learning experience and all of these other efficiencies are really a way to help them focus on that rather than trying to find the right person to talk to. It really does take a president and a leadership team moving in that direction. Then the entire institution needs to have a plan to go in that direction. It’s not a small feat, but many institutions are working towards this because it’s what you need to do today to be competitive.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator