In-House or Service Provider? Meeting the Expectations of Today’s Students
Meeting the sky-high expectations of today’s students—especially non-traditional students—requires institutional leaders to take a long, hard look at their processes and offerings. From course delivery to registration, administrators need to ensure every touch-point with their students is convenient and contributes to a positive student experience. The question for many is whether they should build in-house or look to a service provider to deliver on these expectations. In this interview, Robert Wensveen shares his thoughts on the service-oriented expectations of today’s learners and what they mean for institutions, and discusses the pros and cons of both the in-house development approach and the service partnership approach to meeting these expectations.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): How important is the student experience for today’s more service-minded learners?
Robert Wensveen (RW): The student experience is growing in importance because education is becoming more and more expensive. Students are demanding higher levels of service and they have higher expectations. Many students are working while enrolled and they get to see what corporate education is like. In some cases, they start to demand that from post-secondary institutions as well.
Programs are also becoming more complex. There’s a lot more competition and, as a result, institutions need to help students identify and enroll in their program of choice. They really need to improve their services in order to get those enrollments. Additionally, because of the competitive rankings that are out there in the postsecondary environment, if you want to have higher rankings for your institution then you have to undoubtedly increase the services that you provide to your customers.
Evo: How has self-service in the business world migrated those adult student expectations of what they should be seeing in higher ed?
RW: There is an increased demand for online or technology-based services—be it registration or educational delivery, it’s all about convenience and meeting students’ expectations of convenience.
That can take place through how a registration takes place; as opposed to lining up to register for or change a program like the old days, that should all be done online or at the very least over the telephone. In terms of the delivery of the educational experience, I’m not going to go as far as saying it should all be online because it’s a distinct subset of the market that would prefer to have a completely online experience. However, you are seeing a very marked increase in augmentation of technology—eLearning systems, LMSs—throughout almost all educational delivery models. Today, even if it’s not fully online it’s partially online or augmented.
Evo: What are a few of the ways a university can work to really enhance a student’s experience, both on the academic side and on the service side?
RW: Universities can make a big impact on the student experience by improving flexibility and accessibility in the courses they offer. Institutions need to cater more towards when the students are available as opposed to when faculty are available and willing to teach.
Institutions cannot reduce tuition so they have to create a better sense of community and inclusion. They can always try to improve the student’s teaching and learning space. That takes infrastructure dollars to do that, but focus on the quality of the student space so that they’re able to study in a comfortable atmosphere. They can make all services transparent and quicker and that leads to using technology to help improve that speed of delivery of the services.
Evo: Whenever tools to enhance the student experience are discussed, the “in-house vs. service provider” debate tends to emerge. Let’s talk in-house development first. What are some of the pros and cons of keeping all aspects of delivering that student experience in-house?
RW: In house, you have greater control about how that customer service is molded and delivered and you have a more instantaneous feedback mechanism so that you can control the customer service delivery aspect. There’s some flexibility that can be recognized as a positive in making changes and sometimes you can be much quicker to respond if you have control within your unit or department. You can also collaborate with other services within your institution, other service providers, and you can help create a better uniformity of services across the entire institution.
Of course it can be very expensive. Many postsecondary institutions are unionized environments, and if you’re providing a lot of services in-house, there are both financial and opportunity costs that can’t be ignored. You may be able to get those same services for less expense than if you delivered them in-house.
The other challenge is, if you are delivering everything in-house, you run the risk of becoming too inward focused and you begin to design your services more so around your own staffing needs and workloads—what you think might be easier on your staff. You might lose a little bit of focus on what really should be the student experience as opposed to what is your ease of administration. If you’re too inward focused because all of your services are in-house, you could lose sight of best practices.
Evo: What are some of the advantages to partnering with vendors on the delivery of services and systems that directly impact the student experience?
RW: Some of the benefits are less stress for your own staff and less ongoing maintenance. You need to ask yourself if all aspects of student services and support are really your core business. If some aspects of those services are not really what you deem to be the core of your business, then perhaps if you outsource that, you can then be more effective and focused on your core business.
I also think that partnering can bring more to the table than you might hope to have internally. Some of the vendors you could align yourself with will have expertise that you could never hope to develop because you don’t have the time or the resources or the ability to do so.
Evo: What are some of the challenges that an administrator might be grappling with when considering entering into a partnership?
RW: You have to be concerned with loss of control and how much control you are willing to give up in terms of creating a partnership. There’s potential for increased risk, so it’s important to maintain control and to be aware of your strengths. Another risk could be you might be in a relationship that’s very difficult to get out of. The partner may become so ingrained in your operations that you could become trapped into that partnership without any real ability to get out of it.
Evo: What are some of the steps you would suggest an administrator take to make sure the partner they’re looking to enter into that partnership with is one that they can really rely on that they’ll have a strong partnership with?
RW: You’d look at longevity—how long have they been in the business?—and their area of expertise. Administrators need to ask themselves if they’re partnering with a vendor on a service that is their core focus, or simply a subset of what they do. Not all administrators in universities or colleges are necessarily well-versed in creating and defining partnership contracts and maintenance agreements, so don’t be afraid to get extra help in defining those agreements, and help with negotiating things like that.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of working with service provides to really deliver on that high-end student experience that today’s students are expecting?
RW: Administrators need to look at their institution from a student point of view, especially when it comes to the type of services they provide their audience. Ask yourself whether or not you can do this better than someone else and whether or not you feel that you have that ability to do in-house or not. Be subjective and open with yourself as you ask those questions. If you are not the best at delivering a particular service in-house and you have the ability to look elsewhere, then that’s a good thing.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator