Meeting and Managing the Expectations of Today’s Students
Most of us who work in colleges and universities in the U.S. believe that we are proficient at understanding and meeting the expectations of our students, when the record shows that we are, to the contrary, often less than successful at it. There is more that college educators could be doing to get at the heart of what our students are feeling and anticipating about their time on campus if we wish to respond in effective and meaningful ways to these expectations.
We have all read the reports in recent years about the growing discontent that has been expressed by students and their families regarding the skyrocketing costs and seeming disconnect between the claim of higher education and the reality that our students face when they graduate. What are ways that college can do a better job of identifying and responding to the voice of its “customer”, the student? What would it require for us to meet and manage the expectations of students more successfully in order to ensure that they are getting better value out of their higher education investment, in their opinion?
The following are some ideas for college and university leaders as we continuously improve the services that we deliver and create cultures that succeed in identifying and meeting the expectations of myriad diverse learners enrolled at our institutions of higher education.
1. Gather better data about the students in your midst
Don’t wait for the SOS, end-of-year or end-of-semester course evaluations to collect what you need to build better student-centric environments. Design and implement both formal and informal vehicles for eliciting student feedback more frequently in order to determine what students want vis-à-vis what universities have to give, and determine where the two can intersect.
From my own experience, such vehicles have included spontaneous surveys, informal meetings, focus groups and proactive outreach throughout the semester that checks in with students and takes the pulse of their experience. Become experts not only about your students’ ages, states of residency and ethnicities, but also the history they bring along with them and also their future plans, goals and dreams in order to give your institution a better shot at helping your students achieve their true objectives—since this is what they feel they are paying for and expect in return.
2. Listen hard and look deep for the true meaning of their feedback
This begins with well-designed data gathering tools. Are your campus’ tools designed in language that is intelligible and straightforward, or overly complex? Once conducted, how well do we listen to what these data tell us? Do we indeed end up implementing practices based upon the insights that such surveys deliver, or do we discuss and file away the results? Despite our best efforts, in some cases these surveys have not been updated in years and can reflect outdated realities and priorities that no longer resonate with our students. Solicit the help of students themselves in creating surveys that are meaningful and not overly generalized to get at the root of student viewpoints regarding a number of items to do with their experience, such as on-campus and online services, housing, payment and financial aid support, access to academic advisement and career counseling, ease of registration, etc.
Nurture the art of active listening to better meet students’ needs. What is student feedback actually telling us? Have we been courageous enough to truly hear it? Despite our expertise, students still can tell us more about their experiences than we already know. And while the truth may at times be unpleasant, nurture the art of listening to better get at students’ real needs. Once we are able to put our egos aside, we can learn all about the marvelous idiosyncrasies that characterize our college student populations and also identify some innovative solutions to their problems and challenges. The opinions of college students, like children, are frequently dismissed as irrelevant. Nothing can be more destructive to student satisfaction than the perception that we somehow lack respect for our students. The most successful campuses are those that take time to listen considerately to what their students are saying about how well those campuses are meeting their needs. They take into account student expectations up front, early on, rather than discovering problems too far down the road during a student’s course of study to have a significant impact.
Contrary to what we may think, the end game for most students is where they are going to go once they leave our midst and how they will apply what they’ve learned to eventual employment and their own life journeys. Don’t be afraid to ask specific personal and career goal information to get to know your students better. Such data will shed light on how campuses can better adapt offerings and services in support of our students’ true objectives. Create more opportunities for students to tell you what these should be, and then investigate and implement improvements quickly. Campuses must avoid scenarios in which student letdown is created after feedback is sought but nothing is done with it.
3. Work with everyone on campus to create concierge service cultures
Administrators, staff and faculty can benefit from refresher courses on student service excellence. This translates into such campus life details as office hours of operation that match student presence during evenings and weekends, service providers who go the extra mile to help students solve challenging problems, financial and advisement counseling that is delivered both online and in person, flipped classes that accommodate the busy lifestyles of working students, etc.
There is no excuse for lousy student services. Inadequate customer service drives down student opinion of the institution as a whole and is carried over when students become alumni. Seek and hire employees who naturally love helping people.
4. Become “success scientists”
Before students take their first course, identify some strategies for our campus or online environments to enhance student success—in the ways the students themselves define it. Civitas Learning is helping scores of campuses achieve this, translating into spending the requisite time to study student performance more diligently and deliberately than is typically the case throughout students’ stay. Such models rely upon predictive analytics to give campuses a glimpse into the potential futures of our students. I heard one well-known online Provost tell an audience at a recent conference that she already knows who will be successful or not in her freshman classes at her institution before the semester has even begun, just by studying data they bring with them from their past.
Supporting student success is about much more than grading their work. By that time, our ability to intervene, guide and have an impact is mostly over. As administrators, we can help students by looking closely at how we set up course sequences, availability and selection of major areas, and scholastic performance in class over the lifespan of their stay rather than at the end of their course or year, as is typically done. The greatest impact is had all along, through closer relationships with our students, and not at graduation, when it is too late. Ask yourself and your campus the tough questions about how we can better ensure successful performance for all students through small, but very impactful interventions over time that are not so difficult for us to achieve, and watch for powerful ideas to emerge.
5. Maintain a focus on labor market outcomes
It’s critical that we bring in employers and include valuable employer feedback, labor and economic data and career counseling from the start of students’ study to ensure that students can link their study investment with eventual career choice/employment.
In one degree-completion program that I helped create for adult online learners, we deliberately asked questions and sought information about students’ career and employment goals as early as in the admissions process, and wove it into the students’ educational experience throughout their stay. This helped not to leave the most important priorities for last, and helped to better align their education with the reasons they sought our campus out in the first place. Despite what we’d prefer to believe and spend millions of dollars on—i.e., that the most important part of students’ stay with us is what they learn while they are on campus or online—for students, it is really about what learning they can take away with them as they move on to the later stages of their lives. Fathoming this fact may be the single most important concept that we as education leaders can master in understanding and designing programs and services that produce satisfied students. Rather than directive, why not become a bit more receptive of the feedback, advice and requests that our students bring us, for this is where the gold is to be mined when creating student-centric cultures.
There are no sure-fire ways to build campus environments that predictably and reliably meet student expectations, but these approaches move us closer to identifying how to improve our adaptability and resilience as institutions of higher education that can build demonstrable value in dynamic learning environments with ever more diverse and demanding students in our midst. We must understand that students are not the only ones being graded; universities answer to stakeholders in the form of students whose expectations we need to do a better job of meeting to successfully demonstrate our time-tested value and to reassure them that across their lifespan, students will be far better off with a college degree than without one.
Author Perspective: Administrator