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Modern Technology Allows Colleges to Engage With Students in Brand New Ways

The EvoLLLution | Modern Technology Allows Colleges to Engage With Students in Brand New Ways
Engagement is a critical aspect of both enrollment and retention, but most colleges do not pay enough attention to this vital work.

Engagement between educators and learners is widely understood to be central to students achieving the goals they set out to accomplish upon enrollment. As institutions have evolved into the highly complex business units they are today, it has become clear that that same level of engagement is central to building the student-institutional relationship necessary to convince students to enroll and remain enrolled. The positive student-customer experience is key for today’s non-traditional students. In this Q&A, Jeff Fanter expands on the elements that contribute to the creation of this positive experience and shares his thoughts on the tools today’s college and university leaders need to take their engagement to the next level.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What do you consider to be the central components of student engagement for a higher education institution?

Jeffery Fanter (JF): Engagement can be defined in a number of different ways. I believe one of the most important, yet simplest, forms of engagement is being able to assist a student whenever they need assistance, wherever they are.

We find particular success in engaging with students that apply to Ivy Tech Community College early in the process. Through our success/help center we make a connection over the phone with an applicant and stay engaged with that student until the point of enrollment, when their academic advisor steps in to continue that level of engagement throughout their academic career.

Continued engagement is critical to a student’s persistence and success as well. That high level of engagement is critical in the classroom and for some students it involves something as simple as a responsive instructor who can answer a student’s question when the student needs help. For others that engagement takes place with co-curricular activities outside of the classroom that keep the student connected more. For some, engagement also includes extra-curricular activities that might include such things as clubs or just groups that meet on a regular basis. The level and type of engagement can (and really should) vary by student.

Evo: How do behind-the-scenes activities, like ease of registration and payment or security of critical data, play into institutional engagement with students—especially non-traditional students?

JF: I firmly believe many non-traditional students come into the door of higher education with one foot outside the door at all times. If you give them a reason to take their other foot back outside the door and walk away they will.

This is why so many processes need to have the customer (student) in mind and not necessarily the college. What is easy for the college might not be easy for the student. This is why, here at Ivy Tech Community College, we constantly ask ourselves, “How will a given process enhance our students’ experience?” This could be a process we do ourselves, or something we ask the students to do.

Those experiences need to be positive ones that keep students moving through a process without the student being caught up in red tape or having to jump over barriers just to take a simple action. This is critical for non-traditional students.

Evo: In an ideal world, what types of tools would you love to be able to introduce to better engage with your non-traditional students?

JF: In the ideal world I would to be able to find ways to connect with non-traditional students in a manner that suits them best. Sometimes the challenge is knowing what those various ways might be. The best way to understand this is having tools that allow students to opt into how they wish to make a connection.

My ideal world has a tool that engages with students early in their journey and ask how they wish to receive information and what information they wish to receive. For some, a simple informative text message is as engaging as a detail-filled email. The best tool would be something that engages a student early in the process to understand their preferences and then automate communications and engagement where we can, based on that information.

Evo: What are some of the biggest roadblocks to being able to actually introduce those tools?

At times the student information systems higher education utilizes are not structured in a manner that they can operate as a true client relationship management tool. Nor do they always capture and produce data that is, in itself, useful. This results in adding on different tools to a large system trying to pull out information that is helpful or add on elements that allow us to take information and, based on different indicators, disseminate helpful information back to a student. We have had success here at Ivy Tech Community College in doing this but it takes time, resources and a lot of work to get to the point we need to get to.

This interview has been edited for length.

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