Personalization and Respect Central to Creating Value for Non-Traditional StudentsCaroline Simpson | Vice President of Student Services, American Public University System
Non-traditional students expect a level of service from institutions that is, frankly, foreign to many higher education leaders. The many demands on their time and attention demand that institutions treat them as consumers, providing them the information and service necessary to support the student’s persistence and completion. Of course, given the transactional distance that often exists between institutions and non-traditional students, many learners come in unprepared for the realities of higher education and ultimately stop or drop out. In this email Q&A, Caroline Simpson shares her thoughts on what it takes for a university to ensure students are properly prepared for their postsecondary experience.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): When a student enrolls at a for-profit institution, what are they often hoping to get out of the experience?
Caroline Simpson (CS): I can’t speak for all for-profit institutions, but at APUS we value our affordability and the opportunity it provides our students to pursue their educational goals. We have been able to balance operational costs and investments in the classroom, in various processes, and in the student learning experience without adding significant tuition and fee increases for our students.
For example, there has been a great effort dedicated to automating the transfer credit evaluation process. By leveraging Optical Character Recognition technology and developing databases that store credit equivalencies, we have been able to significantly reduce the amount of re-work and data entry that an evaluator needs to do. This investment in process improvement and technological tools makes our processes more effective and efficient, therefore, we have been able to do more for our students without increasing staffing levels.
Not all for-profit universities place as much emphasis on balancing costs with high-quality learning and service experiences. At APUS, this is what we are all about.
Evo: For the most part, how closely do students’ expectations match up with the reality?
CS: For students who haven’t experienced online learning before (at a for-profit institution or otherwise), expectations and reality can be very different. It isn’t uncommon for a student who hasn’t taken online courses to assume that they would be less demanding than face-to-face learning because there is no required start or end time, nor is there a physical classroom to visit. We hear from students that they expected our asynchronous environment to result in an “easier” college experience, when in reality, learning online requires more diligence and participation than some more traditional formats.
We work hard during the enrollment process to ensure prospective students understand what our expectations are for student preparedness, engagement and workload. In most cases, learning online requires more time, effort and commitment than when learning in a face-to-face environment. We reinforce this by explaining that there is no ability to sit in the back of the classroom and let your peers speak up for you when learning online. At APUS, participation is easy to track and the expectation is that all students contribute. While this may result in more work for the student, it also ensures a productive, meaningful and interactive learning experience.
Evo: What responsibility does the institution have in managing the expectations of their students?
CS: It is a top priority for us to help students make the right decision about college. If APUS is not the best fit for them—their educational aspirations, work style or budget—we will work to help the student understand this and consider other alternatives. Taking the time up front to share clear expectations and ensure a good student-school fit is an important part of ongoing institutional and student success. Students who aren’t prepared for or interested in our environment are less likely to persist and stay committed. We would rather help a student make an informed decision about their college selection than negatively impact their academic success.
Evo: How can institutions ensure they actually understand the demands and expectations of students?
CS: At APUS, we work to establish a connection with students early on in their search for a school, we strive to ensure expectations, learning environment details, and financial impact and options are transparent. We then check in regularly to see how new and current students are doing in their courses. From the very start, we ask new students to consider and articulate their personal and professional goals so that faculty and staff members can support them throughout their time at the university. These goals, along with the consideration of a variety of other student characteristics, help us shape our outreach efforts in terms of academic advising, career services and opportunities for university engagement.
Further, feedback is incredibly valuable for us. We ask our students to share how their experiences at APUS impacted their academic success, and we seek constructive criticism on all aspects of the learning and service environment. While we survey our students throughout their college career, we make a special effort to stay connected with our Alumni community to ensure that we learn from those who already experienced the APUS environment and have, as a result, gone on to do, and continue to do, great things.
Evo: How can the university enhance the customer experience for students (in areas like ease of registration, payment, etc)?
CS: From a service perspective, our goal at APUS is to offer students opportunities to identify solutions on their own if they want to and to connect with a support staff member when they need to. We are here when students need us, we reach out proactively when we see that a student may need assistance or access to specific resources, and we personalize our communications because we know that one size does not fit all.
This approach works for APUS because it allows us to meet high service expectations in a scalable way. We know our students need different things at different times. We also know that many of our students are making their education one of their many priorities. By tailoring our support to their unique needs, we avoid disrupting them unnecessarily. This strategy, coupled with our commitment to making the online experience as rich as it can be, will allow us to support a large and diverse student body.
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- Ensuring that students understand what to expect from your institution prior to enrolling goes a long way to their persistence and completion; it’s important that institutions bring in the right students rather than spreading the net as widely as possible.
- Institutions need to personalize the institutional experience as much as possible, both academically and bureaucratically, to ensure students are getting the value they expect during their time enrolled.
Author Perspective: Administrator