Streamlined Business Processes Critical to Creating Value for StudentsPaul LeBlanc | President, Southern New Hampshire University
Today’s higher education marketplace is more competitive than ever before, and institutions are investing significant resources in an array of services and amenities aimed at creating a great student experience. But non-traditional students—the majority of today’s student demographic—aren’t wowed by climbing walls or dormitories; they simply expect a consumer experience comparable to any other major purchase they make. In this interview, Paul LeBlanc shares some insights into the role an institution’s business processes play in creating value for today’s non-traditional students and discusses some of the roadblocks to business process transformations in the academy.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why are students today so focused on the ROI of their higher education experience?
Paul LeBlanc (PL): There are a number of reasons why students are focused on the ROI of their higher education experience; one is that education has become very costly. The real value of a college degree has been called into question and students are trying to determine the likely return on their substantial investment. Part of that ROI equation is tied to the likelihood of getting high-paying work after graduation. Though that wasn’t a concern10 years ago when a college degree was a guarantee of a good-paying job, post-2009 that guarantee has become less and less reliable.
I’d also make a distinction between the traditional high school student going off to live at a residential campus and non-traditional students who are working and juggling family and work with their educations. For the traditional-age student, their ROI factors in something else: their coming-of-age experience and what that will look like. For 18 to 22 year olds, if they’re going to pay a lot of money, part of what schools point to to justify the cost is the amazing facilities and opportunities they will make available.
Evo: How do non-outcome factors like a customer experience or non-academic participation play into the ROI calculations for non-traditional students?
PL: Non-traditional students behave much more like consumers than do traditional-age students, for whom there’s a lot more irrationality built into the decision-making process.
For the non-traditional student, really high levels of customer service—for example the ability to make processes easy and not cumbersome, the speed of turnaround time—matter a lot. These people’s lives are very busy and some of our traditional business processes can seem daunting.
When you think about the non-traditional students, there are four C’s that drive student decision-making:
- Cost: The ability to offer education at a low cost. Any ROI calculation includes not only what students get, but what they will pay for it. That’s a major factor in defining value.
- Completion time: Designing your processes and your academic pathways to get people across the finish line faster gives them the credentials they need more quickly and also saves them money.
- Credential: You have to offer the right degree. Some degrees are more valuable in the marketplace than others. Increasingly, institutions are under pressure to share the value of the particular degrees and disciplines. If you’re competing with a non-traditional provider like General Assembly, which has a coding boot camp, and they produce graduates who are in such high demand that their starting salaries might be $100,000, then you as an institution better be able to tell students your comparable ROI story.
- Convenience: This is a big deal to adults. The reason they’re often enrolled in online programs is that their busy lives don’t allow them to be in traditionally scheduled programs where they have to be in a specific place at a certain time.
Evo: How are higher education’s traditional business processes hindering universities from meeting the ROI expectations of students?
PL: Higher education is a highly regulated industry. There are oftentimes lots of steps required in our processes and sometimes it’s impossible to streamline. We build bureaucracies that can feel pretty daunting to prospective students.
Another issue is non-profit higher education institutions often lack a sense of urgency. Not only can we make the process difficult, we can also make it time consuming with low turnaround times.
I’m also not sure we have harnessed technology as well as other commercial industries have. If you take a look at state-of-the-art websites or mobile apps that allow you to engage with a provider or vendor, higher ed tends to lag behind.
Evo: Why have so many institutions been slow in adapting to this change in student expectations?
PL: For one, they’ve been through a period of high enrollment, so they haven’t had to adapt. Not-for-profits aren’t as good at the process-redesign and streamlining changes as are commercial and for-profit entities. While there are lots of really smart people working in universities, they’re more focused on academics and academic delivery. What happens under the hood, administratively, is not very sexy stuff, but it makes a real difference to the student experience.
Evo: What are some of the most significant changes that you guys have made under the hood to really meet the value expectations of non-traditional students?
PL: We’ve done a lot of process streamlining. We process-mapped the enrollment steps from initial expression of interest to actually matriculating into a program. We’ve been able to eliminate a lot of steps.
We operate with a greater sense of urgency and we benchmark our performance. We set targets for the turnaround times on transfer credit evaluations, for example. We track that every day. We know how we’re doing, how the team’s doing, if we’re lagging behind or if we’re performing at a very high level.
The widespread use of data to measure process-efficacy is really important. It’s one thing to come up with tactics to improve the student experience, but how do you know if you’re accomplishing the goal; how do you measure and monitor performance? Those are really critical pieces of the puzzle.
We try really hard to think about how we can remove barriers and hurdles to student success while improving the customer service experience. In traditional institutions, you can’t even use the phrase “customer service,” but adult learners can be both: students who want high-quality education and customers who want good customer service.
Evo: What inspired you to remap the universities business processes?
PL: We wanted to compete head-to-head with the for-profit sector. While there were lots of critics of the for-profits (and for very good reason), one of the things they are really good at is customer service, including streamlining their processes and collecting, measuring and monitoring data.
We looked at that and said, “If we’re going to compete with these guys and we’re going to make a claim as a non-profit provider that we can do a better job, we have to be able to compete with them and execute better on the student experience side, on the process side.”
Evo: What were some of the biggest roadblocks to making these process changes, and how did your team overcome them?
PL: There was the typical human resistance to having to learn a new process or redesign an old process. That happens a lot in institutions that are trying to make these changes.
You need to bring the right people on board who know how to do it. We had to keep communicating why we were making these changes; their importance to students, how they would make a difference, how they could help us realize our goals. We also had to build the systems to monitor the behavior we wanted to change.
Evo: To your mind, what’s the outcome for institutions that succumb to the desire for status quo?
PL: In this very competitive environment, where lots of new players and providers are nibbling away at the market that not-for profits monopolized, you will pay the price if you can’t execute well. You’ll pay the price in student happiness and thus retention, in your ability to recruit effectively against other institutions that are better and faster and more agile. You have to be on your game. To not be on your game in this current climate where institutional business models are being blown up is dangerous.
Evo: Is there’s anything you’d like to add about what it takes for institutions to transform their business models to meet the expectations of today’s non-traditional students, especially when it comes to creating and maximizing their value from the educational experience?
PL: The points of emphasis for institutions in this sphere will continue to be the ability to show a pathway to meaningful work, backed by data, and the ability to control costs.
In many instances, higher education is expensive and institutions are not going to be able to roll that back. They’re going to face more pressure to show what students are getting for their substantial investment.
The ability to demonstrate transparency, data and evidence; these are all things that we will be asked to pay attention to going forward. When you see something like the President’s proposed rating system or scorecard, that’s very much about transparency of data and holding us accountable as an industry.
We have long argued that a college degree has a strong ROI and I believe that continues to be mostly true for most students at most schools, but now we will have to prove it to an increasingly skeptical public.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator