Published on 2014/10/24

Translating Operational Efficiency to Student Benefits

Translating Operational Efficiency to Student Benefits
Focusing on creating efficiencies through external partnerships and better use of technology creates visible differentiators for students.
Does “efficiency” matter in higher education? If we consider what currently challenges American higher education — rising tuition rates, growing student debt, declining enrollment —  I believe it does. But efficiency is meaningless to students if they don’t see or experience the benefits directly. In other words, as institutions work to streamline and improve their internal processes to optimize staff contributions while lowering costs, it’s important they also take the opportunity to address changes that benefit students, and then communicate the effects of those changes as appropriate.

So what does or could dual, inward and outward-facing efficiency look like?

To begin with, there needs to be an identification of the specific needs of the student body. At my university, these are mainly adult learners who value flexibility, convenience and affordability. All of these are important needs, and our ability to competently address them has a direct impact on meeting our academic mission.

CSU-Global is a state, nonprofit university, but it doesn’t receive state funds. This unique position means finding new opportunities for increased efficiency at every level of the institution is crucial to our sustainability and ongoing success. Every improvement needs to both meet the core needs of our students and be of benefit to our institution and staff.

We achieve this balance by planning ahead: targeting our desired or needed outcomes, mapping out the processes necessary to achieve those outcomes and identifying the potential people, technology and outsourced solutions that can most quickly and cost-effectively achieve those outcomes.

This process has provided significant benefit to our students. We see in their retention, end-of-course surveys, bi-annual student satisfaction surveys, emails and letters that they appreciate and value our efficiency, because we make the effort to demonstrate it through tangible tuition savings and easier campus navigation for a more positive university experience. A student isn’t going to be particularly impressed by the news that some internal process or back-end functionality has been improved, but translating that improvement into fixed tuition costs, the elimination of student fees or easier ways to submit their assignments and other documentation allows “efficiency” to become more than just a buzzword; it becomes a benefit they can measure.

For example, we use technology to give our students the flexibility to self-register for classes, to check on their degree progress and to create custom payment plans that fit their financial needs. Those are all tangible impacts, and ones we know are valuable to our students. Additionally, our move to paperless processes allows for faster and easier access to internal forms and policies, while that same improvement also protects student privacy, improves information security, facilitates transparency and student ease of navigation, and provides time-saving tools to our students.

For additional efficiency, we use outsourced services for activities other organizations can provide with strong reliability at a lower cost due to various factors that include their ability to aggregate or their specific experience. Outsourced services at CSU-Global include federal financial aid exit counseling, funds management, 24×7 live technical support and tutoring services and data center management. Use of such services frees up our staff to focus more on responsibilities better suited to their areas of expertise, and passions, while providing the benefits of top-notch, vendor-provided specialized services to our students.

Through the incorporation of modern day evolutions in technology and outsourced services, institutions can drive lower overhead costs, faster response time and quicker adaptation to the changing needs of the market.

Such efficiency in higher education can provide direct benefits to students and to what currently challenges higher education. These concepts are not mutually exclusive, and with a little planning and effective communication the improved efficiency can be understood by both the institution’s staff and its students.

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Readers Comments

Commenter 2014/10/24 at 11:10 am

Let’s face it: operational efficiency isn’t anything to write home about. Where students will pass on negative comments to friends and family is if something they expect to be efficient ends up being time consuming and unnecessarily complex. It follows that the best way to avoid this type of negative publicity is to reduce the number of inefficiencies, and, in my opinion, the language around that change is important here. Changes more often relate to process than to the addition of new tools. In other words, simply moving your student registration online won’t address the fact that the application is too long/complex. The focus, then, should be more on reducing the inefficiency in the current process than on introducing the new tool.

Wallace Kenyeres 2014/10/24 at 3:29 pm

I agree with Takeda-Tinker’s point that the best way to measure the success of an operational change is to trace its impact on students. Our focus as educators should always be on improving the student experience, and if changes to the business of higher ed can achieve that, they’re worth pursuing. That goes a long way to persuading staff to buy in to the changes as well. Institutional restructuring comes to be seen as a way to better serve students, not a way to downsize (as staff may see it).

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