Strategic Technology and High-Touch Support Key to Student-Centricity
Student-centricity starts with mission. Academic Support Resources, the core student services unit at the University of Minnesota, follows a shared mission statement: “Making a Positive Difference in Student’s Lives.” As administrators set priorities, we ask ourselves, “Will this effort make a positive difference for our students?” This mission resonates across the university community. Faculty at this large R1 University may be working on a cure for cancer, developing a theoretical framework to analyze an art form or researching artificial intelligence, but they all want their students to be well served and fully engaged in their learning. There are many initiatives currently underway that place the student at the center of our efforts—too many to detail at great length—but here is a glimpse into some of the ways the University of Minnesota has committed to crafting an engaging, enriching and student-focused environment.
At the turn of the century, new technology and new attitudes led the University of Minnesota to change the way we engaged our students. In 2002, we become the country’s first fully integrated student services provider of enrollment, financial aid, billing, payment, records information and assistance by creating the One Stop Student Services department. One Stop provides expert assistance to students to assist them in managing the business side of their academic career. One of the many student experience improvements was a thoughtful approach to student well-being. Well-being can encompass any number of attributes in life from money and finances, to health, family, spirituality, and so on. National statistics indicate that 72.1 percent of college students feel stress about personal finances, and more than 20 percent of students expect to have student loans greater than $50,000 by the time they graduate. Over half do not pay off their credit card balances each month. When students experience financial stress they struggle to focus on their academics, and they may alter course load and trajectory. The university tackled that challenge head on by developing a program called Live Like a Student (LLAS). LLAS educates students on financial topics while encouraging them to live within their means. All One Stop counselors are required to complete a certification in Personal Financial Management so that they are prepared to help students create financial plans, talk about major purchases like buying a car, and managing investments and debt. How many of you could have used this kind of support as an incoming freshman?
To help the university reach graduation and retention rate goals set forth by the Board of Regents and state Legislature, ASR created a Student Degree Progress (SDP) team. This team specializes in identifying impediments to degree progress and retention. The team has been innovative in finding new ways to present degree progress information to students, while also sharing the data with their advisers who can conduct targeted student outreach. Recently, an effort was launched in partnership with the Dean of Undergraduate Education and the University of Minnesota Foundation to obtain unrestricted scholarship funds. These new “completion funds” are used to assist undergraduate students in finishing their degrees. The funds are aimed at students who are close to completing final degree requirements but whose financial situation is the core barrier to completion.
Another aspect of student-centricity is the online student experience. The university takes the concept of user experience design seriously. Students are at the center of our process design decisions and we use a number of user experience research techniques from focus groups to surveys to web analytics in an effort to understand our students. The university has invested significantly in a usability laboratory to support student-centric user experience testing. The lab includes eye-tracking software and a two-way mirrored observation room where a group of product owners can observe the testing. The lab is staffed by usability consultants who have deep expertise in recruiting targeted representative users, testing user experience, analyzing test results, and helping product teams improve the usability and student-centricity of technologies that support student success.
But student-centricity doesn’t stop with student services and technology geared toward traditional learners. You may not think about student-centricity for students who are not enrolled in a college or degree program. The concepts still apply to non-traditional, lifelong learners. Within the College of Continuing Education (CCE) at the University of Minnesota, learner representatives work with non-credit students in an advisor-like role. They help direct them to course offerings that help them achieve their goals. This may include conversations about certificate programs, or licensure requirements that support their professional objectives, or personal ambitions to learn more about the wine regions in Italy. Whatever the curriculum, the university must not lose sight of our customer. We adapt to the ever-changing needs of students, no matter if they are first-year undergraduates or veterans returning to school to become more competitive in the job market. CCE anticipates growth in several areas such as courses being delivered in short, bootcamp-type experiences and the growing popularity of badges, or digital certificates. These trends provide non-credit students a credential they can use in their career quickly, and on their terms. Another trend in adult education is professional master’s degrees. These non-research, workplace-oriented master’s degrees are intended to prepare students for a particular job or industry. For example, the university offers an MBS in biological sciences that prepares students not to be biologists, but rather to work in the biosciences industry.
It is clear that educators and administrators must be agile in our delivery and approach to student learning. We must place students at the center of our choices about curriculum design, learning outcomes, university life, student service, technology, the physical space where learning occurs, and the mediums by which learning is delivered. Developing a continuous cycle of engagement, evaluation, and improvement with students and learners across the university community is imperative to our success as a top institution. If we continue listening and responding, making a positive difference in our students’ lives, they will help us be recognized worldwide for educating future leaders.
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Ohio State University, “National Student Financial Wellness Survey: Key Findings Report.” 2014. Accessed at http://cssl.osu.edu/posts/documents/nsfws-key-findings-report.pdf
Author Perspective: Administrator