Changing University Culture to Transform the Student Experience

Higher Ed & Post Sec, Learner Experience, Learning

By Catherine Georgeoff, Todd A. Hitchcock and Shane Keene

Colleges and universities are making significant strides to better serve today’s learners.

Over the past several years, the higher education space has seen an increase in online degree programs as well as concerted efforts to embed competency-based education in curriculum so student skills align with the demands of the job market. Improvements in the enrollment process have also been implemented to ensure students are adeptly qualified and best prepared to succeed.

While these exciting evolutions continue to manifest over time, the expectation is we will see a correlation between these improvements and improved retention. But that does not appear to be happening…yet.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall retention has stayed relatively flat over the past six years, hovering at about 60 percent by starting enrollment intensity. The question becomes: can we break through the retention rate plateau? The answer is, of course, yes.  There’s always more to be done to positively influence these numbers.

Improving retention requires us to address the challenge head-on by creating more positive experiences for students. And that process starts with everyone on campus taking ownership or responsibility for retention.

To create an environment focused on providing students with a positive experience, it is necessary to change the culture of the institution. Here are three strategies for starting that transformation:

1. Build Collaboration: The idea that student retention should be everyone’s responsibility means that university faculty and staff should find consensus on how each individual involved in an on-campus and or online program can make changes that positively influence student sentiment. All leaders need to come together and map out a realistic plan for how each department and function can ensure that students have positive experiences every day.

For a student in an on-campus program, this can mean everything from having positive encounters with the campus security monitoring the parking lot to finding faculty members available during listed office hours. In online programs, ensuring that the students’ experiences with technology as well as their interaction with faculty and administration are key to their feeling positive about their experience.

Once leaders determine each person’s role in providing students with a positive experience, then those responsibilities should be built into faculty and staff job descriptions so it becomes an institutionalized and a clearly defined metric that everyone works toward. In time, providing all students with a positive experience will become part of the culture of the institution.

2. Consider Professional Development: Just because job descriptions are adjusted to better align with the student-consumer market doesn’t mean that this will be easy to implement, especially on a mass scale. This is again where leaders can step in to provide needed soft-skills training, especially for faculty and staff who have been in the same roles for years.

In the day-to-day, and sometimes mundane, tasks of hard-working university professionals, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of the student experience, especially in online programs. In today’s busy work environments, it can be easy to forget the individual student with whom you’re interacting and instead focus on the “process” of “student in, student out.” By providing faculty, staff and administration with professional development opportunities, they will learn new skills for interacting with students.

3. Invest in Technology: There are still too many colleges and universities that rely on outdated, antiquated systems. While that may have been more tolerable 10 or 15 years ago, it’s just not acceptable now. Today’s students are sophisticated when it comes to technology. Most have never lived in a time when they can’t just “Google” it, carry their phone around in their pocket or text their friends. They expect technology to work quickly and to provide the information or activity that they need when they need it.

By investing in new software and technology or upgrades to existing systems, colleges and universities can quickly improve the student experience. Staff and faculty will have more immediate access to information and can convey it back to students more quickly.  Similarly, students will be learning in a technology environment that is up-to-date, familiar, user-friendly and responsive.

This is even more critical in an online program. The technology environment pretty much makes or breaks the student experience here. It is critical that the online learning environment—the campus for these students—be state-of-the-art, work on the wide variety of devices that they may have access to, and provide the tools that they need to be successful.

While these strategies aren’t the silver bullet that will cure all student persistence and retention issues, they are tangible steps to developing a blueprint for transforming the student experience. They will help all faculty, staff and administration start to think differently about students and the student experience and to focus on students as the customer. And the ultimate result will be higher levels of student satisfaction and retention.

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Catherine Georgeoff is senior vice president of operations for Pearson Embanet. Follow Pearson on Twitter: @PearsonNorthAm

Todd Hitchcock is chief operating officer for Pearson Embanet and provides strategic and operational leadership for Pearson’s Online Program Management and Managed Services for Community College. Follow him on Twitter: @toddahitchcock

Shane Keene is program director for the online bachelor of science in respiratory therapy at University of Cincinnati. Follow the university on Twitter: @uofcincy

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