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Class is in Session: 5 Ways to Focus on Student Experience

This time of year marks the end of summer and the beginning of the academic year for higher education. As colleges and universities begin to welcome students back to campus it is a perfect time to center up on the student experience.

There is something special about the beginning of each academic year. I spent many years working in this area and it was always an exciting time - full of possibilities and reinvention. A chance to refine our vision and put students at the center of our thinking.

I remember move in day most vividly - the day students arrive on campus. Think of the most emotional traffic jam possible as parents drop off their children on campus to begin the next chapter of their journey. Students and parents alike are both sad and excited simultaneously - and also fiercely proud about starting college.

When we understand what it really means to be student-centric, then the possibilities of success on both sides of the educational process improve exponentially.

Remember This Is an Emotional Time. As I mentioned above it can be a bit of a tear-jerker watching children say goodbye to their parents on move in day. It's a big step full of trepidation, excitement, anxiety, and fear. Personally, I remember both being terrified at doing my own laundry while also excited that no one knew what time I would get home every night. There is also the complexity of navigating the college experience - choosing classes, understanding financial aid, buying a meal plan, and navigating parking. When you consider the financial pressures of ultimately paying back student loans - along with the roommate who clips his toe nails in the middle of the room - you can begin to understand the emotional nature of this experience. Keep this understanding in the forefront of your thinking and it will help you center on giving students the help they need. This kind of empathetic understanding will lead to superior service and increased loyalty.

Connect to the Future. There has been conversation in recent years about the return on investment of higher education. I think the trick to combating any negative perceptions here is to start with the end in mind. Let's face it, securing meaningful employment that allows you to enjoy life and support your family is an important consideration. Some could argue this is really the only tangible way to measure the effectiveness of an institution. So start with that end in mind.

Finding the intersection of passion, aptitude, and demand is the formula for success.

This means that there must be a need for the degree - gone are the days of philosophy majors being a great idea. On a side note, take philosophy classes though; they teach you how to think. That said, higher education can't simply focus on what's hot now - what's going to be all the rage in four years is the bigger question. Is the answer a trade school rather than a traditional four-year college? Consider ultimately what is best for the student rather than the school. Creativity, flexibility, and a personalized student experience will win here.

Every Department Has a Singular Purpose. Silos develop naturally on campuses. It is easy to believe that your mission is to run residence halls, teach economics, or sell text books. Certainly these are important areas that impact the student experience; however, they are not the purpose of the organization. These are tasks that, while important, do not drive ultimate success.

The ultimate purpose of any college, university, or trade school is the education and well being of their students - full stop. This means that ensuring their safety, their enrichment, and their community is all that ultimately matters. Double down on helping them learn and develop relationships - that will keep you focused on what matters most.

Campuses that have not embraced their larger purpose may find themselves mired in endless meetings with no one willing to make decisions.

Take Action on Feedback. We exist in an information-rich environment. The problem with most organizations - higher ed included - is the lack of action against that information.

There are many ways to hear your customers - yes, students are your customers. Better yet, think of them as guests on your campus. After all, the campus becomes their home, kitchen, and living room while they are there, so why not embrace it? Listen to them however they will talk to you. This has gone beyond email or online to social and texting. Stay nimble when it comes to how you hear your students and then take action on what you hear. Share the learning with the entire campus and set the expectation that everyone helps drive change and improvement.

Focus on a True Holistic Student Experience. As I mentioned earlier, there is power in keeping students at the center of your thinking. As you do this, remember to think about their experience on campus as a journey rather than a disparate set of moments. Every touch-point is meaningful and they fit together to create an engaging student experience.

What does a typical day look like? How does a student on your campus interact with administration, parking, dining, professors, and groundskeepers each day? How does the person working the front desk at their residence hall impact their day? Is the food court in the Student Center their hang out spot? How are they interacting with the library and how will they want to interact next year?

Whether it is the quality of the wifi, the residence life (social events or programs), or the beauty of the campus grounds, everything that touches your students has impact.

So stay focused on these key moves. The higher education marketplace is under more scrutiny than ever as student debt and potential default increases.

By focusing on student experience you will engender a special loyalty that leads to engaged alumni who are more willing to give back and send their own children to your school in the future.

Thanks for keeping your students at the center of everything you do.


Tony Johnson, CCXP Customer Experience (CX) Leader | Author | Speaker

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