Top Five Ways to Amplify Student Experience

Leveraging data and innovative tech solutions enables university leaders to provide a personalized, digital experience for the modern-day student.

Modern students are more connected and empowered than any generation in history. They view education through a consumer lens and benchmark their school experiences against their other digital experiences. As consumers, they expect the institutions to understand their needs and deliver consistent, great online experiences.

Unfortunately, many institutions of higher learning would barely receive a passing grade if tested on their ability to deliver appropriate levels of service and support from the moment students enroll to the day they graduate and become alumni.

Why? Because it can be extremely difficult. Indeed, large corporations have struggled for years to meet the rising expectations of digitally sophisticated consumers, such as millennials who grew up with mobile and connected technology. It takes time and money to deploy the big data infrastructure and roll out the types of mobile apps people increasingly demand. Companies only recently began recognizing the fact that competing in today’s environment means prioritizing customer experience—despite the initial costs.

Some would argue it’s easy to forgive colleges, universities, and private institutions for being a little behind the curve. Top schools aside, most will tell you they’re struggling to find the budget and resources they need to compete and build effective student information systems (SIS) for the digital age.

As the private sector knows, there’s really no choice. Roughly 60 percent of students at four-year public and private colleges choose their institutions because of receiving personalized attention prior to enrollment, according to a National Student Satisfaction Report from Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Multiple studies also suggest prospective students may shun schools they perceive as technologically primitive.

Educational institutions that fail to put some form of modern high-tech infrastructure in place in order to assure ongoing engagement with prospective and existing students could run the risk of seeing shrinking enrollment, declining graduation rates, and a loss in related funding. For the latter point in particular, many higher education institutions in the U.S. are beholden to funding that is based on a formula that includes college completion and academic performance as criteria. Worse yet, their public image could deteriorate as frustrated students share their challenges on social media, something that’s happening more frequently with 86 percent of young adults active on social sites.

Whereas two decades ago, most schools built SIS infrastructure around transactions, such as registration and enrollment, today there is a pressing need to collect and use data to understand students and create more productive, meaningful, and lasting relationships with them.

Here are five ways educational institutions can deliver more satisfying experiences for modern students:

1.      Don’t Ignore Your Data
Every college or university has a wealth of information about their students. Whether it’s academic or personal in nature, the data institutions have on file can tell a lot about students’ past behavior and how they might perform (or stumble) in the future.

The first step toward becoming a modern campus, therefore, is to get your arms around the data you have so you can easily access, analyze, and make predictions and recommendations based upon it. Technology-focused universities start by deploying a SIS infrastructure in conjunction with customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation software. They also spend considerable time identifying, consolidating and cleansing data to assure the best possible “single view” or “golden record” for students. 

In the end, you want actionable information to underlie every communication with students so they believe you know and care about their success.

2.      Engage Students on Every Channel
Once you have a solid understanding of what makes your students tick, then it’s time to put systems in place to enable regular, effective communication with them. It’s not enough to do that in just one or two ways. That’s because, unlike their parents who relied heavily on the telephone or email, modern students are much more likely to communicate with other individuals and organizations in multiple ways, whether it’s walking into a counselor’s office, calling an administrator on the phone, emailing a professor, or asking questions of the ombudsman on Facebook or Twitter.

It is critically important, therefore, to assure a consistent level of engagement across every channel that students prefer to use in order to communicate with a school, much as retailers try to create a consistent shopping experience across physical and digital stores.

3.      Be Willing to Get Personal
Students receive hundreds of digital messages every day. It’s the result of being connected through so many devices, whether it’s a PC, smartphone, or tablet. As a result, they are incredibly discerning about which communications they’ll read or discard.

It’s vital for institutions to provide very targeted and personalized communications that tap into what students care about. Companies that want to be successful in what Forrester calls “The Age of the Customer” need to offer contextualized experiences that meet customer needs, feel personal and deliver in the moment. The same is true for colleges and universities.

For example, using modern cross-channel communication tools, organizations can automatically contact a student with a follow-up message after she visits a financial aid office or website. In fact, by incorporating academic and other personal details, some solutions can even send students pertinent information about the actual aid for which they qualify. Institutions can also run automated dropout prevention campaigns based on academic performance criteria or provide timely updates to those who are commuting to campus—all to improve each student’s individual experience.

When planning how to engage with students, make sure personalization is central to your strategy.

4.      Know What They’re Saying About You
Have you ever posted a complaint or a comment about a retailer on Facebook or Twitter and then received a response from their customer service department? It’s still more the exception than the rule, but it does happen. When vendors respond to comments, it sends a message they care enough to listen and directly address whatever might be on customers’ minds, demonstrating a commitment to their experience.

The same must hold true in higher education. Postings to social sites—good and bad—can have an enormous effect on an institution’s reputation. The average Facebook user has 155 friends, and the average Twitter user has more than 700 followers. A negative comment that takes off within these communities can go viral in an instant if not properly managed.

Therefore, many leading higher education institutions are deploying technology solutions that enable them to monitor social media and track the number of “likes,” “shares” and “tweets” mentioning them by name. Some more progressive solutions enable organizations to automatically monitor hundreds of thousands of social sites, sift through the noise to understand what students are saying, and capture the “sentiment” of those comments over time. These same systems make it possible to respond to individual messages in an attempt to engage submitter in a productive dialogue and resolve any issues they may have.

To encourage good comments and head off the bad ones, institutions must know what students are saying. These solutions can help.

5.      Get Your Arms Around AI… Now
While it may seem like a leap for an institution to be thinking about artificial intelligence (AI) now, when they’re still grappling with just getting the rights SIS in place, it’s important to recognize this technology is coming fast.

With AI, institutions will be able to leverage existing data, analyze it, and automatically make proactive suggestions and recommendations to help guide the student journey. Your colleges and university peers will soon be using chatbots or “virtual advisors” to help students pick the best course schedules that achieve the requirements of their majors while considering real-life challenges, such as work schedules and commutes to campus.

Similarly, these automated systems will be able to help students choose the best financial aid packages for their needs and income levels. They will reach out to students with questions and advice when their grades or course loads appear to be dropping, which can be an indicator of a student at risk.

Before long, every institution of higher learning will be affected by the arrival of sophisticated AI technology, and schools must be prepared for when it becomes commonplace.

So, there you have it: five ways educational institutions can deliver more satisfying experiences for today’s students. The list is not exhaustive but provides a good starting point for organizations interested in mapping a successful long-term path toward becoming a modern campus.