InContext Magazine

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When students won't wait

Colleges and universities turn to technology to better serve today’s non-traditional and tech-savvy students

The fluctuating landscape of today’s higher education industry is driven by the changing body of students it serves – students who expect better, faster service and results than their counterparts of the past. Providing exceptional service to meet the growing demands of these students, who are easily frustrated by slow decision-making and response time, is perhaps one of the biggest challenges faced by higher education administrators – and it is also one of the most important to address.

Today’s “traditional” students – those who move directly from high school graduation to freshman year of college – are the initial wave of Generation Z, individuals currently 13 to 18 years old. Generation Z is the first generation too young to know a world without the internet and prolific mobile technology. As a result, they are accustomed to non-stop connectivity – one study found that 100 percent of Generation Z is connected online for at least one hour per day, and about half (46 percent) are connected more than 10 hours per day. They operate under an expectation of instant gratification in all aspects of their lives, including their interactions with your college and university staff.

Generation Z won’t comprise your entire incoming student body, however. Due to the recent recession and a changing employment market, nontraditional students now outnumber traditional. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nontraditional undergraduate students can be identified by any of the following seven characteristics:

  • Do not immediately continue education after high school graduation
  • Attend college only part time
  • Work 35 hours or more per week
  • Are financially independent
  • Have children or dependents of their own
  • Are single parents
  • Have a GED rather than a high school diploma

Approximately 75 percent of all undergraduate students fall into this nontraditional category. In contrast to Generation Z, which simply refuses to wait for your staff to make decisions about its educational future, these nontraditional students cannot wait because of their other commitments. Together, they are a recipe for a student body that won’t– or simply can’t – wait to receive information on application status, financial aid, credit transfer or graduation requirements.

According to Gartner analyst Jan-Martin Lowendahl in 2013’s Gartner Higher Education Business Model Scenarios: Digitalization Drives Disruptive Innovation and Changes the Balance, “if education institutions do not adapt and adopt more digitalized capabilities, they will see their market and/or margins being shrunk by more-innovative education institutions implementing digitalized business models.”

Luckily, adopting these digitalized capabilities and innovations is not just a necessary step toward keeping your students happy, but a wise investment in your school’s current staff, student information system (SIS) and other technological capabilities. The fact is, while your SIS is the system of record for much of your student data, unless it is connected to a content and process management system, it cannot provide you with access to all the information you need about students, financial information and program requirements.

Consider your staff’s most monotonous responsibilities – hand-keying in data, routing documents and emails for review and approval, or even just toggling back and forth between systems to find student and program information. There is little value in this type of work, so the hours spent on it is a waste of your staff’s time and your financial investments.

Addressing these challenges through content and process management solutions designed for colleges and universities can automate these processes and make files and information available anywhere, allowing your institution to eliminate this tedious and manual work so staff has more time to focus on students.

You and your staff know how many factors are involved in processes such as admitting a student, awarding financial aid or even changing a class. All your students know, however, is they want an answer to their request as quickly as possible. The right technology can speed up your behind-the-scenes processes, allowing for faster decision-making and a shorter response time to student requests.

For example, when University of Tampa (UT) recognized manually processing paper student applications was inefficient and costly, they implemented a new, electronic applications process using Perceptive Software process and content management solutions to better meet students’ needs, use staff resources more effectively and reduce recruiting costs. Because it no longer had to wait for manual filing to complete application files and send them for evaluation, UT immediately saw improvement in the processing of applications. When relying upon a paper-based application evaluation, it took weeks for all the documents to be gathered into the file and for the evaluators to work their way through stacks of files. Moving to a paperless, electronic evaluation process allowed staff members to eliminate time-consuming steps and to retrieve a complete electronic admissions packet without leaving their desks, significantly shortening the entire admissions process.

The utilization of a tailored content and process management solution can be a competitive advantage for your school. Imagine, for example, an 18-year-old applicant wants to know whether she’s been accepted to your freshman class, or a 45-year-old student wants to know how many of his college credits from another school will transfer to your degree program. It’s unlikely you’re the only school they’re waiting to hear from – in fact, a study from the National Association for College Admission Counseling found 79 percent of students applied to at least three colleges in 2011. As the first to get back to the student with your (quick, yet well-informed) decision, you are more likely to hit your enrollment goals and populate your student body with the individuals you’re looking for.

The most important aspect of being able to get back to a student quickly, though, is the impact it will have on your customer service reputation. No student, whether GenZ, nontraditional or anywhere in between, wants to feel like just another number in your student body. Making a student wait while you track down an answer (or even worse, let you call them back) simply isn’t an option today.

The interactions a student has with your front-line staff members, such as admissions representatives, academic advisors and financial aid counselors are crucial to engagement and retention. Only by having anytime, anywhere access to the information that will answer the questions students and parents inevitably have can you truly improve student service.