Online, on-campus: Using technology to improve student retention

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A paradox of higher education today is that while more and more students are attending college, it’s become more difficult to keep them enrolled. A recent study found that one-third of U.S. undergraduates drop out before completing their degrees.

Attrition challenges the foundational purpose of higher education institutions. And it hits their bottom line, leeching away as much as 20 percent of annual budgets. But there is one piece of hopeful news: what’s driving students away isn’t the thorny problem of academic underachievement. Rather, it’s an entirely fixable problem of student experience. Indeed, the majority of undergraduate complaints are about scheduling logistics, poor student service and a perceived disconnect with administration. In other words, it’s not Geometry 101 that’s the problem, it’s the process of just signing up for the class.

All of this is unsurprising considering the nature of contemporary campus life. Economic necessity requires more students than ever to work part-time while in school. This means bureaucratic bottlenecks like making appointments with academic advisors, financial aid officers and other administrative personnel are competing for a shrinking sliver of students’ time, leading to frustration and attrition. It’s one thing for an 18-year-old to burn two hours in line, but it’s quite another for a working parent who’s also trying to juggle school, a job and kids.

In the past, the obvious solution might have been to hire more staff to address some of these shortcomings. But with state governments reducing their funding levels, this is no longer feasible in many places. Fortunately, more economically and transactionally efficient solutions are at hand to improve the student experience.

More history, less mystery

Ironically, for institutions dedicated to knowledge, the common thread uniting the aforementioned problems is guesswork. Students trying to maximize their highly limited time must often middle their way through a labyrinth of schedules, lines and administrative hierarchies. Administrators must guess when students — many of whom are learning independence and self-sufficiency for the first time — will reliably show up, or won’t, as well as how to marshal limited personnel for peak hours and pain points.

What’s needed are more ways to put everyone on the same page. For administrators, this means having tools that allow them to be more proactive so they can meet and even anticipate students’ needs head-on instead of requiring them to figure out what to do. Campus staff needs flexibility to be able to accommodate both scheduled students and urgent walk-ins. They need better intelligence on when and where staff is needed most urgently so they can deploy resources more efficiently. And of course, they need a more robust stream of helpful feedback from students.

At the same time, students could benefit from more ways to control their schedules and experiences, from strategizing and minimizing wait-times for registration, to setting their own appointments, to being able to communicate more directly with the administration from wherever they happen to be.

Connect with tech

Fortunately, all those tools do exist, and are ideally suited for undergraduate life. Students today conduct most of their social and business transactions over mobile phones, so an app connecting them to administrators is the perfect way to “meet them where they are.” Line management software can help them avoid standing in lines by sending them a text message or call when it’s their turn to interact with staff.

Likewise, being able to make, change and cancel appointments on the go makes the administrative process frictionless and empowering for students, boosting their experience and sense of connection.

On the administrative side, staffers can access continuous, real-time information on when students are coming in and when the slow periods are so they can shift staffing around. And the prospect of filling out a survey on a mobile app right after an easy transaction is likely to appeal to students much more than a paper or emailed document clogging up their inboxes. A direct channel to express their frustrations instantaneously allows students to feel that their needs are being heard and met. It also creates a more reliable flow of information and quality control feedback to help the front office put out fires and pinpoint larger systemic problems.

Colleges and universities excel in transporting students to new frontiers. To make sure those students stay engaged for the whole ride, institutions should embrace the new frontiers of technology themselves.

Alex Bäcker is founder and CEO of QLess, whose mission is to eliminate waiting in line from the face of the Earth, and serves on the California Institute of Technology’s Information Sciences and Technology Board of Advisors.

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