Students say colleges lag in providing personalized digital experience


Colleges and universities delivering a superior, personalized digital experience — in and outside the lecture hall — stand a better chance of attracting and retaining students, a new study suggests.

The study of 1,000 U.S. college undergraduates, conducted this fall by Ellucian, found that 87 percent of students now consider how technologically “savvy” a school is when applying for colleges. It also found nearly all students (97 percent) believe that technology outside the classroom is as important to their success as the technology in the classroom.

“Today’s modern students take technology into consideration when deciding which college is right for them, and expect a more universal, connected experience,” said Mariana Cavalcanti, Ellucian vice president of user experience.

But students are looking for more than the availability of technology. They expect modern day apps that can simplify and personalize their overall college experience. And they also expressed a need for schools to help them connect with campus life on a more emotional level.

Both expectations are critical factors in contributing to a student’s success — and in how schools can distinguish themselves when competing for students, the study concluded.

Colleges trail market expectations

Colleges, however, appear to be lagging in the broader marketplace in their ability to personalize their customers’ digital experience. Nearly three in five students (58 percent) reported that of all the companies they engage with online, their college is the furthest behind in personalizing their experience, the report said.

“Just like any other mobile application or service they have grown up with, students demand a personalized experience that will help them adjust to their new surroundings, optimize their life on campus and connect more deeply with their school experience,” said Cavalcanti.

That’s especially true as a growing portion of students are older and juggling part- or full-time jobs.

“Full-time workers want advanced technology [tools] even more than the average student,” said Calvalcanti in an interview with EdScoop at EDUCAUSE earlier this month, where the results were formally released. “They need to know what time of day, not just which day, their assignments are due,” she said, noting how college, work and family demands place students under greater stress.

It’s not that schools aren’t trying: Most students (85 percent) claim their school has a centralized application, according to the study. But on average, students must log in to four different platforms (and more at larger schools) to access college-related information or activities.

When it comes to personalization, the study found that students want to see more customized information that helps them with:

  • Career preparation: job assistance and interview training (29 percent)
  • Finances: tuition and financial aid (28 percent)
  • Academic matters: course registration and checking grades (25 percent)
  • Student life: housing and student organizations (18 percent)

Cavalcanti stressed that schools must also do more with their technology to help students feel connected.

Among students whose college offers a centralized campus app, two in three (68 percent) of students still reported feeling “overwhelmed” by the volume of information their college provided when they first started their higher education journey.

“We all know that students feel vulnerable when they first step foot on campus and begin their college journey,” said Cavalcanti. “When schools work to connect with students on an emotional level it can help them get started on the right path and be critical to success and long-term loyalty.”

Students said that institutions can make them feel more emotionally connected to their school by:

  • Creating ways to connect with other students or make friends (56 percent)
  • Suggesting coursework based on academic performance and interests (47 percent)
  • Proposing potential event attendance based on student major or interests (45 percent)
  • Delivering alerts for school deadlines (44 percent)
  • Crafting opportunities to connect with faculty (42 percent)
  • Suggesting ideas for supplemental resources or tutoring (26 percent)

The study, “Students Are Looking for Personalized Digital Experiences: Do Colleges Deliver?” was conducted by Wakefield Research in late September and early October for Ellucian, a leading provider of software and services for higher education.