According to CollegeAtlas.org, 30% of college freshmen drop out after their first year. In addition, the cost to attend college has increased almost eight times faster than wages, reports a Forbes article. But there’s one critical way to ensure that your students succeed. Put them first in everything you do — especially when it comes to communication. If you can provide students with more guidance and clear pathways for success, you can keep them engaged and focused on the things they need to do to progress smoothly through their college journey, and beyond.
The problem is, higher education institutions are typically designed for yesterday’s students — high school graduates who were expected to not only navigate their future but the transition from home to college life. This model worked in pre-internet times, but for the pace and complexity of today’s society, schools have to rethink how they support and guide students. In place of siloed administrative departments requiring students to perform a complex dance of filling forms and meeting requirements, institutions have to build around the student and guide them properly.
“Siloed university units are dinosaurs that are fast becoming extinct,” notes a Forbes article. “By getting rid of organizational silos and focusing on how to best serve students — from applicants’ first interactions through decades as alumni — students win and universities win.”
To help address this paradigm shift and better guide students through their college journey, institutions are beginning to work towards a student-centric model of communication, adopting platforms and services that span across all departments and administrative needs.
Here’s how they’re doing it, and how you too can get started in the shift to student-centric communication.
1. Understand what student-centric looks like.
If you want to design communication around the needs of your students, there are certain elements you need to consider. Student-centric communication is:
- Personalized: Every interaction is relevant to a particular student’s situation.
- Conversational: Language is tailored to students, and without judgment.
- Convenient: Students can get answers 24/7 on their preferred device.
- Centralized: All departments contribute to a single source of information.
Georgia State University (GSU) was battling summer melt, struggling to close the equity gap, and striving to improve student persistence. Searching for the reason why students weren’t showing up for classes after they had been admitted and confirmed, GSU traced the problem back to administrative processes that were creating barriers to student success.
Dr. Timothy Renick, Senior Vice President for Student Success and Professor of Religious Studies at GSU, said that the higher education system is plagued by layers of red tape that make it hard for students to make the transition from high school to college. “It’s all of us in higher education who create this immense bureaucracy that we expect students to navigate in order to be ready for the first day of class,” he said.
After conducting an analysis of all the things they were asking students to do between their last day of high school and their first day at GSU, they realized students had to go through 14 different steps before setting foot in a classroom. The solution was to streamline how they engaged and onboarded new students.
Because they understood that first-generation students and those with lower incomes face different challenges than other students, they wanted to get a better understanding of each student’s situation to help them with the transition. They began by delivering a survey to all admitted students on their smartphones with questions about their financial situation, family life and other questions not typically asked on a college application.
Next, they created a portal that outlined the 14 steps every student needs to complete before they set foot in a classroom to increase the chances that those steps are completed successfully. Finally, they introduced an AI-powered chatbot from AdmitHub to answer student questions around the clock about everything from registration and housing to financial aid and immunizations.
As a result of these efforts, GSU increased enrollment by 3.3%, and decreased summer melt by 21.4%.
Let’s talk strategy.
Request a free student communication assessment to learn more.
2. Assess how well your organization is designed for students.
To become student-centric, colleges first have to take a step back to evaluate their processes. Here are a few things to consider:
- Do departments collaborate to solve for student issues, or do they work in silos?
- Is data available in one location so all functions have a single source of truth and are united in their communication, or is it scattered across different systems?
- Is communication transactional and impersonal, or is it personalized and designed to relate to students?
To help you self-identify where you stand now and what you need to do to move your student communications to the next level, start with our Student Impact Framework.
This model centers around five development levels: Unstructured, Aware, Proactive, Consistent and Inspiring. Associated with each level are additional, specific parameters around how the people, process and technology at your organization function. Outcomes range from communications that are overwhelming for students and staff, to those that use technology for organizational and student impact.
For example, if your student services departments send out their own disconnected messages, no one person “owns” student communication, your technologies don’t support university goals, and your communication is reactive, you’re at the Unstructured Level. If, on the other hand, you’re collaborating across departments, have a central communication function, and use automation and personalization to increase engagement and impact, you would be at the highest level of the model — Inspiring.
It’s important to note that, because we developed this model to help show the future of higher education communication, very few colleges and universities have reached the Inspiring level. Instead, most are between Unstructured and Aware, which are the first two levels of the model. That leaves a lot of room to grow.
3. Shift your strategy.
Keep in mind, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Changing your communication strategy can seem like an overwhelming undertaking, so it’s important to start small and build over time. In fact, we advocate a multi-year strategy to help you make the transition. For example, in year one you might prioritize, get traction and celebrate early wins in areas like financial aid and course registration.
Here’s how that could look: Focus on financial aid and provide support to ensure students are taking the right steps to stay in school such as applying for scholarships and grants, completing the FAFSA, accepting a loan and paying bills. Then move on to tackle course registration steps to keep students in classes like meeting enrollment deadlines, navigating late registration, changing courses and understanding drop and withdraw deadlines.
As time progresses, you might work toward goals for strengthening university culture by distributing surveys on adjusting to college life, providing orientation information, and promoting student activities. The idea is to map out your communications around student success levers and find out how to accelerate those levers to meet university goals.
Move your strategy forward.
If you’re thinking about making the leap to student-centered communication, here are some important recommendations for you to consider.
- Understand university goals. Consider how you can work across organizational teams to accomplish your overall goals. For example, California State University (CSU) has a goal to increase the percentage of four-year grads by the year 2025 while eliminating opportunity and achievement gaps. To help achieve this goal, they developed cross-divisional committees to help analyze student-related systems and make recommendations to remove barriers to student success.
- Analyze student needs across their lifecycle. Understand what your students are trying to do and which pitfalls they’re running into along the way. For example, are students missing deadlines for financial aid submissions? Do they struggle with specific steps in the enrollment process? Look at tasks like choosing courses, registering for housing, or completing financial aid forms to find out how you can provide the guidance students need to successfully complete them.
- Evaluate your processes. Take a step back to ask whether you’re communicating a message because it’s a process that’s always been there, or it’s something the student really needs. Understand the why behind every piece of communication your organization sends out.
- Start connecting with other departments. Get together in a room and learn how to solve for these issues. Explore how your office can partner with another department to streamline student communication and improve student success. A Forbes article cites the example of Student Affairs working with Alumni Relations. When students are more engaged, writes the author, they become more committed graduates, and more generous alumni.
Advancing your communications strategy from Unstructured to Inspiring is no small task. But with AdmitHub as your strategic partner, you’ll have someone to guide you every step of the way. We can help you centralize your student communication plan so they have an intuitive flow, and align your people, processes and technology around student success instead of administrative convenience.
And because we’re experts in AI chatbot technology, we can help you get a handle on what you need to build personalized relationships with students at scale. For instance, by getting logistical questions and common FAQs into a chatbot that speaks to students in a language they understand, your staff will have more time to get to know each student, increasing the chances that they’ll take the next step in their college journey.
By improving student communication around critical steps in admissions and student success, you can increase engagement and encourage students to take action on important milestones. And that means higher admissions, higher retention and more students in need who are accessing and completing college.
Let’s talk strategy.
Request a free student communication assessment to learn more.