Enrolling in college seems like a simple process. Take your placement test. Fill out financial aid forms and housing applications. Arrange for tuition payments, attend orientation and you’re in. But while a straight shot to enrollment looks great on paper, the truth is, every student’s journey is different.

A student whose parents and grandparents attended college might find it easy to follow the fast path to enrollment. But for first-generation students and others who aren’t so sure what to expect, the road can get rocky. Filling out that financial aid form can be really confusing. Students may discover fees they’re unable to pay, and face enrollment processes that are too complex. Many end up doubting themselves for not being able to get through all the steps, and just give up altogether.

And it’s not just enrollment. The same is true as they make their way through to graduation and career. Some students may graduate in four years, but the timeline stretches on for the majority. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 60% of first-time undergraduates take six years to earn their degrees. As a result of these challenges, college costs go up, and graduation rates decrease. 

“Although university staff and faculty are more aware of the complexities students face as they move through their college journey, these aren’t yet reflected in most university processes. The path often still represents that linear model.”

Johanna Beers, Senior Partner Success Manager at AdmitHub

It’s time for higher education institutions to take the lead in helping students through their individual journeys, no matter how complex. The way to do this is to remove barriers, serve as a helpful guide, and keep students engaged — all while keeping the student perspective top of mind. Here’s how.

Identify Student Barriers

From multi-page forms to unexpected expenses, students face any number of hurdles that can derail them from their enrollment or graduation goals. In order to find out where students get stuck, you’ll need to first understand what they have to go through to achieve progress. Start by mapping the student journey. Think of every action a student needs to take — from submitting their college application to getting a job.  

Many higher education institutions will map the student journey based on how they think it should flow in order to support university needs and processes. Below you’ll see an example of a path to graduation and career mapped out in this way: Choose a major, register for courses, receive financial aid, speak with advisors, complete an internship, speak to career services, graduate and get a job. 

Anticipated College Student Journey Map

But as we mentioned previously, the journey is rarely linear. Instead, you should think about all of the touchpoints a student encounters, and how those interactions affect students. Changing majors, decoding complex jargon, taking summer classes or dealing with work study are just a few roadblocks that keep students from making progress. So, the path ends up looking more like this:

The College Student Journey Map is not linear

As you map the journey, it’s important to not only consider actions students need to take on the path to enrollment or graduation, but also what they’re feeling and thinking, including any pain points they may be experiencing such as feeling alone, or having trouble balancing school and work. This will help you get a more complete view of what students really need to move closer to their goals. 

Show Students the Way

Students who are struggling in college need someone to guide them through processes that might seem unfamiliar or just plain overwhelming. However, colleges typically don’t have enough resources to assign an advisor to every student in need.

One way to guide every student to their next destination is to offer a virtual resource. One that students can access any time of the day or night to get quick responses their questions, whether it’s knowing the deadline for submitting a housing application or finding out about the latest campus events.

AI chatbots fit this role well, as they can handle routine questions that most students ask, while allowing human advisors to help with more complicated issues. And because AdmitHub’s chatbots can communicate proactively via text, students are more likely to pay attention. Chatbots can also help institutions nudge students to take the next step in their journey, like submitting that last item for their financial aid application, or providing a list of things they should have ready for student orientation.

“Chatbots allow university staff to offload repetitive questions, freeing up time for more personalized conversations and guidance.”

Johanna Beers, Senior Partner Success Manager at AdmitHub

Beers added, “Chatbots also provide opportunities to segment communication, so staff can offer more specialized support to different populations of students, rather than blast emails that can be fairly long and full of university jargon.”

And don’t forget to listen. A quick survey can help you gather valuable feedback such as how students feel about starting school, or what their biggest concerns are around living on campus. By keeping communications focused on the student, you can provide them with the best roadmap forward.

Move Students Along

Keeping students motivated to continue their journey means making the college experience fun and interesting. That’s why it’s important to ensure that not only are you giving students the information they need, but that you’re providing it in an engaging way.

So, rather than filling your website and applications with hard-to-understand terms like “independent study,” “matriculate,” or even “dormitories,” keep language simple and clear. 

“Universities need to simplify the language they use to advance students through their journey, and have it readily available to avoid repeatedly answering the same questions,” said Beers. “A chatbot can answer those questions 24/7 using conversational language that students can better understand.”

Finally, keep communications relevant to student needs, and add a little personality. Having learned from over 4 million student interactions (and counting) AdmitHub’s chatbots know how to “speak student” while also using emojis and gifs to provide an experience that is both helpful and friendly. Chatbots give you plenty of opportunity to keep the conversation lighthearted: Give your chatbot a fun name and personality so students will keep coming back for advice and continue moving toward their educational goals.

Trying to keep every student on the same straight and narrow path isn’t an effective strategy for today’s college students. By embracing differences, mapping out what they need to accomplish, understanding how they feel, and guiding them along the way, higher education institutions can help each student navigate their own path, no matter how many twists and turns they encounter.