Enrollment anxieties haunt the two-year space
Towards the end of August, community college leaders nationwide will be holding their breath in anticipation of this fall semester’s enrollment figures. Have we managed to reverse the trend, or are we still seeing enrollment declines? Even if my college sees a small bump in applications, what percent of students will actually show up on the first day of class?
Unfortunately, the anxiety is warranted. Gone are the days when community colleges could simply leave their doors open and expect students to flood in.
In recent years, community colleges find themselves in an increasingly competitive environment, fighting for enrollments against for-profit colleges, universities, MOOCs, and the improving job market. These competitors are often aggressive in their marketing and recruitment campaigns, questioning the community college value proposition and in some cases, calling institutions out by name.
I’ve had several conversations with college leaders who confess feeling frustrated by the attacks, largely because the campaigns have been so effective. From 2010 to 2013, community colleges experienced a 7.7% decline in student enrollments, with many of our members seeing double-digit declines locally.
To turn applicants into enrollees, two-year college leaders must master the basics of customer service to appeal to students flush with options. However, traditional customer service training that teaches frontline staff etiquette isn’t enough to win enrollments and inconsequential in impacting students’ odds of completion. Instead, progressive institutions have deployed a next-level customer service overhaul on campus—one that includes front-line staff, but relies on executive-level leadership to make happen.
Charm school training for frontline staff?
Dozens of two-year colleges have partnered with private-sector companies like Disney, Apple, and Ritz-Carlton to learn what makes these organizations so famous for customer service. The content of these trainings varies, but the majority tend to focus on teaching frontline student services staff basic soft skills, such as acting politely, saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and repeating a student’s name during interactions.
Of course, respectful interactions during intake are important. Any B2C (business-to-consumer) organization, like an institution of higher education, needs to ensure staff treat consumers (read: students) politely. Consider when you are a consumer in your everyday life—being treated with respect is a minimum requirement when choosing a restaurant, cable provider, or airline.
However, private-sector trainings do not prepare frontline student services staff to address the primary reason students visit campus—to complete intake efficiently and effectively. If we want students to select our community colleges above all other options in a competitive higher education landscape, we must provide them with the best possible experience they can have. Being polite is necessary, sure, but it is not sufficient.
Think back again to your own consumer experiences and consider the polite but under-informed airline agent. Regardless of the pleasantries exchanged, if the agent can’t redirect you to a new flight, his demeanor becomes a moot point. Your staff don’t have to be overly pleasant, nice, or even wonderful; your processes need to be easy to understand and navigate.
Earn student loyalty (and enrollments) by minimizing effort at intake
The quality of students’ experiences on campus has a real impact on their willingness to enroll. Extensive research on the link between customer experience and purchasing decisions has been conducted in the private sector, with clear applications to higher education.
A team of researchers at our sister company, the Corporate Executive Board, found that across 97,000 customers surveyed, customers are no more likely to be loyal (e.g., repurchase goods, grow wallet share over time, and advocate on behalf of your brand/organization) if their expectations are simply met or exceeded with superior friendliness. What made the difference in their purchasing patterns was the quality of their experience—whether they had to exert excess effort to resolve issues or get their inquiries answered.
“Classic customer service soft skills training is fundamentally about teaching agents to be polite, warm, and empathetic...but there is compelling evidence that if the goal is effort reduction, just getting reps to be nicer to people doesn't have much of an impact at all.”
-Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman and Rick Delisi
The Effortless Experience
What does this mean for higher education? Ensure your frontline staff meets the minimum bar for basic customer service—treating campus visitors and callers with phone inquiries politely and with respect. After that, move on to the more important task at hand: simplify and streamline the intake process, as it is the first interaction prospective students have with your college and the time they decide to move forward with enrollment or abandon the institution for a competitor.
Next steps for a college executive
Run to criticism.
One of our firm values at EAB is running to criticism—asking our colleagues and our members to continuously challenge our work and make us better in what we do. Our team applied this idea to building SSC-Navigate; our UX experts asked community college students to be brutally honest with us about their college experience and our earliest product concepts. This was an eye-opening exercise, and helped us build a product truly aligned with what two-year college students need.
We suggest you do something similar. Learn from your current students, and the ones you lost. Survey students who apply but never enroll. Ask current students to reflect on their time at intake. Examine your institutional data to identify loss-points in the intake process. Where do students get caught up, and how can you help them get around that?
Invest in ongoing professional development, but start with knowledge-sharing.
We start every change management engagement with a new member college by first convening student services administrators in one room. We ask the group to outline the new student intake experience from application to the first day of class. This session is typically the first gathering of its kind on campus, and in many cases, is the first time some department leaders learn about the intake process in its entirety. That’s problematic.
When student services departments operate in silos, unaware of what’s happening down the hall or even next door to them, they can’t help students who are seeking assistance, and they create unnecessary effort for students trying to enroll at the institution. These silos are problematic, but not impossible to resolve. Your role as an executive is to promote these kinds of gatherings, and search for ways to update the group regularly when there are changes to the intake process.
Track efficiency and effectiveness, not satisfaction.
When our research team searches for best practices, we ask community college practitioners to share their practices and their outcomes: How do you know this strategy works? What changes have you seen?
In many cases, college administrators refer to student satisfaction figures as a sign of improvement. Student satisfaction is certainly interesting, but in the quest to optimize intake, it is not fully revealing. Just because a prospective student is satisfied with her interactions at the financial aid office doesn’t mean the intake process as a whole wasn’t long, confusing, and frustrating.
Conversely, even if a prospective student is unsatisfied with his interactions at the admissions office, he may still continue with enrollment. It’s more important to track how quickly students were able to complete enrollment, understand the source of delays, and devise strategies to eliminate confusion in the intake process.