Community College Blog

The community college leader's guide to overcoming 'new initiative' anxiety

by Melinda Salaman

Many of our members are launching the Navigate platform on their campuses this summer. Small pilot tests, student focus groups, and technological tweaks are largely complete, and the ”moment of truth” is upon us—will students actually use this thing? Early results from members like Tulsa Community College show us that even small shifts in student behavior and advising could result in significantly improved student experiences and additional revenue for the institution.

But still…that doubt remains.

Undoubtedly, every institution has been in this position. Your team spends months, maybe even years, developing a new approach, program, or campus-wide initiative to solve a thorny problem, but anxiety sets in when it’s actually time to see the result of all that hard work. Even when you incorporate design thinking principles into your development process, the launch can be nerve-wracking.

Over several years of researching and supporting student success initiatives at community colleges, I’ve seen three common anxieties that institutional leaders typically demonstrate before pressing the ”start” button, as well as strategies to address and minimize each of them.

Anxiety #1: “It’s not perfect yet”

The vast majority of community college faculty, staff, and administrators I’ve spoken with have the best interests of their students in mind; perhaps because they’re used to working with a particularly at-risk student population, college leadership tends to want new initiatives to be exactly right.

In working with students, this is an admirable quality. But it can be less than helpful when launching new initiatives.

Why? Because an unlaunched initiative has no impact on a student. While there may always be room for improvement, a new program or technology platform never makes it to the student body, then there is a 0% likelihood that it will benefit students.

Instead of delaying a launch in pursuit of perfection, college leaders should err towards early releases and frequent evaluation cycles to determine if a particular campus initiative is working, and what can be done to maximize its impact.

Start the conversation: 8 questions to ask when evaluating the impact of student success programs

Anxiety #2: “No one will like it”

Will people like it? It seems like a silly question, but it’s a fairly common feeling I’ve heard among college leaders. The short answer is you never know until you try—focus groups, design thinking brainstorming workshops, and end-user testing are powerful tools to build an impactful solution to even the toughest challenges. But every innovation—whether a technology platform or a new administrative process—needs to be tested in the real world before you can know whether the intended audience will accept it, like it, and use it.

My colleagues across EAB conducted hundreds of student interviews, focus groups, and product testing sessions to inform the development of SSC-Navigate, with overwhelmingly positive reception from students amazed by how much we improved on a traditionally confusing enrollment process.

We continue to be encouraged by early member results. At one community college in California, one-quarter of students invited to sign into Navigate have already done so, and 92% have either planned or registered for courses using the platform—well in advance of the fall registration deadline, and all prompted through email alone. Over the next few months, college staff will leverage strategies from our Campus Adoption Toolkit to further promote Navigate and ensure that all students access and benefit from the platform.

In order for students to like and use the platform, they first need to know what it is, and be convinced that it’s worth trying. Every new product, service, and process undergoes this initial marketing challenge; the best organizations anticipate some initial hesitancy from their target audience, create a plan to overcome this challenge, and remain resolute in the value of their new offering to serve their constituents.

Anxiety #3: “What if we fail?”

Some anxieties have no easy answers. It is entirely possible that an envisioned project or program will not go as planned and will need to be reassessed, redesigned, or retired. While college leaders can significantly minimize the risk of this outcome with proper research and planning, they should also be ready to address program failures if and when they occur by fostering a culture of innovation on campus that rewards new ideas and supports staff members through the anxiety that comes with new program development and launch.

The work begins before the first day of classes

Even before they step on campus, new students face a maze of forms, processes, and jargon. Clear, readable language can help students successfully navigate the onboarding process. Download an excerpt from our Eliminating Enrollment Pain Points study to learn an easy, low-cost way to eliminate jargon in order to empower more students.

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