Community College Blog

4 ways Disney World can inspire your Guided Pathways strategy

by Melinda Salaman

A few weeks ago, my colleague Lindsey Klein and I represented EAB at the Achieving the Dream 2017 conference in San Francisco, sharing research and technology to bring Guided Pathways to life. To help the audience understand the frustrations new students face during attempted enrollment, I shared a personal story of my travels to the conference, which included a delayed flight, a harrowing taxi ride, and a 25-minute wait to check in at the hotel. It was a real-life example of why Chutes and Ladders onboarding doesn’t work.

Later, an audience member asked for an example of an organization living out the principles of Guided Pathways. It only took a second to decide: Disney World.

A recent weekend vacation to "The Happiest Place on Earth" left me feeling inspired by what the theme park could teach community college leaders about bringing Guided Pathways to life at their institutions. Below are four lessons for college leaders:

1. There is no one "right" experience.

In 2014, over 19 million people visited Disney World, and each person experienced the parks in a different way. The company sustains such high visitor numbers by appealing to broad demographics of people: marketing materials reflect people of different ages, backgrounds, and family compositions enjoying different rides, restaurants, and parts of the parks.

Lessons learned: Welcome diverse audiences to your organization starting with marketing that reflects their unique interests. Community colleges are among the most diverse institutions across higher education, but some students hold a single view of what it means to be "college material"—and this view often coincides with a four-year university experience. College leaders must dispel the myth that there is one "right" college experience, and market their institutions accordingly.

2. Give visitors the tools to build their own adventures.

I shouldn’t have been so surprised to find out that Disney World has an app—in fact, it’s a good one. Guests can use the mobile interface to prepare for their visit long before stepping foot in Florida by making restaurant reservations, booking tickets for rides, and plotting each day of their vacation.

Lessons learned: Empower students to self-serve with technology. This gives students an opportunity to map their own path to success and frees up advisor time for students who truly need additional support. While some college leaders may have strong misgivings about "self-service" among community college students, many EAB members have found that allowing students to complete enrollment steps on their own has boosted satisfaction and efficiency overall.

Learn how student behavior changed at Tulsa Community College in response to EAB Navigate

3. Bridge the divide between online and in-person experiences.

In 2017, Disney World is a fully integrated digital and physical experience. Guests can reserve FastPass tickets online months in advance, digital maps dot the parks, and payment is done using Disney Magic Bands—a FitBit-looking device connected to a credit card for speedy purchases. At the same time, staff members abound. Whenever I needed help or wanted a personal recommendation, it was easy to find Disney "cast members" (i.e. staff) to help.

Lessons learned: Technology isn’t an enemy—it’s an enabler. As college leaders introduce new technologies to campus, ensure frontline staff are informed about changes and trained to provide support as needed. Many members consider the frontline to be the heart, soul, and face of the college for new students, and recommend investing accordingly to optimize the student experience.

4. Make retention the default option.

My most recent trip to Disney World was the first time I’d ever stayed in park accommodations, and I noted a distinct feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. There are free buses that shuttle guests between Disney theme parks and in-room televisions playing Disney programming. Rather than get distracted by outside attractions (i.e. Universal Studios), Disney World seemed intentionally designed to keep me engaged in my visit with shows, activities, food, and more. Based on my experience, leaving the park would have required more effort than staying put and enjoying all that was available to me.

Lessons learned: Higher education obviously cannot exactly replicate Disney’s model and cut students off from the "real world." Seven out of 10 community college students are employed at least part-time, and 17% are single parents—students’ home and school lives are necessarily intertwined. That said, Disney’s model offers an example of the way intentional design can keep students engaged in their academic goals. Even when faced with challenges, students should see retention as the default option.

Finding best practices in the most unexpected (and "unrealistic") places

It’s not particularly revolutionary to say that Disney World is not the real world. It’s an exclusive experience for those fortunate enough to fund the travel costs, entrance fees, and exorbitant food prices. While the parks serve a particular segment of our society well, they are worlds away from the daily realities of the community college experience.

However, there is value in examining a place like Disney World when considering how to implement a model as ambitious as Guided Pathways on campus. The company and its magical world of make-believe encourage those of us operating in the real world to seek creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

At EAB, we believe that best practices are the ones that work for your institution. My trip to Disney World offers a good reminder that inspiration and best practice can be found in the most diverse—and magical—of places.

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