If there was ever a time to get comfortable driving on a highway, hurtling 70 mph on the I-69 toward Houston at midnight probably isn’t one of them. During my travels I’ve learned that indeed everything is bigger in Texas, including the number of lanes on the highway, the speed limit, and the amount of anxiety my poor mother felt strapped into the passenger seat next to me.
This was just one of the many memorable stories I collected while traveling to visit community colleges across the country. The mission? Go undercover as a new student applying and enrolling to community college. In coordination with EAB members across the country, our research team conducted these "secret shopping" exercises at colleges in 25 states and cataloged over 800 hours observing and role-playing the new student experience.
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From this, I walked away with a clear understanding of pain points new students face during onboarding, and a deeper appreciation for the complexities of getting customer service right at community colleges. Below are just four of many lessons learned from my undercover research adventures, and a reflection of what that means for innovation and redesign efforts at community colleges.
1. It’s a terrible feeling to be treated like a number.
After a campus visit in the Midwest, my research colleagues and I gathered to compare notes. We found that our onboarding experiences varied widely, but what we all had in common was a question we heard at each stop in the enrollment process: “Full time or part time?”
It seems innocent enough, but after being asked the question ten times in a row, the repetition got to me. "Why isn’t this part of my file? Didn’t I just share this information?" I wondered. From that point forward, the conversations I had with each staff member felt impersonal – regardless of the information I shared about my reasons for applying and my goals at the institution, the next person I spoke to would need to hear my story all over again. Instead of feeling like part of a new community, I felt anonymous—and it was terrible.
2. Students’ backgrounds matter, but very few people ask about them during onboarding.
Prior to setting off for my travels, I painstakingly developed a cover story to explain how a woman with a New York driver’s license and a Washington, D.C., mailing address wound up seeking enrollment at a two-year college far from home. However, I soon realized that once I stepped onto campus, the factors that brought me there weren’t the topic of much conversation; it seemed to no longer matter, as very few staff would ask me about my life outside of school during the onboarding process.
In some ways, this is hugely beneficial to give students with rocky backgrounds a fresh start. But erasing the past also means that critical conversations about program selection, course load, and on-campus services often have no basis in students’ real lives. No wonder, then, that even after 56% of applicants drop out prior to the first day of class, one-quarter of enrollees leave community college after the first semester, in part because they find that their academic lives and their lives outside the classroom are incompatible.
3. If college confused me, I can only imagine how it feels for new students.
I’ve probably visited a greater number of colleges than most people can name. That said, I’ll confess that when visiting college campuses, I was often disoriented and confused. Maps weren’t precise enough, parking was difficult to find, and on several occasions I felt waves of frustration with staff who seemed more interested in moving people through the queue than actually helping them find answers to their questions.
At the end of each campus visit I had to chuckle, given how angry I became while secret shopping; I wasn’t really applying to the college, but I was still lost, still confused, and on several occasions, wanted to quit altogether. Of course, the feelings I felt are much more magnified for real students seeking college enrollment. Whether they’re brand new or returning after some time away, the way our colleges are structured has a huge impact on their likelihood to enroll successfully, and their longer-term odds of success.
4. This is almost like the DMV, but with more alternatives if you’re not satisfied with the service.
Among college administrators and researchers aware of the pain points within the community college onboarding process, there is a common saying that “our enrollment processes have become akin to the DMV.” There are a lot of unfortunate similarities, for sure, but there is also a big difference: The DMV has a monopoly on issuing driver’s licenses—if you want to drive (legally) in this country, you need to secure one and wait in an awful line like everyone else.
But colleges, in contrast, do not have a monopoly on higher education, even within a particular geographic region. If students are unhappy with their experience, they can and do leave to find another institution more aligned with their needs. According to an EAB analysis of 25 community colleges, between 2-10% of lost applicants enroll in another college, while the remainder return to their lives. Of course, four-year and for-profit universities are eager to enroll students lost in the game of community college Chutes and Ladders, and have invested heavily in providing the level of customer service that this generation of students has come to expect.
There’s a lot of room for improvement in the community college student experience—and, thankfully, there are community college leaders who have demonstrated strong commitment to this improvement. Whether it’s under the banner of Guided Pathways, enhanced structure, or strengthening workforce pipelines, there is clearly an appetite for innovation and redesign within the sector, giving this secret shopper hope that the challenges I faced during my campus visits, a small sliver of what students face on a day-to-day basis, will soon be history.