Negotiating the policies, process, and services of a college campus can be difficult for even the most tenured staff as organizational structures shift, roles and departments evolve, and priorities change. Yet there’s an important, yet often overlooked component of these changes: the student experience.
We often talk about student experience as an intangible summary feeling from students by engaging the university– the spirit and connection to the community, the opportunities for students to grow through high impact practices, and the function of specific campus departments to focus on ‘creating a positive environment’ for students. But consider this– Have you ever been on the phone with your cable provider contesting a charge on a recent bill? That becomes part of your customer experience. The student experience is one, unifying view of campus ushered through hundreds of small interactions with phone calls, buildings, systems, departments, administrators across the campus. Student experience is all of these– manifested through a set of interactions with staff, with policies, and with the campus infrastructure as a whole that all contribute to a larger student journey.
Have you ever called a high traffic department to explore what experiencing life from the student’s point of view might look like? Better still, have you spoken with students about the greatest pain points that they experience in engaging with the university?
I’m not suggesting that a campus be overhauled to be solely focused on the path of least resistance for students as its’ only ‘user’– it’s obvious that some experiences by their very function might not be intended to “optimize” the student’s interaction with them, and the stakeholders of a University are widely varied the complexity of which makes the concept of addressing the student experience difficult and complex. What I am saying, however, is that every area of the university should be aware of the variety of stakeholders they interact with, including students, and address the nuances within their needs in a way that acknowledges where unintended and unnecessary barriers or pain points exist and strives to remove them.
What’s more, is that doesn’t mean a new system, policy, or cost is the answer– it might be a thoughtful review and redesign of a form, or reformatting the response when contacting into your department. It’s simply about understanding and considering the student experience, their journey, in their interaction with the university, getting underneath the pain points that exist, and thinking creatively about how to solve the identified challenges.
Don’t underestimate the impact that you have– we’re all “experience” designers. Each encounter with a student is an opportunity to observe and react. The skill sets that make strong education administrators: engagement with students through empathy, a growth mindset, counseling and listening skills, asking for formal and informal feedback, an investment in helping students succeed; these are the raw materials of human-centered design in higher education (along with a set of tools informed by design thinking or service design; follow my colleague Alex who digs into this topic often). Orienting the campus to the concepts of human-centered design, and rigorously reviewing the campus through the lens of your student makes a difference. Especially as that student is changing.
I’ll go so far that in the current landscape of higher education, those with the most deliberate focus on the holistic student experience will see more students graduate, and those who fail to adapt will struggle. Think student experience is independent of outcomes?
In Tressie McMillan’s Lower Ed, she describes ways for-profit university practices are oriented around making the process easy for their target (historically under-represented, low-income) students to enroll and carry large amounts of loans, pointing out the moral and social implications of huge amounts of stacked debt. While demonstrably predatory and negative, they’ve optimized their lens and approach to the student enrollment experience to their benefit.
For-profits enroll a huge number of students because of the way they have considered, tailored, and adapted their message and processes to adapt their message and process for their target student and make things as easy as possible for them to enroll. This isn’t a blanket call for these kinds of practices to be adopted outside of the for-profit world, but rather an example of the impact that purposeful design has on outcomes.
In a recent NPR interview, McMillan was asked about the emergent trend of inexpensive online education, which illuminated an important observation:
“There’s almost nothing we could do to traditional higher ed to make it more accessible [for working adults] that wouldn’t make it better for traditional students as well. So I worry we are adopting the practices [of for profits] without really changing how we do business.“
This is the imperative in the years ahead as student demographics continue to shift, and “non-traditional” students increasingly become the largest percentage of college students attending universities– adapting to this new archetype and persona of student, and adapting the student experience not only on campus, but wherever your students interact with the university.
What does your student experience look like today?
How might you design your campus’ experience for the students of tomorrow?