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Students who are filling classrooms—in person or virtually—this fall have modern expectations about how their institution can and should be delivering on customer service.
Chat bots, apps and other digital solutions are among the tools that can improve a student’s experience, according to the July 2022 Student Voice survey on students as customers, which focused on nonacademic departments. Conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan, the survey of 2,239 college students from four-year and two-year institutions provides telling information about how higher education leaders should prepare our staff and our departments to best support students in this evolving environment.
The survey’s findings connect directly with Nancy Schlossberg’s Transition Theory, as described in the Journal of Employment Counseling, and her long-term focus on planned and unplanned transitions in life and individual differences that impact how a person responds to the transition. Schlossberg found four common characteristics involved in any transition—situation, self, strategies and supports.
There is no question that the evolution of an individual from high school student, parent or employee to college student is a change in life roles. Furthermore, we must recognize that our students are always in some phase of the transition cycle during their journey with us through college. Institutions of higher learning must embrace their support role in this cycle, which may mean building or reinforcing infrastructure that helps all students navigate the transition. To do so effectively, we must understand our students’ needs, as well as new expectations that align more and more with a host of other customer-centric industries.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to complicate the transitions our students may be experiencing, resulting in additional and ongoing transitions, such as taking classes in new modalities and experiencing a reconnect or disconnect with their roles and lives on campus. For our first-generation college students, who represent about one-third of students enrolled in postsecondary institutions, according to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there are additional steps in navigating their transition to college. In this vortex of change, how can we and our institutions be best positioned to deliver the important supports highlighted by Schlossberg?
In the Student Voice survey, students underscore the services and technologies that institutions of higher education could implement or improve upon. Perhaps not surprisingly, most are technologies widely used in customer service for other industries but more slowly adopted in higher education. Students want chat bots on department websites that answer questions after hours, and chat bots or pop-up messages on webpages that remind them of important deadlines. Student respondents say colleges could improve by making documents available in digital form with e-signing capabilities, plus they could make better use of student engagement apps and virtual appointment scheduling.
In looking at the open-ended comments from student responses, we also learn that students prefer in-person interactions when resolving complex issues. More than 70 percent of respondents report they would like to see more one-stop shops, where they can transact multiple components of campus business in one location.
At the University of Houston, we were monitoring these trends even before the pandemic and have retooled customer service to meet student needs in this “new normal” environment. Using technology to support routine student business transactions has enabled student-facing departments to be more available to support students in person—providing a holistic support infrastructure where students in transition can more seamlessly transact campus business and keep their energies and focus on being a student.
We have embraced the one-stop shop approach both digitally and in the built environment. Access UH, an online portal that houses all of the role-based software resources that students, faculty and staff use at the university, allows routine business transactions to occur 24-7. The UH Go app helps students navigate life on campus: find and pay for meals, view grades, access Blackboard, add and drop classes, track shuttles in real time, and explore upcoming events.
UH opened its welcome center in 2007. Uncommon for universities at the time, the mixed-use development combines parking, retail and university space serves as the hub for key student services. In the most recent academic year, 15,778 walk-in visitors came through the building for admissions, scholarships and financial aid, the university registrar, and student business services. Additionally, 21,144 identification cards were printed and distributed by the campus identification card office, also housed in the center.
Having the right tools in place enables the best possible experience. Website chat bots have been implemented to answer routine questions on key services, such as parking and transportation, campus ID cards, and dining. During the 2021–22 academic year, bots answered nearly 2,000 questions for these services alone.
Last year, more than 32,000 campus customers made use of CougarQ, a service that enables students to make appointments or wait in a virtual line for parking, an identification card, the cashier’s office and mail service. Other mobile-enabled tools allow students to pay for visitor parking, order food for pickup and request on-demand campus rides after hours. Last year, we recorded more than 122,000 mobile transactions for visitor parking, nearly 50,000 mobile food orders and 3,976 requests for after-hours rides. While many of these technologies to improve the campus experience were implemented well in advance of the pandemic, we are now more available to support students and their ever-evolving needs as a result.
The pandemic was not only about overcoming challenges. It provided an opportunity for experimentation. At the University of Houston, virtual town halls on our key services have become a mainstay and an unexpected but valuable tool in customer relations. In the past, physical town hall attendance was minimal. In the new virtual environment, the university hosted service-related town halls with more than 200 in attendance. A series of leadership town halls drew as many as 700 per session.
We have also added an opt-in text service for parking and transportation, where community members can choose the topic of interest and opt in for real-time updates. Currently, the university has about 2,000 participants in this service.
Key findings from the Student Voice survey can be used as a conversation starter with students. Institutions should find out what enhancements their students prioritize and learn more about the overall campus experience of students and how it can be improved. Then, we should ask students to be key partners with us as we implement enhancements and monitor the effectiveness and value of these improvements, continuing to adjust and evolve as needed.
As Schlossberg noted, a transition—even a planned transition—can be a time when an individual’s life feels chaotic. One of our key responsibilities as institutions of higher education is to provide supports to students for these transitions, and efficient and consistent customer service, delivered as requested by students, is key to their success. Each year, as members of the higher education community, we hope that our students are ready for college—but are our colleges and universities ready for them?