Develop a Student Experience Strategy
Intentionally shaping holistic experiences for students is an imperative for institutions of higher learning to deliver on their missions as well as to ensure they achieve their metrics goals.
By Bernadette Geuy and Lisa Feldman
Colleges and universities often think of the student experience as the academic experience. The metrics often equated with student success, like yield, retention, and graduation rates, may cause institutions to overlook the hundreds of ancillary experiences outside of the classroom. These other experiences can impact student well-being and engagement at least as powerfully, and contribute significantly to their ability to achieve academic success (1).
For some students, a tripping hazard can pose an outsized risk that results in them dropping out.
We have seen firsthand the ways in which universities inadvertently create “tripping hazards,” where students encounter people, processes, or technology that is not supportive of their academic journey. These hazards are often the result of localized solutions: of departments that independently pursue improvements that, collectively, increase the complexity and opacity of the student experience.
Richard (not his real name) is effectively an independent student. He’s a first generation college student who worked hard and was accepted to a prestigious university. Everyday, and at various critical points along his academic journey, Richard has to navigate hurdles that could derail him. He’s under 26, which means his parents are expected to contribute to the funding of his education, but instead he’s dealing with the real impacts of scarcity (2), navigating his financial obligations alone and expending a considerable amount of his time and mental capacity on making ends meet.
“Can’t we just use some legit language!” he proclaimed at a student design event where we were gathering input for a new financial aid system. This system is critical to his student success, but it was frustrating and difficult for him to understand and use. The new system, we determined, was missing key resources that could help Richard solve his fundamental funding gap need. He is a student at risk.
This is an opportunity. From Richard’s pain, we can begin to examine his “student experience,” the opportunities for improvement, and how potential hazards can be removed. Then, because student experiences touch the entire campus, both people and systems, we will need to determine whom to engage in this vital work, in what areas, and using what approach. Student success initiatives must be addressed strategically, assessed holistically, sponsored at the highest levels of the institution, and include participation from across the campus.
We recommend that leadership include the following three key elements in your strategy, and pose some critical questions to consider.
Key elements of a successful strategy
1. Purpose: vision and guiding principles
You can loosely equate the term “student experience” with a brand experience that evokes feelings and a set of expectations about the institution and what it is like to be a student there. Considerations include:
- What is the institution’s implied promise to students, and how will you guarantee that it is delivered through a set of service touchpoints? Here, consider the needs of students with the least privilege, those who are at the most risk, and develop a vision to humanize their experiences.
- How do you align others with your words, your vision, and your incentives to deliver on that vision? Critical to this is to define guiding principles that align with your vision and values; these will help you evaluate your greatest opportunities for improvement.
2. People: sponsorship and participation
Students are agnostic to the organizational structure of the institution. While grassroots efforts and local initiatives may be helpful in delivering point solutions, a sponsor in a senior leadership role is needed in order to impact students at a holistic level.
- Who will sponsor and lead your student experience strategy? Identify a leader who will provide a clear vision for success and who will ensure the effort is funded at a holistic level and in a way that transcends siloed operations.
- How will you assemble a motivated project team? The sponsor must assemble a team that includes engaged, representative stakeholders. Across the campus, there are students, staff, and faculty who are very interested in the student experience and may be already playing an active role in shaping and improving different touchpoints and services delivery. Get the most motivated people onboard, capitalizing on their passion and knowledge about the needs and opportunities on campus and to ensure that organizational change is managed intentionally.
3. Approach: breaking down the problem
We find that the most effective way to see and address tripping hazards is to follow students on their multi-year academic journeys. The overarching academic journey, driven by the desire to earn a degree, encompasses a number of smaller journeys that play a critical part in how a student perceives their experience. Here, hazards are best examined, and we can trace the critical steps on the journey that preceded a fall.
- How will you map critical student journeys that are part of the larger academic journey? Consider some critical pathways that students follow in pursuit of smaller goals. Include both in-person and online touchpoints and the departments that serve them. The recommended journeys to map include “admissions and onboarding” and “funding and paying for my education.” Also map out how students approach “academic planning and class registration.”
- How will you identify and remedy tripping hazards? The work to be done here is Service Design, a professional discipline that starts with human-centered research of the students experiences and in context of the realities of student journeys. It includes mapping activities and experiences, the good and the painful, gaining insights, and then ideating solutions to address the root causes. It resembles business process mapping but from the perspective of the customer, your students.
- How will you prioritize opportunities? Mapping journeys and experiences will illuminate critical tripping hazards and potential opportunities for remediation. Some solutions may be easy to implement and have a high impact; other highly desirable improvements will require changes in technology or other investments. Your guiding principles will help support investment decisions and priority setting.
- What will be your measure of success? Metrics exist that approximate and act as a proxy for the collective student experience on a campus. Measures like yield, retention and graduation rates provide some indication of how an institution is in supporting students to a successful conclusion of their academic endeavors. Determine what metrics best demonstrate the impact of the change, then collect before and after data. Measurable success also fuels the interests of leadership, ongoing funding decisions and ensures continuous improvement.
Where do we go from here?
Our student, Richard, is at a critical junction struggling to fund and pay for his education. How could the institution have anticipated his financial knowledge and resources gaps and have better orchestrated his in-person and online experiences to ensure he doesn’t trip?
If Richard drops out, the metrics of retention and graduation rate will be negatively impacted. Mapping his journey, we identified touchpoints where financial literacy and a personal budgeting workshops, including some individual coaching, would have helped Richard see and address his funding gap earlier. Richard could explore some non-traditional funding options, apply for additional scholarships, and consider taking a reduced academic load that would enable him working part time. These strategies would allow Richard to continue to pursue his education with greater peace of mind.
How can you identify the tripping hazards at your institution, and which students are at risk?
A winning student experience strategy includes the key elements of purpose, people, and an approach that will uncover the tripping hazards, provide solutions, guide sound investment decisions that deliver measurable value, and positively impact students’ lives for years to come. Removing the tripping hazards that impede the ability of students to succeed in their academic career is, and should be, an ongoing priority for all campuses.
Are you ready to develop a student experience strategy for your institution? Contact the authors at Power of Design Services to discuss your vision and your needs.
(1) Students see anxiety and time management among top challenges to finishing degrees, by Tina Nazerian, EdSurge
(2) Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, by Sendhil Mullainathan
About the authors
Bernadette Geuy has improved the experiences of tens of thousands of students on campuses across the country. This has been a passion of hers for more than a decade. She came to this work through her own experiences as a nontraditional student as well as a service designer researching and delivering digital solutions at a large public university, the University of California, Berkeley. Now, as the founder and principal consultant at Power of Design Services, Bernadette focuses on leading student experience strategy, design and improvement projects.
Lisa Feldman is a seasoned organizational development consultant who directs her energy toward ensuring people and teams perform at their best. With deep and varied experience in senior administration at the University of California, Berkeley, she cares deeply about providing the leaders of the future the support they need to succeed. Lisa is a perceptive listener, a problem solver, and a developer of cross-organizational partnerships. She is an engaging public speaker and moderator on topics ranging from generational differences in the workplace to career development strategies to women in technology leadership.