Colleges must get into the customer service game to meet the needs of all students


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In the United States, college enrollment has fallen by about 1 million students since 2020. And while the pandemic has contributed to this decline, it has not caused it. Enrollments have been declining for nearly a decade.

These numbers should be a wake-up call for my fellow college administrators — and for anyone who cares about social progress and a robust economy.

A college education always provides immense value to individuals and society. However, students who invest in these degrees today no longer see this value, largely because higher education institutions have failed to adapt to changing student needs.

This must change. College administrators should pull a page out of the corporate America playbook and start making customer service the top priority. Our students, after all, are our customers.

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Historically, post-secondary institutions were designed for “traditional” students. These were mostly recent high school graduates — mostly from middle- and upper-class white families — who entered directly into a credential-seeking program with the tools they needed to succeed already in hand.

But increasingly, students come from different backgrounds. Minority students in the United States now make up 46% of the college population. About 20% of those enrolled are over 30, once part-time students are included. More than 1 student in 5 has a child.

In other words, just as clienteles change over time, so do students. Yet higher education has failed to keep pace.

As college administrators, we should look to Disney and other companies for customer service information.

When Disney market research detected a decline in guest satisfaction among theme park visitors 20 years ago, the company invested in the creation of “MyMagic+”, a suite of technologies to personalize and enrich consumer experience. Magic Bands that guests wear allow characters to greet them by name and provide easy access to rides, hotel check-in, and park shopping.

What is the corollary of MyMagic+ for higher education?

This could lead to an overhaul of the grades appeal process. For example, if a student wishes to dispute a grade, the existing process typically involves multiple redundant in-person meetings, with no standardized digital method to ensure the issue is resolved to the student’s satisfaction.

Simplified and inclusive customer service is essential

The American student population is more diverse than ever.

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We could also turn to online shoe retailer Zappos, where executives realized that building a strong e-commerce business depended on excellent customer service at its call center. So he stopped evaluating call center workers based on the length of a call and instead focused on customer satisfaction at the end of it.

By comparison, where is the typical university’s customer service number or one-stop service portal?

As noted by JP Morgan Chase – another “customer-obsessed” company, for Gen Z, the phone is the entry point to digital access. From registering for classes and paying bills to accessing counseling and tutoring, much of a student’s transactional relationship with their institution should be a seamless digital experience.

Higher education must also prioritize equity and inclusion initiatives adopted by American companies. Nearly 90% of students believe it is important that their schools devote more funds to diversity, equity and inclusion. However, only 66% believe that their schools actually provide adequate support to their classmates from underserved groups.

This is problematic, given the challenges faced by students from less advantaged backgrounds. For example, about 58% of college students — and 70% of black students and 64% of Hispanic students — experienced food or housing insecurity or homelessness in 2020.

Colleges need to find new ways to break down barriers to student success. Since the student body on many college campuses is incredibly diverse, they should be mandated to provide services that meet their unique needs, just as businesses do with their customers.

With that in mind, colleges must also work hard to expand virtual learning options, expand resources for non-traditional students, and provide the streamlined digital experience that students expect.

These changes will not only optimize student success and create a sense of belonging. They will also help support the economy and increase financial mobility.

According to a 2021 analysis, those with a bachelor’s degree earn 84% more than those with only a high school diploma. That’s an average of $1.2 million in additional lifetime revenue.

By keeping students in college, institutions will also do their part to nurture the skilled talent needed to support the economy. About 20% of current students say they don’t feel ready to join the workforce, and many companies report that their current employees don’t have the skills employers need.

Such disparities have also exacerbated labor shortages. This includes STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, where the United States faces a shortage of 3.5 million workers by 2025.

For too long, American colleges have failed to recognize and meet the range of needs of all their students. Now is the time to change that. The success of our students — and our country’s economy — depends on it.

— By Felipe Henao, Ed.D., Dean of Students at New York Institute of Technology

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