Monday, November 26, 2007

Strengthening the Arms. Legs and Organs of the Collegiate Body

Orwell’s proposition ten in Animal Farm with Snowball’s amendment, “All animals are created equal – but some are more equal than others” is alive and well today. Probably right at your campus!

As a customer service consultant, I have found the following to be rules of behavior at most every college and university.

The people who do the most primary customer service contact work
  • get the least amount of training at the school
  • get the lowest pay although great responsibility
  • need the most resources to do their work often get the fewest resources
  • as well as the least adequate, often oldest equipment.
  • are key to the institution’s success get the least recognition for their work,
  • are the ones who also receive the smallest amount of concern for their happiness.

They also have a primary responsibility for customer service, enrollment and retention. They are often the ones who have first contact with students as well as the most recurring interactions outside of the classroom. They are also the people who serve everyone else at the institution and therefore are among the most important people at the school.

We are talking about the staff. The people who come to the college every day, greet and meet students, take care of their primary needs from registration and billing to eating and sleeping. The people who solve or cause student happiness and/or distress. The people who can make or break an institution’s enrollment and retention numbers. The people whose love or hate of their jobs will make your job a delight or living hell.

Staff at colleges are in a arduous role. They are among the hardest working people at the college and, except for adjunct faculty, the lowest paid. Faculty have numerous rights, privileges and perks that should make them feel valued, but too often make too many them act imperious to the staff. Faculty and some administrators can see the college and the staff as if they were there for them. Since so many administrators come from the faculty, they too often have not learned how to work well with staff.

And yet, the staff are most often overlooked or simply taken for granted at colleges and universities. Granted, it may be true that the faculty are “the heart of the college” as I have been told many times. But without the arms, legs and vital organs of the staff, the heart is a dead, lifeless piece of offal within the body of the school.

Overworked, underpaid and under-recognized staff have always been those who do the work to make others’ lives easier. The are the front line service providers to students as well. They are also the ones who keep the institution moving. Try a couple days without them and see what happens. Not a pretty sight. They end up doing the same essential work day after day for which they gain little status or real recognition. That can easily become tedious and unrewarding.

A depressed staff leads inevitably to weak, apathetic, even poor customer service. Yet, most colleges do little to either formally or informally recognize and show staff members that they are valued as individuals and professionals. Certainly some colleges have a program to “recognize” a staff member or two for contributions over many years. Maybe a special parking space for a week or a plaque at pre-graduation ceremonies. but these do not address the day-to-day feelings of inequality in recognition, perks and pay that lead to staff malaise.

Customer service audits I have done for colleges found that a great many customer service issues have their have roots in staff malaise. People who feel unappreciated, over worked and on the periphery of an organization do not feel a part of it. It has been found that staff do feel frustrated, unrecognized and discouraged that their hard work goes unacknowledged while others who they feel do far less, claim the glory and recognition.

Colleges need to establish a partner relationship with staff, their significant internal customers. One of the critical aspects of establishing a partnership relationship is including everyone on the team in the flow of information. In academia this is extremely important since the coin of the realm is information. Generally, staff are not included in the information flow and are thus left outside of the partnership. They are not seen in their singularly important role with students. In most every case, staff members who answer telephones, greet people at desks, man the registration and bursars windows, etc. are the real point of contact between student and college. Yet, they are so often the last to know about changes in college policies, curricula, and other information that affects their interactions with students.

Okay, how to get staff in the loop. Start with involving them on college committees – and not as secretaries. Staff often know the college better than anyone else. Their work touches every aspect, every form, and every policy, just about everything at the college. They have a massive amount of real information and advice to bring to the table. For example, at one college, it was taking so long to register a student that many were simply walking out the door. When I called higher level administrators together, they suggested they would study it and get back. In other words, they did not have an answer.

So I assembled a group of staff people who worked in the enrollment/registration process. Within an hour we had identified poorly written and redundant forms and activities, forms and instructions, unnecessary information being requested, poor staff assignment practices that slowed things down and conflicting rules and directives. We had also decided what we needed to keep, what could go and rewrote directions. The time and frustration of the registration process was cut by 34% starting the next day. Staff began to feel as if they really were a part of the college with something to contribute. Customer service also improved overnight.

Simple lesson. Staff are people with extreme value and ability.

They need to be recognized for what they do – and do well.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How Many Students Does It Take to Put in a Class?

The Real Cost of Class Sections

Imagine for a moment that you were in charge of an affair for hundreds of people. You made arrangements with the caterers months ago. They had given you a list of food you could choose from. You chose it. Put down a deposit. Sent out invitations so people could attend. Chose all the necessary accouterments and all the arrangements. Took off a few days from work to be able to attend. Bought the guest books. Prepared fully. Then a few days before the affair, the caterer called and said that it was canceled because there were not enough guests to make it worthwhile. Sorry! Would you be upset? Likely so. Mad enough to spit and quit! Never use that caterer again.

Your school is that caterer most every semester, quarter and/or term when we cancel classes after registering students into them.

One of the greatest dis-services we provide students is during the scheduling of classes. Well, actually the non or re-scheduling of classes. Even more accurately, the canceling of classes during the last week or two prior to the start of classes.

We in higher education show absolutely no real concern for our students and the serfs we employ as adjuncts (more on this another time and how it effects service) when we decide to cancel a section late in the game. And we do this so very often. We have a very bad habit of waiting until the last week or two then determining that there aren’t enough students in section 8 so “off with its head! Cancel it. Screw up the lives and schedules of the students’ who registered for section 8. So what if they registered months ago and planned their lives and schedules (academic and personal) around the promised section. So what if they planned their work around the sections they chose and we let them believe they would have right up until now. If they have to choose between work and non-intellectual stuff like food and paying for tuition, they should realize what comes first! Our convenience and poor planning!! And if they don’t like it they should just quit their job and……. What’s that? They did quit. Not the job. School. Well, we were right to cancel their section. They really aren’t dedicated to learning enough to change their entire schedule, their life, job, arrangements with others, and all the things we were equally pissed about when we were students.”

Right! Just because we made an offer to them which they accepted and put down money for, that doesn’t mean we have a real contract because this is not the real world. Oh no. Don’t start with me on that. It isn’t. In the real world when you make an offer that is accepted and money passes hands, paperwork is filed that is an actionable contract. And in the real world, the one who breaks the contract is liable often for real money, or at least for some penalty. But in our world, it is the client who feels the pain and we wonder why they are angry and dropping out to go to another restaurant…uhhh school.

Most of the time, colleges and universities decide to cut a section for “fiscal reasons.” They believe there aren’t enough students in the section to make it fiscally reasonable. Colleges and universities just cut back on the number of course sections offered and then cull out sections with small numbers to save on the budget. They think that if they do not teach a low enrollment section, they will save money. Not really so as we’ll discuss below. Not simply because the calculations are wrong but because losing a student because of a cut section is just poor money management.

How many Students Does it Take to
Keep the Lights On?
Plus a definition of adjuncts

“Ten. Eight or nine is a maybe to keep the light on but only if the faculty member is full-time.”

For some reason, perhaps academic tradition, colleges and universities often use the number 10 as the required number of students enrolled in a section by a certain date to let a class go forward. That in itself befuddles fiscal and staffing realities.

Consider that the average number of adjuncts (i.e. part time indentured servants who get very low pay and no benefits. At least Wal-Mart gives its serfs a staff discount and $4 generic drugs and you don’t need advanced degrees to work there…) teaching course sections in the average college or university has risen to somewhere between 50% to 64% and could be more if figured by individual departments. That’s the number of adjuncts by the way, not the percentage of courses taught by them. That number is not available but could run as high as 75% considering some will teach as many sections as one section below full-time teaching loads, reductions in loads and such. And though I do not have but anecdotal information, it seems most of the introductory courses and required courses not taught by the newly hired junior, non-tenured, full-time faculty are taught either by adjuncts or T.A’s, i.e. part-time grad students who get tuition reduction and sometimes some pay too. So the odds are quite good that a course section especially required or introductory courses will be taught by a low-paid adjunct or T.A. How low paid? As low as possible. When $3,400 a section is like a princely sum. At $3,400 a section, an adjunct teaching 3 sections can make as much as $10,200 a semester!! Times two semesters that’s as much as $20,400 a year. There are hotel maids that don’t make that much though they do get tips which adjuncts don’t.

Now, I don’t mention the high pay of adjuncts alongside of the employment demands of advanced degrees for which many adjuncts are still paying off loans strictly for political reasons. No, that would be wrong! (Well, maybe not.) I bring this forward as part of a larger customer service point about the fiscal truths about canceling sections and pushing students to think very negatively about your college or actually quit. By the way, there have been many students who believe last minute class cancellations and bad advising are two methods used by schools to make them go additional semesters so they can make more tuition money. That’s absurd. We aren’t quite bright enough to do that as part of a business model. And I actually believe we do have more ethics and morals than to do that. We just do not have the right business thinking.

The Real Cost of Sections

All the above is to also question whether or not students are receiving the most important customer service of good teachers who are dedicated to their learning and available to assist them when they need help. Maybe not. But what the numbers show is that most courses in colleges and universities are being taught by underpaid, non-benefit receiving part-timers. Yes, some schools do provide some benefits and some adjuncts have unions to try to gain them better pay and benefits but to this point, it’s still serfdom for most. According to the College Board's article "2006-07 College Costs: Keep Rising Prices in Perspective" the average tuition costs were as follows:

Four-year private $22,218
Four-year public $5,836
Two-year public $2,272.

Now let’s assume that the average student takes 4 courses. So the four-year private student pays $5,554.50 per course; four-year public $1459 per course and two-year public $558 per course in tuition. For public schools which do get some public financial support, tuition is not the only revenue source so the cost per course is actually lower for the student but to keep the paying field even, we’ll just figure tuition.

Now, consider that the better paid adjuncts seem to get around an average $3,400 a course, no benefits. Most get less and some quite a bit less but for this discussion let’s use the high priced serf cost. That way we won’t be understating costs. So to equal pay for an adjunct at a two-year school would need just about 6 students in the section to break even; a four-year public college or university would call for 2.3 students and a four-year private would need just a torso, not even a full student. Granted there are associated costs but this should provide a general notion that the number of 10 in a section for fiscal responsibility is just wrong. You can of course really figure the particular break-even at your institution as follows:

RPC = Tuition per student (revenue per student percourse) 4

Cost of instructor per section = NUMBER OF STUDENTS

If a school can break even in the teaching of a course, it should always offer the section. As a customer service to students and as a retention service to itself. A canceled section loses students due their accurate perception of customer non-service and indifference to their needs by the school. The student realizes he or she is not really important to the school. The college loses because students will drop out when courses are not available. Though universities may think they save money when they cancel an under subscribed section, when one looks at the formulas above that belief is often proven untrue. The institution may very well either break even or make some money. Yes, we all know that most colleges are not into it to make money but a fund balance never hurts. And those that are for-profit, why lose revenue and EBITA?

Why cancel sections students need to progress to graduation and lose students we all need to make revenue to run the college? Especially when there is lost? Except when you cancel sections for no good reason.

AcademicMAPS has been providing customer service, retention and research solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them since 1999. Clients range from small rural schools to major urban universities and corporations. Its services range from campus customer service audits; workshops, training, presentations, institutional studies and surveys to research on customer service and retention. AcademicMAPS prides itself on its record of success for its clients and students who are aided through the firm’s services. 413.219.6939

Comment: The above formula shows very little understanding of how colleges collect apportionment, at least how many public institutions are paid. For example, two-year public institutions in California don't collect tuition (they collect fees) for themselves, but send this revenue to the state. They are, in turn, paid per full-time equivalent student. This complicates the cost/revenue formula considerably. Also, student fees collected amount to $20/unit, amounting to $60 per course for the average 6 unit class. Not that this is typical, but the CA community college system is the largest in the country.

Comment: This comment came in but for some reason did not post. So I placed it in so people could read it. The comment is interesting but I must disagree with the first line since the writer shows how the formula to figure cost per class does work in California too. All one does it take the revenue per student from the State plus fees and use that as the tuition amount. In fact, for some schools the numbers are a bit off because I only used tuition and they get tuition and state support.