Monday, May 31, 2010

Poor Advising and Customer Service Lead to Attrition: 5 Ways to Improve

The other day I was working with senior student services and academic administrators at a major university when one of them said he didn’t think that most students ever saw a faculty advisor. “And what is the problem with that?” I asked without thinking it over. I suppose it would have been more politically correct to have phrased it differently but at least it was an honest response built on empirical research on over 100 college campuses.

Advising, most often by faculty, has come up as a negative at every college and university we have audited for academic service. Students invariably expressed a concern that advisors were not well informed on most aspects of requirements for a major and graduation. Students also stated that advisors did not know course sequencing or when or what semester required courses would be offered. This has led, and could continue to lead, to serious problems for students. And this is a growing serious concern because schools are now offering some required courses only once a year (a major disservice to students) in either Fall or Spring semester. What’s more, advisors do not know this. As a result, students often miss the course only offered in the Fall for example and have to stay an extra year. This of course increases the cost to the student and his or her family as they must pay tuition and fees for the additional, unplanned for, time.

After my original comment shot out, I realized that it might be interpreted as possibly a bit harsh. True but harsh. I will accept that it may be possible that I am being a bit overly cynical. But I wonder why colleges have not done enough to correct the advisors’ lack of awareness of the once a year course schedules? Schools should be aware of the problem of required courses being offered only once a year. Advisors not being made aware of this reality and thus “mis-advising” forces students to have to stay in school at least an additional semester to take a course missed due to the scheduling. I had to wonder if they are also aware of the additional revenue of adding more tuition to a student’s total bill. Could it be that schools are endorsing benign neglect? Allowing the lack of information to increase a student’s time at the school to increase its numbers? And revenue? Students who have to stay in school due to incorrect advising on when classes will be offered still have to pay.

That would be a much too cynical motive to attribute to administrators even though they have been accused of even more heinous deeds by the rumor mills of some campuses. Colleges are after all not credit card, banks or other such predatory companies that want customers to make mistakes that add to their bottom lines.

In a Harvard Business Review article Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them Gail McGovern and Youngme Moon write about the issues of companies that like credit cards that benefit financially from late payment fees and let/allow/cause customers make mistakes that benefit their bottom line. They write that

Some companies consciously and cynically exploit customers in this way. But in our conversations with dozens of executives in various industries, we found that the majority of firms that profit from their customers’ confusion have unwittingly fallen into a trap. Without ever making a deliberate decision to do so, they have, over a period of years, taken greater advantage of their customers. In most cases, there’s no defining moment when these companies crossed the line. Rather, they found themselves on a slippery slope that led to an increasingly antagonistic strategy…

Companies can profit from customers’ confusion, ignorance, and poor decision making in two related ways. The first evolves out of the legitimate attempt to create value by giving customers a broad set of offerings. The second emerges from the equally legitimate decision to use fees and penalties to cover costs and discourage undesirable customer behavior.

Colleges are most likely in the category of those which have fallen into “a trap”. It is unlikely that schools would knowingly create situations that would extend the student’s stay. It is more likely that this situation is caused by three factors

  1. Trying to please customers
  2. . the attempt to rein in costs,
  3. . lack of communication between campus groups and units and
  4. . inertia.

Trying To Please Customers

Courses and sections are offered to meet requirements and desires. In most all cases, needs and desires are defined by the faculty. Most decisions are made from best intentions to deliver value to students. But, there have been considerations that some subjects are required to maintain numbers and enrollment in some disciplines and to maintain base income to the institution. Some electives are offered because students express a desire to learn about a certain area. Yet others are offered because some faculty member has a strong interest to impart knowledge about some current interest to share with students whether they express a need or desire or not. And once offered, it seems to be difficult to get rid of many required courses in particular and electives as well.

College administrators usually stay out of curriculum decisions for two very good reasons. First, faculty are the curricular experts; not administrators. And second, faculty take a very dim view of administrators tampering at all with the curriculum so administrators keep hands-off whenever possible. They do not want to upset one of their most important and powerful customer sectors - faculty. Administrators recognize that they have a set of customers ranging from faculty through students. And for most college presidents, the primary customers are the faculty since they can vote no confidence or cause the most problems. Students are important of course but since they approach issues as individuals they are not as strong a force as faculty who may belong to a union and if they don’t still have significant collective power.

So, courses are added over the years to meet the demands determined by the faculty for the benefit of the school’s customers. But too often as some courses and requirements are added, others are not removed since they represent a constituency that has its requirements to be met. This will often lead to an increasingly broad and often confusing array of requirements and courses to schedule and advise students about. This curricular expansion over time has recently come in direct conflict with the financial realities of higher education

The Attempt to Rein In Costs

As revenues decrease and the public is increasingly suspect of collegiate cries of fiscal distress and thus not supportive, administrators have had to seek ways to reduce expenditures. One way to cut costs has been the ever increasing dependence on higher education’s serf class – adjuncts. Another way has been to decrease the number of sections of courses being offered. Fewer sections mean lower salaries even for the indentured serfs. Too often, rather than cutting back electives to a manageable group of offerings that could meet student needs, many administrators left quite a few electives alone rather than upset some faculty customers who enjoy teaching them at the expense of required sections. Moreover, other administrators have been rebuked in their request for full-time faculty to teach required undergraduate sections. Others have simply run out of available, credentialed adjuncts to teach.

So, the decision has been to cut out courses and/or sections with low enrollment first followed by those that may be tough to get a teacher for, then courses with multiple sections. If this does not get the cuts to where the budget can balance, courses taught in both semesters/quarters/terms are cut back to being offered in one of the other semester/quarter or term.

It is typical for universities to try to control costs by cutting the number of courses and sections offered. This is a terrible customer service error. The true cost of a course is quite low especially when compared to the cost of lost tuition revenue for a student who leaves because he or she cannot get courses needed to progress or graduate in a major. Consider also that parents who pay the bills still consider graduation to be in four years. Thus they do not plan to have to pay for another year. This creates financial difficulty which can and does lead to stopping out. That in turn often leads to either dropping out if going to another college to finish.

Lack Of Communication Between Campus Groups And Units

If required courses are to be offered only once a year, it is imperative that all of those who advise are fully aware of this. Advisors must know the days and times the course is being offered in the major areas they many advise within. If they are not aware, they cannot appropriately advise students. They also MUST be counseled to advise students they must take the required course when offered or chance having to stay another year.

But, as we know, colleges are actually small collectives, fiefdoms that do not interact well to share information well.

It is often the case that as long as things appear to be going okay and there are no obvious problems or calamities, those in the chain of command are busy enough themselves to not rock the boat. They leave things and people to do their work in isolation since that is easier. This leads to what are called “silos” in the business literature. In higher education, offices and people in some schools have been left alone to follow their own initiative enough that they don’t live in silos but in a castle. Many even have metaphorical or institutionalized moats made out of procedures, paperwork and technology they chose without regard for integrating it with the rest of the MIS system. The Power of Retention

This situation certainly mitigates against the sharing of information which leads to the well-known campus shuffles, or turfing and also includes lack of sharing changes in when courses are offered. The result is that the information does not get to advisors and not to students until they learn the hard way.

Academic advising is an issue that most everyone knows is important to student success but like the weather, most usually discussed but not much done about. In fact, students complain about weak or poor advising at most ever campus we have audited from the very first back in 1999 to the last one this year. Moreover, many time when we report that advising is a very questionable academic customer service on a campus, we are greeted with comments that boil down to “yuh, we know.” But little is done to improve advising.



Change in higher education is quite often talked about but little done. We may often realize we need to change something but the collegial process involving committees is actually structured to make certain that most things stay as they are. In higher education, meetings are considered to be actual action and reports with recommendations merely another vehicle for further committees. Moreover, as discussed earlier, the very fiefdom structure mitigates against change since any alteration especially by an administrator could lead to conflict. Administrators do not wish to challenge the system since doing so can be fraught with danger for their position. So many things and processes such as advising even when they harm students are left alone.

But change is needed is advising especially in reference to the situation of providing students who should be higher education’s primary customers poor academic customer service.

Two Questions

Among the questions McGovern and Moon make in Companies and the Customer Who Hate Them ask are:

1. Are our most profitable customers those who have the most reason to be dissatisfied with us?

Yes. Students and the public are the ones who provide funds to the schools so they can run. The students and their families are the ones being most harmed by the cutting of sections and only offering required courses once year. McGovern and Moon go on to write If the answer is yes, the company is extracting value from customers who do not feel they are getting a fair return and in the process exposing themselves to a range of risks. Remember that 84% of drops are due to poor service making the experience not worth it. Colleges facilitate the worst customer behavior which for them which is having their paying customers leaving the school. The public is also losing its belief in the value and word of higher education.

2. Do we make it difficult for customers to understand or abide by our rules, and do we actually help customers break them?

Yes. We make it not only difficult but when we do not make sure advisors and our customers know of course and section reductions we withhold information students need to be able to schedule their programs and be able to graduate in four/two years. McGovern and Moon go on to state “Companies should also examine their product portfolios to determine whether their diverse offerings are designed to provide value or to take advantage of customer’s ignorance or difficulty in choosing options in their best interest.”

Five Steps to Better Advising and Course Scheduling

1. 1.Anyone who advises must be fully conversant with all and any aspects of the curriculum. Students during audits stated that they would have to stay at college longer to complete their requirements because their advisors did not provide them accurate direction or advice on their program and when required courses were offered.

2. 2. All advisors must know the scheduling of required courses and advise their students to take the courses when offered and not assume the courses will be available next semester. It is vital that colleges realize that if a student is not advised properly or believes the advice caused him or her to stay longer than should have been necessary, this invokes questions of fiscal return on investment –Am I wasting money or my time?- and can lead to dropping out.

3. 3. It is necessary to hold advising up-dating workshops for all those who advise as well as those who may ever find themselves in a position to help students with scheduling. If people who are advising students do not go to the up-dating workshops, they should not be allowed to advise. This could lead to a need for more full-time advisors but this could be a benefit in the long run.

4. 4.The workshops should also lead to a FAQ document that can be made available to the university students and employees so answers to questions on curricular changes and the such could be readily available.

5. 5. Colleges should consider creating and implementing curricular maps. A curricular map is a program outline that assures the appropriate sequence is followed. They are sort of like an AAA, Mapquest or GPS set of directions. These directions take you from point A to point B by having you follow the exact turns in sequence. If you do as told, you will get to your destination. If a driver decides to take a detour, he or she has to also assume the responsibility for getting off the road, perhaps losing direction and the time lost. Curricular Roadmaps work in a similar way. The Roadmap says that you follow this route (group of courses) for two semesters then take another route for the next semester, and so on. If the route is followed as directed, the student will move from point A to point graduation within the specified time. If a student wishes to take a course that is not in the map that is okay but he or she assumes responsibility for the decision to take a possible side trip. Thus some freedom in course choices is available with a full understanding that the decision could slow down progress to graduation.



The author of the article is Dr. Neal Raisman the president of AcademicMAPS, the leader in training, workshops and research on increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through academic customer service solutions for colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as businesses that seek to work with them.

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Neal is a pleasure to work with – his depth of knowledge and engaging, approachable style creates a strong connection with attendees. He goes beyond the typical, “show up, talk, and leave” experience that some professional speakers use. He “walks the talk” with his passion for customer service. We exchanged multiple emails prior to the event, with his focus being on meeting our needs, understanding our organization and creating a customized presentation. Neal also attended and actively participated in our evening-before team-building event, forging positive relationships with attendees – truly getting to know them. Personable, knowledgeable, down-to-earth and inspiring…. " Jean Wolfe, Training Manager, Davenport University

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