Wednesday, August 25, 2010

New Principles of Good Academic Customer Service Part 1

We spent the last year studying and reviewing our Principles of Good Academic Customer Service. The Principles are updated every year but this time we felt that there have been major changes in student attitudes and needs as well as college attitudes toward students and retention. I also looked back on over a decade of research and hands-on work with over 400 clients as I considered the Principles with some of them to help validate our thoughts.

So this version of the Principles has more changes than any other. I strongly believe that this is also the best set of Principles we have put forward and will be very helpful to universities, colleges, community and career colleges as well as the business that work with them and their students.

In this piece, we will discuss two of the new or altered principles ; one of which that has been moved up for emphasis. They are:

The goal is not necessarily to recruit the very best students,
but it is to make the students you recruit their very best.

There must be a good match between the college and the student
or do not enroll the student.

The goal is not necessarily to recruit the very best students,
but it is to make the students you recruit their very best.

Invariably, on every campus we work, we are told that retention and graduation would increase if admissions simply recruited better students. The problem is simply that the students we get are not good enough. There is little choice but “look to the left, look to the right…” approaches. The school must discourage these not-ready-for-prime-time college students. Well, at least until admissions comes through with better students.

The reality is that the school has chosen the best students available to it. It is the school that does the deciding after all. The students merely apply. Ahhh yes, but that’s the problem. We select weak students. They don’t belong in college; certainly not this one. Well, the reality is that once the college accepts the students they are good enough or they should not have been chosen. Once they are admitted they are the school’s students for better and not for worse.

The goal of education is to make students better than when they started in the college. To mold them, shape them and educate them so they are more accomplished and more intellectually capable to get, keep and hold a job and life together. Our job is not to simply judge them as not good enough, disregard their needs and/or fail them. It is to make them better and do all we can to accomplish that goal.

But they should know things when they get here and we should not have to teach them that. Well, maybe you think so but they don’t so teach that to them so they can succeed. I taught composition. (What? He taught composition? He can’t write correctly himself….!) I taught College English for a while at a place named Maine Maritime Academy where young men and women came to learn to become naval engineers or navigators among other professions. The simple fact was that most all of the students simply could not write an essay. They had not learned grammar well. Had little sense of sentence structure, punctuation, spelling and so on. If I simply decided that admissions needed to get me better students in my comp classes, I would have ruined the lives and dreams of many young people. I had the power to damn admissions and prop up my ego by failing at least 80% of the students.

Instead I realized that these were the students who chose to come to MMA and MMA chose to admit and they needed to learn to write. It was required for their college success, their careers and life. So I taught spelling, sentence structure, parts of speech, punctuation, paragraph structure and so on. Rather than accepting failure I let the students take exams and quizzes as many times as they wished since I could not care less what grade they got. I cared only that they learned to write well enough to succeed. And after a few weeks of simple, clean and non-literary English, they learned to write letters, reports, arguments and technical statements. They had succeeded and they were better for it. They were better writers, better students and better prepared to succeed in college and life. Yes, some did not do as well as they might have and some even failed but that were given the chance to grow and become their best in my class.

The principle does not say everyone should or will succeed just that we need to give up the idea that the students are not good enough and do all we can to make them good enough. That is good academic customer service.

There must be a good match between the college and the student
or do not enroll the student.

This is sort of a corollary of the one above with some significant differences. Every college or university has its strengths and weaknesses, its culture, folkways, codes, standards, social structure, attitudes and realities. These are often stronger indicators of whether or not a student will succeed and stay at the school than most anything else.

When we choose to admit a student, we do consider criteria such as grades, SATs/ACTs, clubs they belonged to, whether or not they can dunk a basketball or throw a football in a perfect spiral and other less important issues. We see if we think we want the student and will he or she benefit the institution. Some schools are seeking to expand their diversity (and meet enrollment goals) so they may select urban students of color who may or may not really have a good chance of succeeding or fitting in at McIntosh College in an isolated small Caucasian New Hampshire town for example. And then school is surprised, shocked, when problems arise between the locals and the students. They are stumped when the students start to drop out in large numbers.

This is but one example, a slightly obvious one perhaps but it is repeated over and over again every year. Students are recruited and accepted into schools even when the ones doing the accepting realize the odds are very strongly against a student or a set of students’ success. They know that there is likely not a good match between students and the college but they admit them anyhow to make numbers. They even know the student will probably quit before the end of first semester because there is not an intellectual, cultural, political, racial, or numerous other mismatches between student and school.

This is an extremely cynical dis-service to the student, his or her family, taxpayers whose taxes support financial aid for many of these and most all other students and to the college. It is a disservice to the student and family because they actually believe that by being accepted, the college has judged that there will be a good match and will do all it can to make sure that it will exist. It is a disservice to taxpayers because billions (yes, billions, the one with the B..) of dollars in taxpayer money is wasted when students drop out. And it is a disservice to the school because it will also lose thousands to millions of dollars due to attrition. And when a student is unhappy because this was not the right place for him or her, the issue becomes Malthusian. The result is that many more students are pushed over the tipping point and out the door by students who feel they were “ripped off” or misled.

The surest way to increase retention is not take students the university knows will likely not stay. It is better to forgo the quick easy upfront money from a soon-too-attrit student than build a budget on it. Moreover, as retention and graduation rates become more and more a focus of state and public funding, taking in students who do not fit and will likely drop out will really hurt long term finances.

Moreover, the higher the non-graduation in six-year rate is when all schools are disclosing these rates, the more likely that students who could fit nicely will look for a school they would rather graduate from than just start at.

Finally, it is just simply unethical and wrong to accept students a college generally knows will quit or flunk out. It is a form of Enrollment Ethical Deficit Syndrome – a dreaded debilitating syndrome that erodes the spirit and mission of an institution and can destroy ex-students. College is supposed to build and fulfill dreams ; not crush them.

If you would like a digital copy of the latest Principles of Good Academic Customer Service, just click here and ask. Be glad to send them on.

If you or your school is not aware of the offer of a fee free presentation or workshop on academic customer service and retention, please click here NOW.

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