Friday, January 25, 2013

Change the Service Culture to Change Completion Rates

A new report from Complete College America has some really great points in it that need to be considered. The report, Guided Pathways to Success: Boosting College Completion, focuses on ways to increase college and university completion rates from less than 30% for two-year schools and just about 50% for universities. And that is in three years for two-year schools and six years for four-year schools. Not a very good rate. One that has put America in a quite desperate position against the rest of the world.

Some of the problems they see include

Credits earned that don’t count toward the major

Courses not being available when students need them

Students taking more credits than they need to graduate

Too many courses that do not transfer from one school to another and

Programs requiring too many credits to graduate.

These are all valid issues, many of which have been discussed in this blog and elsewhere many times. But they do not hit one of the most important reasons students do not complete a degree. That issue is the negative attitudes too many schools have toward students and their success. Simply put, not enough schools really do care about students as much as they do other concerns. They put their own issues before those of students and thus deliver some really horrible academic customer service. So students feel they are not cared about so they leave.

Students have a very high expectation that they will be given service and hospitality. After all, that is what many schools use to sell enrollment. Small classes with caring instructors. A school that makes you a person not a number. A university that cares for you and your success, etc, etc. But the students get to the school and find out that the school does not fulfill its promises. They soon believe the school does not care about them which is the major reason a student will leave a college. And we do all we can to send out that message that we don’t care about you.

For example, just taking the first of the reasons the commission gave - Credits earned that don’t count toward the major - brings some of the indifference to student success issue to the forefront. The commission says that students take too many credits that do not count toward the major. Let’s begin by admitting that there are students who are going to take a course simply because it interests them no matter whether it fits in their major field of study or not.  What a concept. Students taking a course to expand their interests and intellectual horizons even if it may not count toward graduation! But that is not the reason the bulk of students take the wrong courses really.

The real core of the issue is that most schools we have worked with and studied simply have poor advising and curricula guides to help students plan their programs. In fact, one of the most common complaints we hear from students is as one student put it recently at a large research university, “advising sucks. They don’t know anything and don’t care about us.”  The advisers at that school do not have any updating or training sessions to keep them current on the curricula the students need to follow nor do they seem to care. If a program changes requirements, they do not even learn of it until a student is given the wrong courses and comes back to complain. This is no way to assure that students take the right courses.

At another school we worked with an adviser decided that he did not agree with the policies of the school on program changes and would not complete a program change form for the student. What was the student to do then? Without the form, he could not switch majors. What was equally bad was that the university was aware of the situation but neither helped the student immediately not reprimanded the adviser.

The report mentions that courses are not always available when students need them and this is quite true. In fact, many colleges now offer a course, a required course too, only once a year. But the advisers at another school we worked with were not aware one of those courses offered only once a year and were telling students to take the course next semester to get their schedule to work. The course was not offered the following semester making the students stay another semester to get the course and fill in the schedule with courses they might not need to graduate but did need for full time status to get financial aid. This is yet another way students get the wrong courses as well as take more credits than they actually need to graduate.

Now I don’t want to just say advising is the problem. It is not. It is just one of them. But it is a symptom of the real issue behind the lack of completion issue. I should also add that there are also stories of great advisors and we have spoken to many of them– just not enough of them. The good advisers are upset at their colleagues too by the way since they give them a bad name and reputation on campus.  What the advising concerns points out is that there are other issues behind the lack of completion rather than some of what the commission found. The core of the problem is that too many, most colleges and universities have a culture that does not care enough about students and their success to assure at least an appropriate level of customer service for them.

All of the advising issues pointed out could be fixed – if a college had the will and real student focus to do it. But too many of them do not. Advising is most often done by faculty whether as part of their workload or as a specialization activity. Faculty. And the schools do not want to upset the faculty so they gloss over the advising issues. They would rather keep the faculty happy by not criticizing them than really help students succeed.

An example of this can be seen in a school in which students were complaining that faculty advisers were not showing up for advising hours in their offices. The students could not register without having first seen an adviser.  There was an easy fix. Tell the faculty that they had to be available when they said they would be there. But the school decided that since required advising was a touchy issue with faculty they were not going to do much more than remind faculty that they should be at office hours for advising. So much for helping students. Students were not as important as faculty peace there so the students lost out.

At too many other schools we have studied and worked with the curricula guides are often semester and even years old. Yet, they remain in print and on the websites telling people the wrong information. Out of date and telling students the wrong courses they need to take for a program that has changed its requirements to graduate. Working from out-of-date curricular guides is a sure way to make certain that students will take the wrong courses. Even if an adviser wanted to do a good job and I believe most do want to do a superlative one, they cannot do so with wrong information. Talk about indifference to student success. How difficult can it be to take a newly revised curriculum and get it out to everyone as well as posted on the web to help advisors and student make the right choices? One would think that a school that cares about students and their success could at least post up-to-date curricula.

Again I am not trying to pick on advising just use it as an exemplar of the problem which is that schools simply do not put the needs and expectations of students first. Student success is too often an afterthought at many schools. This begins with admissions too. We have a customer service principle that explains this. It is There must be a good match between the college and the student or do not enroll the student. This is so because it is a definite disservice to a student and her family to admit her into a college that she will not succeed in.  She will be a non-completer in most every case

Many colleges will admit students they know cannot succeed at the school. They take them in just to “make their numbers”.  They have a budget goal to hit and will enroll a student body that equals that budget goal if they can. They will take in students who do not fit to make the revenue fit. This is not a good way to build retention and completion rates and is an unethical approach to admissions. It is a gross example of both ethical deficiency syndrome and a definite hostility toward student success and well-being. It is further an example of the total indifference to student customer service and doing what is right for students and the institution.

Yes, some of the reason that students do not succeed is that some schools are either indifferent to their needs and some are actually hostile toward them. I had a recent discussion with a college president who told me that his university is doing quite well but he is disturbed by attitudes throughout the school toward students. “I have to honest” he said. “We treat students like s#$t” We act as if they are some sort of enemy.” Another president was asking me about strategies to make people less hostile toward students after he heard the old “this would be a great place to work if it weren’t for the students” once too often.  At another school I was simply told by a faculty member that he had no time for students. “They get in the way of the really important work – my research”.

What the commission needs to come to terms with is that a core reason for abysmal graduation rates is a pervasive and strong culture at too many schools that does not put students and their success first. Students quickly get attuned to the message that they are not important by the way they are treated even by what may seem to be small issues as well as larger ones. They have to wait at offices while a receptionist ignores them. Emails go unanswered. Phone calls are not returned. Forms are lost. Processing of paperwork is slow. They get the run around and shuffled from office to office while trying to get help. There are so many little ways as well as some bigger ones as discussed in this blog over the years that we allow students to be treated poorly that they get the message quickly.

The commission has done some very good work but until they really look at the core issue of a culture of at least indifference to students, things will not change. They need to realize that academic customer service is key to success at a college. This does not mean coddling students or pretending that we care about students. It means meeting their needs and expectations. It means providing them good service and hospitality that tells them they really are important and valued by the school.  It means fixing things which are core services that students need to succeed; not just letting problems continue because we are afraid to upset faculty or staff. It means keeping curricula up to date and sharing them with advisors and students so they can use accurate guides. It means stopping what you are doing when a student comes into an office and waiting on that student immediately with a smile and welcome as if you are really glad he or she is there.

It means changing the culture of a college or university to make it focus on our students, our customers, our clients first and foremost.  Without cultural change to make service and hospitality to students the top priority of a college, completion rates will continue in their low levels.

If this article made sense to you, you may want to contact N.Raisman & Associates to improve academic customer service and hospitality to increase student satisfaction, retention and your bottom line
UMass Dartmouth invited Dr. Neal Raisman to campus to present on "Service Excellence in Higher Ed"  as a catalyst event used to kick off a service excellence program.  Dr. Neal Raisman presents a very powerful but simple message about the impact that customer service can have on retention and the overall success of the university.  Participants embraced his philosophy as was noted with heads nods and hallway conversations after the session.  Not only did he have data to back up what he was saying, but Dr. Raisman spoke of specific examples based on his own personal experience working at a college as  Dean and President.  Our Leadership Team welcomed the "8 Rules of Customer Service", showing their eagerness to go to the next step in rolling Raisman's message out.  We could not have been more pleased with his eye-opening presentation.    Sheila Whitaker UMass-Dartmouth

If you want more information on NRaisman & Associates or to learn more about what you can do to improve academic customer service excellence on campus, get in touch with us or get a copy of our best selling book The Power of Retention: More Customer Service for Higher Education. 

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