Thursday, March 26, 2015

Give Recognition to Get Excellence

When I was a dean of academic affairs at Lansing Community College (MI), we began every yearwith what I thought was a kind of hokey ceremony at the time.  I was a cynical liberal artist at the time grieving for my administrative art and montage of post-pre-avant garde modern - traditional learning symbologies (whatever they are.)

The college president Phil Gannon used to start the year with an ingathering of all employees. The usual parade of administrators started it all with our plans for the year and introductions of department chairs who introduced new faculty or staff. Yes, there was a time when colleges actually hired new faculty and staff.  Then he and Ron Dove, the Director of HR would hand out service pins to people.

This is what I thought was a bit hokey. To think that a service pin for five years of service would mean anything?  I mean if you want to make people feel appreciated give them more money. Boy was I wrong. If they had handed out checks the response would have been much more subdued.

They would call out that they were giving out pins for twenty-five years of service. Then they would call out the one or two people who made it to twenty-five years. The recipients would walk down through the auditorium to the applause of all the people there and receive a pin with a small diamond chip in it and a framed certificate. They would wait for all the recipients to be called to get their pin and framed certificate beaming as if they were Sally Fields and had won the Academy Award. “You like me. You really like me!”  Then they would be introduced as recipients of twenty-five year pins and everyone would clap, and whistle and stomp approval as they basked in their peer’s recognition.

This went on through twenty years, fifteen years, ten and five. The enthusiasm from the audience was retained all throughout what I now recognize as the pinning ceremony for employee engagement with the school. And to be able to recognize that the ceremony was the one thing between everyone and lunch yet no one made a move to the door during all the pinnings attests to how important this recognition was at the college.

Years later I was a president of a school that felt beaten down upon. The demands made on everyone were enormous and never seemed to be enough. Meet one goal and an even higher one was given to you. People just did not seem to be able to please corporate. This was a career college. Oh by the way, I have worked in every type of school there us so my experience and suggestions are an amalgamation of experiences and suggestions I make will apply to whatever type of school you, dear reader, are working in.

The people at the school did receive bonuses, cash rewards for meeting some set goals but the money never seemed good enough. Money just paid bills not the sense of value after all. Besides it was earned by meeting goals.

I decided to bring in recognition of service pins among other ways to build morale and recognize people. It took a while to design and choose just the right pins but it was well worth the effort.  We did not announce the ceremony when we had our monthly “Knowledge of the College” (another communication and engagement tool I highly recommend. It is like a convocation but monthly and brings people up to date and into what is happening at the school.) on Thursday afternoon.

Then Mel Lyons (HR Director) and I called one person forward and announced the first ever twenty-five year pin. The faculty member was overwhelmed by the recognition. She had thought no one cared and even knew of her contributions to the school. It didn’t hurt that she had recently been having some issues with a new dean of academic affairs who didn’t seem to care about the faculty member’s long contribution.

We could have shut off the lights and read from the beam of happiness the faculty member was giving off. Her bright joy would be repeated by everyone else we recognized that day and every year following. The people loved those recognition pins and were overjoyed when someone saw the school crest and a jewel on a pin and inquired about it. They really enjoyed saying how they had served the college for X number of years and we had recognized their service in a way that they could show off every day. And some did wear that pin every single day.

What I first thought was kind of hokey just may have been but it was also very meaningful to so many. It was also a very powerful way to show our appreciation and regain many more years of engagement in the school, and its students. Though they were not ever directly studied, I do believe they had a role to play in the college’s 14% increase in enrollment that year.

So, honoring employees in a way that was meaningful to them led to a major re-engagement in the school and students. I cannot recommend the recognition pins more highly. If your school is not doing a recognition ceremony yet, start one thus year and see even stronger engagement occur. Need any help with the pins or ceremony, just contact us. Be glad to help.
Buy a copy of The Power of Recognition or 
From Admissions to Graduation and get a copy of
Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition
through May 1, 2015 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Mentoring and Saving Students

Since last week's post I haves been getting inquiries abut what I mean by mentoring so I decided to discuss it further.

Students need to feel they are engaged to and with the college. They need to have their social structure and support systems rebuilt while attending college so they have someone to lean on or go to in times of stress or need. They can go to fellow students for some information such as what professor to never take; what classes will fulfill requirements; which administrator cares about students and will try to help out ; etc. But there are many times when another student can’t help out or provide the support needed in the situation. These are the times when they might have asked a parent what to do but the parents do not understand the system and the school. So, they need a sort of collegiate parent figure – a mentor.

There is a reality rites des passage about college. It really does not come with a user’s manual though the FAQ’s recommended to help end the shuffle could fill the need. College is a strange environment that prior knowledge and experience including orientation do not prepare one for. There are new rules to learn.  Traditions and morés to absorb. A whole new way of life and a new lace to try and find one’s way around. In fact, college is a strange place not only because it is new and unique but because it seems to put all new students through a rite de passage involved in just finding one’s way around, finding a parking spot in time to get to class or just getting from one place to another on time. It is almost as if universities in particular put new students though a geographical hazing by having them find their way around campus without the use of helpful signs.  Signage on most campuses ranges from weak to non-existent.

There are administrative and procedural challenges and tests that are added on too just to see if a new student is really college material. In most schools for example, there is the rite/test of “find the advisor” which is part of the registration ritual. Students need to sign up for courses of course but to do so they must have them signed off from her academic advisor. But since it is the summer prior to the start of  classes, the advisors are quite often no9t on campus. The advisor might have office hours but since classes have not begun, the hours are neither posted nor the advisor in the office for the unposted hours. So the student has to work to find someone willing to sign off on the schedule unless of course she finds out from another student shuffled around the campus that the way to end the test is to just sign the registration form for the advisor. First, no one at registration checks for an actual signature nor would know the actual one if he saw it. Two, the advisor usually does not know what should actually be taken as well as another student who already passed this test and learned from experience. Or three, the advisor is found or another takes some pity on the student and signs off for the assigned advisor.

These processes do not help further the engagements between student and school. In fact, they initiate rifts between the two. The student begins to find that the school is not showing the engagement and caring that was promised and that he or she is “on my own”.  But this need not be the situation if the college engaged students with mentors. A mentoring system could also increase retention by approximately 84% of the total number of students who were mentored.

Most colleges assign a new student an academic advisor thinking that academics are important as they are, but not to the decision to leave. They forget about the major reason why students leave – the human element of attrition. But mentors can strengthen that attachment, the engagement at least at the beginning of the experience.  Mentors need not be drawn from the academic sector alone by the way. In fact, many students report that though faculty are a primary source of direct contact, many others report that they have found relationships in interactions with others who have reached out to them such as staff and administrators. With some training, everyone, from the president on up at the college can be a mentor if he or she is willing. This includes not just full time employees and faculty but adjuncts As well. It would be a very inexpensive investment to pay adjuncts for another fewer hours  of mentoring some students Keep in mind that students do not draw distinctions between full and adjunct faculty.

And every person at the school should be willing to become a mentor to students. Students are what everyone is there for after all. In fact, it is in helping students that members of the campus community really meet their goals. Helping the college reach its mission by helping students succeed and stay in school  provides most people at a college their reason for being and working at the school.  Moreover, a student completed by AcademicMAPS found that people work at a college not for the high pay and short hours but for the chance to be part of something bigger than they are; a chance to contribute to the school, its students and a better future for everyone.

Tikun Olam
This is a version of a Jewish belief called Tikun Olam - to save the world. Tikun Olam realizes that every person is a world unto him or herself.  So to save a person, to make a person better is to better, to save the world. And that is what people in a college or university do. They strengthen each and every student, each and every world and in so doing, the people who work in a college have many opportunities to save worlds and make our world better as they do so. By engaging students as mentors, they are also engaging in tikun olam which gives their lives greater meaning and value. By doing so, they also better their own worlds as well as the institution itself.

For example, a university with a population of 2,575 students and 300 employees with an attrition rate of 81.1% that has its employees mentor 300 students has an opportunity to save between 300 to 252 student worlds. That could increase their retention rate by up to 14% which could also add $1,387,445 to the budget. And if employees were willing to mentor up to 8 students each, it could be possible to add to the retention rate by a factor of 67% which would be an amazing turnaround.

It is necessary of course to realize that not everyone is capable of reaching out to students in an appropriate manner to mentor students even with training which everyone should have before they do mentor. With this realization, it will be important to focus the mentoring effort on those who will most benefit. This calls for some realistic recognitions that can be guided by grades. Students who earn A’s have likely either already found an engagement in the school or will survive on their own.  Students who are failing will likely have a long road back and may not be “savable”. Thus the effort should focus first on students falling between the B- to D+ range for greatest retention payoff.


Monday, March 09, 2015

Saving Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar’s closing has sent a shock wave through higher education. But it never had to happen. Sweet Briar could have remained open and solvent if it
had realized it has a retention problem not an enrollment one. If the college had focused on the students they did recruit and kept them in school they might have done alright

Let’s look review some numbers.

Sweet Briar had a student population of 723 students with 695 of them full time. They charged tuition of $33,605 per student. That could mean an annualized revenue of $23,458,515 from full time students and another $103,040 for a total of 23,458,515. With an endowment of $85 million added to that annual revenue, they would have had enough money to say in operation if…IF they had retained their students and they could have.
As it is they had a 43% attrition rate. That means they were losing almost half of its population each year and had to recruit a new class plus enough students to make up for the attrition. They were losing $10,279,578 from attrition each year.

They did not have a revenue problem; they had an attrition problem
This was a problem they could have addressed. All they needed to do was study the school’s customers, the students, and find out why they were leaving. This could have been done through a simple customer service audit. They could have done something as simple as sending out a survey with one question to start. “If you could change one thing at the school today that would make it better to be here, what would that be?” Then take the answers and organize them from most noted to least. Next, if Sweet Briar had started at the top, addressed the problem and let the population know it has been resolved, they would let the students know their issues were heard and something was being done. Plus the college would have started removing the reasons why students were leaving at such high numbers.

They could also have started a mentoring/coaching program for all students. The school has about 300 employees to the 723 students, with an 8-1 student to faculty ratio. There were plenty of people to provide personal attention to students. If each employee were assigned two students starting with students getting Bs, C’s or D’s (this is the most vulnerable and savable population) they would have kept many more students in school. Giving students a person they can be in touch with all of the time on campus builds stronger bonds to the school. And all the mentor would have to do is keep in touch with the student, take her out for a cup of coffee or a soft drink every so often, ask how things are going and help her navigate the school when there was a problem. Not too much to ask of an employee I don’t think. 

These two steps would have led to a significant drop in attrition to around 15-18%% which is manageable and Sweet Briar could have stayed in business.