Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Can Academic Customer Service Improve a College?

There is a central concern that I hear from college presidents about academic customer service. “Does it work to increase student satisfaction and retention?" 

A fair question that I am very pleased to answer with a simple yes. And then prove it through a university that has fully embraced the concepts of academic customer service.

Does academic customer service work? If increasing a graduation rate by more than 11%, increasing enrollment by over 2,500 students, increasing applications by 31%, having the funds to more than double the faculty, obtaining investments to start three more schools of study and four new buildings, and jump from 15 to number one in the US News and World Report rankings, then academic customer service works. 

High Point University in North Carolina under the leadership of Nido Qubein has proven that academic customer service, seeing to the reasonable needs and responsible expectations of students and parents in the classroom and across the campus, works.  

When Qubein took the helm of High Point, it was a decent enough school with the same sorts of problems most other universities had. The economy was in the deepest recession it had seen since the great depression eight years ago. Its enrollment was down bringing its revenue with it. It was not able to invest in new teachers because the school’s population did not support the expenditure. Enrollment was down to 1,450 students and getting to the point of cuts in the school’s programs and employees. Its graduation rate (the real retention rate) was at 51.4% (6 year rate) and is now at 63% for the first cohort to go through the academic customer service changed university and expected to rise considerably with future cohorts.  There were 107 faculty before Qubein introduced an academic customer service culture into the school. Now there are 260.

What High Point did was change the university from a traditional ”enroll ‘em and let them sink or swim” indifference to students, to a university fully focused on students and their academic success. He made the students one of the primary centers of everything the University did and does. He not only met their expectations to be treated with dignity and concern, he exceeded it.  And he expects them to respect the protocol of the academy and its traditions.

He began with recognizing that the students and their parents were indeed customers of HPU who had needs and expectations. They needed a solid education and meaningful success. They expected an energetic campus life. So he focused on both. After he did an audit of the campus and its academic programs, he saw for example that the grounds and facilities were not up to the standards of students and employees to make them proud of going to HPU. This is looking at the objective correlative of a university, the setting in which learning takes place. He knew if his motto of “be extraordinary” was to take hold at HPU everything about the school had to be exceptional. So he went ahead and upgraded what was there and added three new buildings.  The construction was led by $230 million in gifts that Qubein secured. Yes, he made the school leveraged by borrowing the money for the buildings but he knew that to fulfill student’s affective ROI, they had to feel proud of the school’s facilities and grounds. In addition he had the campus grounds enhanced to now have 300 types of trees, 2,000 types of plants, 22 gardens for students and others to plant and adds about 600 plants a year now. What is important to note is that the plantings have become part of the learning environment. For example, classes in botany, biology, environmental science, plant taxonomy and other courses use the plantings as a living laboratory.

This is an important point here. Qubein did add student focused amenities such as a concierge service for students, free ice cream delivered in a truck that serves as a community outreach experience for student volunteers, and live music during meals to increase student engagement at HPU among other things but he more importantly realized that a great part of customer service for students happens in and for the classroom. The school was selling that to potential students and Qubein realized they had to come through with great learning for the world ahead of graduation.
He further realized that one of the important things that students needed and fully expected was success. They came to school to learn and graduate to get jobs after college. So he had HPU first focus on making certain that students succeeded. He was not going to take the point of view that they are adults who can have the right to fail. He realized they paid to get an education and diploma so he was going to do all he could to assure they received them.  Not by coddling, grade inflation or having faculty dumb down their classes as critics of academic customer service believe customer service causes but by devising an effective Early Alert system to assure success in the classroom and in life.  The assistance and cooperation of faculty made the program effective.

He insisted that classes be conducted at their highest level. That students be challenged and that if any indicator of a student not doing well occur, they be entered into the Early Alert system. That system is similar to the ones we have discussed earlier and suggested for schools. It can be accessed by anyone on campus but especially by faculty. If a student misses classes, faculty are called on to immediately notify the early warning advisors that this has occurred. If a student seems to not be doing well, the faculty member is called upon to approach him to offer help as well as enter that into the Early Alert system so an advisor can contact the student. Moreover, Early Alert is conducted the fourth week of the semester and attendance and any grade information that might suggest a student to be at risk is to be reported. Freshman tutors, and Learning Excellence experts aid in the process. Advisors and students are requested to follow up with a conference and course planning to improve performance and attendance. 

The Early Alert system has counselors and advisors who then reach out to students who are at risk and do all they can to help them resolve any problems and gain the learning they need. This system is an intrusive service the University provides to assure that students are fully served and their expectation of being successful can be met if at all possible. The University does not withhold services at all and let the student sink or swim on her own. They make sure that all the services of the institution are brought to into play to assure student success. 

President Qubein credits the Early Alert system for much of the University’s retention success. “The best ROI (financially & behaviorally) comes from the Early Alert program in the classroom where every professor watches and reports each student’s success patterns (and we follow up to ensure each student attends class, does work, gets tutoring, etc) and the Excellence In Learning program which provides significant personalized attention to students who need it.”

Learning Excellence  is a service that assures that faculty interact with students and provide individualized help for any student who is having trouble. Learning Excellence is a unique program that provides an individualized, formal support system to assist students in achieving academic success at High Point University. The program is open to any HPU student and offers extensive support to students with learning differences as well as those who want to organize and improve their academic abilities. A student does not have to be in academic trouble to access the service. It can be used by any student who wants to achieve at her highest level.  Learning Excellence develops a learning action plan specific to each student so she receives the personalized attention and encouragement needed.

As we have suggested many times, the University asks faculty to be the last ones out of a classroom and be assertive with students as the exit to be sure they understand the materials covered. Learning is not just a selling point but a promise at HPU. This is just an additional customer service that helps assure students succeed. 

These are all academic customer services that can be implemented at any school that wants to be more successful. These are a large part of HPU’s success though the free ice cream, live music and student concierge get most of the attention. They too are obviously customer service that make High Point a university that students want to stay in. The total package makes the students believe they are receiving a full return on their investment.

And does it prove that academic customer service works?
An 11.6% jump in graduation rates
Enrollment increasing by 2,850 students
A 31% increase in applications
A more talented student body
3 new academic schools
46 new buildings
A reinvigorated campus
A jump of 15 places in the US News Report rankings to be ranked number 1
A better and greater revenue stream to afford new initiatives and growth
And national recognition for the University…

I’d say that academic customer service works very well indeed!

For more on customer service's benefits to an institution, get a copy of 
Neal Raisman is the president of NRaisman & Associates, the leading provider of academic customer service for increased retention training and consulting

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