Our interview with Dennis Pruitt, vice president for student affairs at the University of South Carolina, suggested the need to direct attention to something that is often overlooked: the need to review and audit institutional policies and procedures that delay students in progressing toward their degree.
"Historically, many have assumed that if students get over their homesickness, if they have a good affinity group, if they feel good on campus, they'll persist. But the two factors that truly help students persist are academic progress toward a degree (having a goal and gaining momentum toward it) and maintaining maximum eligibility for the maximum amount of financial aid (to ensure non-interruption in their courses)."
Dennis Pruitt, U of South Carolina
In light of Pruitt's comment, one thing academic and administrative leaders will want to look for at their institution is the presence of "road bumps" in their processes and procedures that delay a student's progress toward a degree. To find those “bottleneck” points in your procedures that stall students in their progress toward a degree:
- Review student complaints as opportunities to identify and correct outdated policies or procedures, recognizing that recurring complaints may point toward a systemic issue.
- Survey students to help prioritize where you need to focus.
- Audit your academic policies for some of the most common inefficiencies.
Reviewing Student Complaints
"Most frequently, student complaints emerge around the speed of getting a critical task done. Periodically review complaints, and when you find bottlenecks, take them apart. Often, behind that bottleneck, there is an outdated policy or an outdated procedure. Get the right people around the table, ask them directly: How can we improve this service for the student?"
Susan Leigh, Susan Leigh Consulting
For example, DePaul University, which enrolls a large percentage of students who work full-time, found that one significant stall was requiring students to visit an on-campus office as part of a critical process. Working students are often unable to take a half day away from work to visit offices on campus during business hours. "Students would tell us that they can't wait a week for a particular process to be run on their account," Leigh recalls. "For example, an employer may offer to pay for the class if the student can get registered and billed by a particular date, but the student may need to secure permission to register for a class that is closed, and then have their account reflect the right balance due for the employer. Yet, the student may not be able to take the time off work needed to visit several offices on campus to complete the procedure."
Working students continue to enroll to retool their careers, but these students are also facing increased constraints on their time. Moving processes online can remove many of the most common bottlenecks.
"Look for the root cause. Maybe your front-line staff are having to answer more calls, and in trying to provide better service, you are working to make those calls faster and move more quickly. But how to speed up the calls may be the wrong question. The right question is: Why do we have more calls?"
Lawrence Lesick, Vice President of Enrollment Management, Ohio Northern U
Surveying Students: Identifying the Most Critical "Trouble Spots"
Colleges are more frequently surveying their students about the quality of their services, but Leigh and Lesick note that too often the surveys do not return information that can empower enrollment staff to pinpoint the underlying service issues or identify the ideal solutions to them.
Here's one method DePaul University uses to identify and prioritize trouble spots. Students are asked to rate (on a 1-5 Likert scale, with 1 being the lowest rating and 5 the highest) both the importance of a service to their ability to register for, attend, and succeed in their classes, and how well the institution is providing that service to them. The survey is designed to identify the most important gaps in service and assists in prioritizing efforts to improve services.
For example, when asked about parking, let's suppose that students at a particular commuter campus answer:
- Importance of parking - 5
- Level of service - 2
In this first case, parking is a valued service, but one that needs investment. In another scenario, though, students at an urban institution with significant access to public transportation may answer:
- Importance of parking - 2
- How well are we providing parking - 1
In this second case, improving parking services may not be the first priority, even though the service is lacking — because it isn't one of the services that makes a significant impact on students' speed in getting to their classes, their stress level, or their ability to build momentum toward their degree.
Next, ask follow-up questions that invite a high degree of specificity. For example:
- Ask students when they have felt they received poor service or a "runaround."
- Give students a list of options to select from, to pinpoint the "runaround" — Did they stand in line too long or have to wait too long to have their call picked up? Were they routed to another office? Were the staff unable to answer their questions?
- Ask them what the one thing was that slowed them down the most.
"Sometimes students don't know where the inefficiency is or how you could provide them with superior service. If Steve Jobs had been conducting focus groups several decades ago, likely none of his potential customers would have volunteered: 'I would like to have a portable recorder that I can put in my pocket, with headphone buds in my ears.' That didn't exist yet. You have to know how to ask the right questions."
Lawrence Lesick, Ohio Northern U
Examples of What to Look For
Here are two examples of policies and procedures that can slow student progress:
How does your institution calculate GPA in cases where a student retakes a course? "A student can have a bad course or a bad semester," notes Dennis Pruitt. "When they retake courses, what happens on their transcript?"
Pruitt cautions that averaging the two grades "almost penalizes" the student for retaking the course. A better option is to keep the first grade on the transcript (so that it remains a part of the academic record) but use only the second grade in calculating the student's cumulative GPA. This incentivizes students to improve their academic performance and rewards them for it.
"It needs to be very clear to students what courses count toward their major and what courses do not. Their degree audit needs to happen quarter by quarter or semester by semester."
Lucie Lapovsky, President, Lapovsky Consulting
"Students can so easily be misadvised," warns Lucie Lapovsky, president of Lapovsky Consulting and past president of Mercy College. Getting false information to students is a risk both because academic advisers often have a high load and because catalogs and requirements are updated frequently. This can make it difficult for either students or advisers to keep track.
Lapovsky suggests letting students do their own degree audits regularly. "Make the degree audit available online." An online audit can keep both students and advisers up to date. Many registrars already use effective online programs, often for a degree audit in the spring of the junior year. Lapovsky recommends having these programs shared out with academic departments and with students. Give the program an easy Web-based end user interface. The ability to produce a degree audit quickly will empower students to make smarter choices — and to take ownership of their course plan.
Other key policies and procedures to check include:
- Major/minor declaration — how complex is the process?
- The financial aid process — survey your students to learn where there are bumps in the road.