Improving Your Academic Support Services

Improving customer service isn’t only an opportunity in enrollment management. Academic support services often face similar structural, procedural, and training barriers to improving service to students.

Cindy Barnes, director of advising and retention at West Texas A&M University, developed a one-stop student success center for the institution. We reached out to her recently to learn more about how she addressed structural barriers, inefficient policies and procedures, and staff training needs to ensure that West Texas A&M could deliver efficient and effective support to students as they pursue their academic studies.

Here is some of Barnes’ advice.

Addressing Structural and Procedural Barriers

At many institutions, varied and decentralized academic support services report not only to different department heads but to different vice presidents. Barnes recalls that prior to the advent of the student success center at West Texas A&M University, support functions reported variously to the vice president of student services, the vice president of enrollment management, and an associate provost. To address this structural issue, it’s critical to bring together department heads from across these divisions to talk through the challenges students face — whether these department heads meet in the form of a student success and retention committee or as a one-stop academic success center.

Once you have department heads meeting regularly — across divisions — look for obstacles to connecting students efficiently with academic support services. Often, the barriers you will find are actually policies and procedures that look right at first glance but, in practice, create confusion, frustration, and delay for students. Here are two examples.

Example A

Previously at West Texas A&M, a student’s primary point of contact with academic support was the faculty advisor. This led to several oversights:

  • “At risk” freshmen, such as academically underprepared students and students with learning disabilities, were connected first with professionals who were prepared to help chart a course toward their degree but who were ill-equipped to direct them to the various support services they might need.
  • Dual credit and transfer students who entered at the junior level were directed to their faculty advisor minus any orientation; often, a faculty advisor noted their junior-level credit and assumed they knew the campus and knew all the procedures relevant to declaring a major, adding and dropping courses, etc.

A more effective procedure? Direct all entering students (including transfer students) to a central advising office, brief them on the resources available to them during their first term, and then connect them with the appropriate faculty member. Barnes emphasizes: “Make sure all entering students are connected first with staff who can help them navigate campus services.”

This also ensures that when the student visits their advisor, they can focus on problem-solving and planning toward their academic and career goals, rather than using that time to answer questions about policies and procedures that the faculty advisor may not be best-equipped to answer.

Example B

Here’s another example. At one time, West Texas A&M University had three separate funding sources for student tutoring — which was then handled within three separate offices at separate locations across campus. Additionally, because one of the funding sources was a TRIO grant, the institution was interested in serving eligible students with the tutoring services provided by grant dollars prior to directing students to those services that were funded by the student service fee.

This led to a policy in which students seeking tutoring services were directed to apply for the TRIO-funded service first. If a student did not qualify for the grant-funded service, then the student would be redirected to the other services.

Barnes notes that this policy appeared to make sense financially. But in practice, this policy meant directing students on an 8,000-student campus to a service funded by a federal grant that could support only 250 students. “Many students would hear a ‘No’ when they first asked for help,” Barnes recalls. “They were unlikely then to walk all the way across the campus to a second tutoring service—possibly, they must have thought, to hear a second ‘No.’”

"The biggest challenge is getting the student over the threshold to ask for help. It is hard to admit they need help. You don’t want unnecessary barriers in the way when they do ask for help."
Cindy Barnes, West Texas A&M University

Barnes’ one-stop approach to the problem in this scenario:

  • House the tutoring services in one facility.
  • Have students visit the front desk at that facility and complete an application that will determine if they are eligible for services provided for by the TRIO grant.
  • If they are eligible, direct the student through Door A to that tutoring service; if they are not eligible, direct the student through Door B to the other service.

This solution ensures that the student isn’t turned down when they ask for academic support. They are simply directed to the appropriate service within one success center.

Ideas for a One-Stop Approach

West Texas A&M University chose to house all of its academic support services under one reporting structure and in one physical center on the first floor of a major classroom building, a location that makes it easy for students to stop by on their way to or from classes and ask for help. Services housed there include personal counseling, career counseling, placement and career services, study abroad, scholarships/grants, orientation, advising, transfer student services, student employment services, the writing lab, tutoring, testing, and student disability services.

Suppose that you take a similar one-stop approach. What can you do to maximize its effectiveness?

Here are a few of Barnes’ suggestions:

  • Consider establishing a shared “governing body” for these linked offices and meeting to establish bylaws that will provide guidance in resolving conflicts within the success center. The point is to emphasize that when a problem arises, it isn’t just a student affairs problem or an enrollment services problem — it’s a success center problem. If the department heads can sit together and resolve conflicts on a monthly or quarterly basis — rather than refer conflicts up the chain of command to their respective vice presidents — they will be better able to prevent the success center from dividing into silos.
  • Consider a shared front desk and “glass walls” throughout the central area and front-line offices — e.g., transparent partitions that facilitate functioning together as a single center.
  • House a liaison with financial aid within the center.
  • Add part-time faculty advising fellows who are paid by stipend and can work closely with students within the success center. (At West Texas A&M, two of these positions are filled by retired deans who each work ten hours a week to provide advising services for students).
  • Provide ongoing training across academic support service offices.

Training across Offices

In part because of the sheer number of staff across many diverse academic support functions, Barnes advocates offering a highly structured approach to training in customer service. At West Texas A&M University, Barnes championed investment in a new full-time position, a student success coordinator whose responsibilities include providing ongoing training for front-line staff and student workers, coordinating shared resources across the various offices, and assessment of the student success center’s effectiveness.

This new FTE was conceived as a solution to the problem of time. “We’re all busy,” Barnes notes — and training is something that needed to be designed and implemented effectively, not just as an afterthought on an already crammed schedule. The new coordinator’s salary is funded out of the savings from shared overhead costs (shared staff, equipment, and some shared rooms). It is an elegant solution to a potentially thorny problem: In making the commitment that multiple offices will share equipment, some staff, and some physical space, scheduling and coordinating can quickly become complex; using the savings to fund a coordinator eliminates that difficulty.

This position also designs and manages a periodic staff retreat that promotes shared ownership of the student success center and the service it offers students — driven by shared goals that are directly tied to student success. Each retreat gives staff time away from the office and away from the grind of daily activities to talk through the “big” questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What kind of assistance do we truly want to offer students, and how do we do that? Getting staff problem-solving together across silos is critical.

Even lacking this type of central coordinator position, that staff retreat — followed up with regular and consistent customer service training that is shared across offices — can make all the difference.

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