Starting with Fit: Defining and Delivering the Unique Student Experience

In this issue:

To what extent is your institution defining what it means to be a student enrolled there? Is your institution's leadership engaged in conversations about what your particular student experience (curricular and co-curricular) looks like, and how the promise of that experience shapes your recruitment strategy? Or how you incentivize your staff to deliver on that promise?

Driven by the mission, your institution needs to be clear about what it stands for and what value its student experience offers. Creating a distinct, cohesive experience that is played out through your institution's academic, residential, co-curricular, service, career, and global experiences is the first step to ensuring alignment of your resources to support student success.

We asked Jon McGee, vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, for his tips on achieving this aim.

Defining the Promise

"If you read the typical guidebook, you'd know how much and how many, but you'd also have the sense that Institution X, like every other college of its size and equivalent selectivity in the US, is a friendly and student-focused experience and is committed to educating the whole student. That doesn't actually tell you anything you need to know about the student experience you will have at Institution X."
Jon McGee, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University

In offering that value proposition to students, McGee suggests understanding "value" as consisting of three component parts: experiential value, economic value, and emotional value.

Experiential value

This consists of the types of opportunities your institution is prepared to deliver. It speaks to student questions such as "Can I study abroad?", "Can I major in music?", and "Can I play basketball here?"  McGee warns that institutions often overvalue the experiential component and allow it to drive their brand messaging, paying insufficient attention to other ways of defining the educational experience.

Economic value

"At its crudest," McGee suggests, "this involves two questions: Is it worth the cost? and What is the economic return on enrolling here? Colleges need to do a better job at the front end of conveying the outcomes of the educational experience they offer." These outcomes can include:

  • Salaries of graduates
  • Percentage of graduates employed in their career of choice
  • Percentage of graduates who went on to graduate school, and what degrees they attain
  • Percentage of graduates who do volunteer service after completing their degree
  • The benefits and opportunities that alumni attribute to their educational experience at your institution

The key is to craft a compelling story around the outcomes of your institution's student experience. Your alumni are perhaps best positioned to help you define and communicate that story. In reunion surveys, ask your alumni about specific ways that your institution prepared them for their career or graduate studies. Ask about their relationships with faculty. Ask about the type of perspective they developed during their undergraduate years.

Emotional value

Offering an example of a first-encounter-with-the-campus experience that he believes is quite common, McGee describes a parent driving a student 200 miles to participate in a campus tour. The student sees the campus and says, "Oh, I don't want to go here," to which the parent replies, "Get out of the car, we're going through that tour."

"It's a purely emotional response," McGee notes. "It might have been sparked by anything -- the demographics of the students walking by, the quality of the food, the curb value of the campus facilities. Outside of the admissions office, colleges systematically undervalue the role emotional value plays in college choice. The parent may be asking: Is my child going to be more than a number? Is my student going to be safe here? The student may be asking: Can I relate to people on campus? Will I have friends here?"

Be intentional in the emotional value you promise as a part of the student experience, and be prepared to deliver on it. For example:

  • If you promise timely and personal responsiveness, then this needs to be a component in the training for your advisers, your faculty, your support services staff, and even your maintenance staff.
  • If you promise entry into a global community, that brand promise needs to drive decisions on curriculum, organizational structure, what initiatives are resourced with priority (In budgetary terms, is study abroad a campus priority or an afterthought?), and even housing (How are your international students integrated with the larger campus community?)

Don Hossler, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, emphasizes that you can define unique student experiences even if you are not a small, selective, residential institution. While a large public, for example, may not be able to define or deliver one cohesive experience applicable to its entire student body, the institution can mine its data to identify student cohorts and define several distinct student experiences driven by its mission.

Understand How Your Students See the Educational Experience

McGee suggests this exercise to assist in evaluating how well-defined your student experience is, and how well an entering class is shaped to thrive in that experience:

  • Ask first-year students to pick from among 21 adjectives to describe the institution
  • Ask first-year students to pick from among 21 adjectives to describe themselves

For example, in one recent exercise, the four adjectives students selected most frequently to describe the institution were: fun, friendly, comfortable, and community. The four adjectives students selected most frequently to describe themselves were: fun, friendly, cooperative, and driven. "It's a good match," McGee remarks. "If you are who you eat, you are who you enroll. Your students become a part of the brand you project. They come here because they are like we are, and by virtue of coming here, they make us more like who they are."

Understanding what your students value in the educational experience you already offer can help you make the right investments to ensure you deliver on that value. If first-year students feel that "community" is a major part of your promise and they regard themselves as "cooperative," you might prioritize investments in community-building and community-enriching co-curricular experiences, collaborative learning experiences, interdisciplinary activities, service learning, residential learning communities, etc.

"Survey throughout the four years," McGee advises. "Find out if you are delivering." For example, check to see if your graduating seniors assign the same adjectives to the student experience that your first-year students did. This can provide a good check on whether you've delivered the student experience you promised.

Rethinking Admissions Strategy

"You can't separate retention from what happens prior to admission," warns McGee. "Retention starts with fit."

Eighty percent of entering students surveyed at Saint John's indicate that this institution was their first choice (well above the national average), and about 90 percent of the first-year students persist into their second year. McGee attributes the high retention rate to the institution's success in defining the unique value it offers students and driving its recruitment strategy accordingly.

This entails:

  • Bringing in the right students and communicating with them very clearly about your brand promise and the outcomes they can expect
  • Knowing the expectations of your incoming students
  • Understanding how they see your brand promise

As you define the characteristics and outcomes of the particular student experience you offer, you will be better equipped to seek applications from students who will thrive at your institution.