Why the Student Experience Matters for Community Colleges

Table of Contents


The definition of student experience has evolved over time. Traditionally, community colleges have focused their efforts on the academic and classroom experience, looking at learning technologies and supports over everything else. While this focus is critical, it doesn’t take into account the fact that students enrolling at community and technical colleges need a quality experience both inside and outside the learning environment to support and sustain their success.

While community college students have always been older and outcomes-focused, their expectations as customers are starting to grow and affect their decision-making and opinions on their postsecondary experience.

A modern community college student—whether they’re an adult holding down multiple jobs and caring for a family, or an 18-year-old high school graduate looking for entry-level job skill training—is an experienced customer. Their expectations are set by their engagements with companies like Amazon, who make the shopping experience seamless and straightforward.

Learners today hate to be bogged down by administrative red tape and want to manage their own experiences as much as possible.

These new dynamics mean your community college must pay attention to delivering a modern student experience: One that empowers your students and lets them focus on their education… not the college’s bureaucratic infrastructure. Otherwise, in an already crowded marketplace, you run the risk of losing students–your customers–to competitors, or simply to not enrolling at all.

The following collection of articles and interviews offers perspective into the meaning of student experience, reflects on why your community college must prioritize its delivery, and shares some steps that you can take to ensure your college delivers a top-notch experience.

We hope that these articles provide some context that help you shape your college for the collective success of your college and students.



Amrit Ahluwalia

Managing Editor | The EvoLLLution

How eCommerce Best Practices Impact Student Expectations and Enrollment

Jeff Fanter

Jeff Fanter | Vice President for Enrollment, Communications and Marketing Management, Ivy Tech Community College

How are students’ expectations of their college experience shaped by the experience they get from companies like Amazon and Uber?

eCommerce giants like Amazon and Uber provide an instant response, instant gratification and instant service mindset. Even if something doesn’t arrive immediately, the consumer receives a confirmation that the product or service is on its way. This expectation of immediacy carries over into how students expect things to go when enrolling online.

“When you can do everything else on a phone, from buying a house or a car to getting a hotel room or planning your next vacation, why shouldn’t higher education be moving in the same direction?” 

What are a few other key characteristics of the shopping experience provided by these kinds of eCommerce and industry leaders?

Online retailers take the information that you give them and use it to predict what products you might be looking for, or to recommend products or services you didn’t know you needed through any number of channels, including emails or ads. That kind of targeted marketing is something we all can learn from, because it allows you to serve individuals on their own terms.

Why is it so important to pay attention to the enrollment and registration experience that an institution provides to its prospective learners?

I think it’s fair to say that a student looks at higher education not only as an experience, but also as a commodity. They’re purchasing a product, which is knowledge, and they can choose whether or not to purchase it from our institution. They can choose to go elsewhere. So why wouldn’t we make the purchasing process—that is, the enrollment process—as easy as possible?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete interview here.


Download a paper on how community colleges can deliver better experience through student self-service

Focusing on Customer Service: Higher Education and the “Degree Mill” Debate


Becky Takeda-Tinker | President, Colorado State University—Global Campus

Why is a customer service mentality important for higher education leaders?

Customer service is key for student engagement, retention and completion. With the slower enrollment growth and increased skepticism regarding the value of higher education, institutions need to do more to attract and retain students. To address this, we’re seeing an increase in non-degree, shorter-engagement education. With increased customer service and responsiveness, you can meet the needs of potential customers and generate new student enrollments that you may not otherwise be able to attain.

“Non-traditional students have all these distractions and if they don’t have this level of help and support that they really need, they will not stay in school and they will not graduate. It’s doing nobody any good to get them in and have them fall out.”

What does “customer service” actually mean in the postsecondary context?

Customer service in higher education is the provision of support to help our students stay focused on their educational goals by understanding their needs and working to meet them. That service can include human resource time to make a personal connection with students, to understand their challenges, their goals and their financial and academic abilities.

How do you respond to critics of postsecondary customer service who say institutions that go this route run the risk of becoming “degree mills”?

We hear that from traditional universities, primarily. It’s really interesting because an institution that seeks to help its students with services beyond academic learning is doing just that; helping the students with services that go beyond academic learning. Adopting a customer service mentality is just a more holistic perspective on what it takes to get students to their goals.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete interview here.

The Experience Crisis in Higher Ed: The Value of Experience


David Thomas | Director of Academic Technology, University of Colorado Denver

On any given work day, I put on a tie, head up to the IT floor, amble over to my standing desk in my state-of-the-art open office and set about addressing the challenges of the university using the tools at my disposal.

To some, my department represents a hopeful antidote to the increasingly grim financial reality in higher ed—decreasing state funding, rising tuition and inflating costs. To others, I am not much more than a lever used by administration to pry-up at the floorboards of faculty authority and to pick away at the cladding of academic quality and rigor.

And while neither of these perspectives gets at the real promise or the peril of emerging technologies, both points of view do stand on some hidden truth about what’s happening to the experience of higher education.

“People want more than things or even things handed to them. They want—and often find that they are willing to spend a lot more on—the experience of how that product is served to them.”

The provocative thought that I’ve been mulling for a while now combines classic research on consumer behavior with some straightforward observations about how students think about our institutions to arrive at new way of thinking about, and addressing, the current challenges in higher education.

To get there, we need to talk about a change that has been happening in the consumer market—in our students.

In 1998 B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore borrowed and updated some ideas about consumer behavior, suggesting that people act less like price-maximizing computers and more like people looking for meaningful connections with the world. They dubbed their idea “The Experience Economy” and wrote a book arguing the appeal of experiences was so powerful in our day and age that it signaled a shift in the how our economic markets work.

The Experience Economy is at work on our students too.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete article here.


Download a paper on how community colleges can deliver better experience through student self-service

Delivering a Strong Customer Experience Is No Longer a Choice, But a Necessity


Diane Johnson | Program Director for the The Rocky Mountain Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of Utah

Why does the customer experience stand out more for non-traditional students than for 18- to 22-year-olds, fresh out of high school?

Non-traditional students are usually adults who have life experience and are dealing with day-to-day life challenges. To balance their work and life responsibilities they must prioritize how they use their time and resources.

They view college through the lens of a consumer who is buying a service—and schooling is only one of many services they use. Therefore, exceptional customer service practices are essential to competitiveness for this large segment of the market.

How have advances in the eCommerce space impacted the expectations of non-traditional students when it comes to their postsecondary customer experience?

Advances in the eCommerce space have increased the expectation of high levels of autonomy in managing the fiscal and academic transactions associated with their schooling.

Non-traditional students expect their schools to offer a one-stop technology-hosted self-service space. They expect easy to find and use eCommerce options for application processing, tuition and fee payment, course registration, learning environments, library services, and transcript purchases.

When we’re talking about customer service in the postsecondary context, what are we talking about?

It refers to how institutions view and treat the individuals they serve.

Customer service includes anticipating user experience issues that could create barriers for student success or convenience and eliminating those. Customer service includes eliminating wasteful or inefficient practices that drive up costs and diminish the student experience.

“Academic quality and customer service must go hand in hand. If it doesn’t, the institution should re-examine its policies and practices.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete interview here.

Establishing Culture and Prioritizing the Personal Touch to Deliver a Great Online Experience


Audrey Penner | Vice President of Academic and Student Success, Northern College

We have equated postsecondary education with ivory towers and brick walls, set in idyllic, tree-lined campuses, with peaceful sitting areas. Many people equate a great student experience only with this environment. The truth is learning occurs in many ways and in many forms, and often in spite of us rather than because of us.

Reflecting on what we have learned about the student experience, there are two key components that come to mind.

  1. Establishing Culture

You need to create a culture that values the student experience in the online world. People at all levels of the organization need to be aware of, talk about, and prioritize the student experience, for both online and traditional delivery.

  1. Prioritizing the Personal Touch

The personal touch adds value to every process. Managing admissions, information dissemination and every other administrative process all require some form of personal touch to make the student experience better.

The personal touch does not have to be face-to-face, but it does have to be one-on-one—a personal email, text message or phone call to understand what the student needs and then a follow up to assure the student got what they needed.

If I were in the retail or service industry, this would be called “customer service.” Honestly, customer service is exactly what we at community colleges need to deliver. The difference in a postsecondary environment is that more people (recruiters, admissions, advisors, faculty) are interacting with the student (customer) to ensure the experience (service).

Prioritizing the Online Student Experience

We have lots to do to continue to improve the student experience we deliver. But while the technology for education has moved forward leaps and bounds during my career (I believe my experience goes back to when they discovered fire!), the essence of the student experience has not changed.

Learners want/need to have the institution demonstrate a culture that puts students at the centre and provides the personal touch assuring their needs are met. Both the culture and the personal touch generate better student experiences, which generates better student outcomes, greater retention, and more learning. We are here for students!

This article has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete article here.


Download a paper on how community colleges can deliver better experience through student self-service

Driving the Student Experience through Information Accessibility


Allan Chen | Chief Information Officer, Muhlenberg College

Today’s student experience has numerous component parts all working in tandem to support, inform and drive learners toward success in achieving their goals. Where we once thought of the student experience exclusively through the lens of their classroom experience, and perhaps the clubs and dining opportunities available to them, this way of thinking doesn’t pass muster for today’s learners.

Both traditional and non-traditional learners expect a rigorous academic experience combined with a supportive and responsive bureaucratic experience. They’re used to shopping on Amazon, banking online and using Netflix. Accessing information is second nature for them, and making relevant information available to them on-demand is no longer a positive differentiator—it’s an expectation.

“It has become increasingly important for us to “meet them where they are” rather than forcing them to root through our various systems and interfaces in search of the information they need.”

Responding to the Consumer Expectations of Students

Students behave like customers in that they see information as a commodity that should be easily accessible and readily consumed. They still want the human touch, but students nevertheless expect to be able to find information and services quickly and efficiently. They want action-oriented options so that they can not only access information but then do something with it.

If it’s difficult to find information—whether because it’s not online or is obscured through inefficient access—students will resort back towards options that require a lot more human intervention.

The Value of Improving Information Accessibility for Institutional Staff

At face value, making information more accessible has some pretty direct benefits for our staff as well as our students.

In the past, staff had to work hard to provide information in various places. Web pages proliferated, brochures abounded, and office hours multiplied. Taking this to the next logical level, automation of processes can also free up valuable time for both staff and students. In the same way that easy access to information frees up students to focus on academic work, so does this effort on the staff side allow us to focus on enabling success in teaching and learning. We can spend our energies ensuring student success rather than information dissemination.

The Evolving Role of CIOs in Facilitating this Environment

I don’t think CIOs will ever become information stewards, but we can become advocates for investing in technology that makes information more available.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete article here.

Read our paper and learn how to enable self-service options for your students  and create an Amazon-like experience for them.

Improving the Student Experience through eCommerce: Best Practices for Higher Ed


Lisa Slavin | Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management, Massachusetts Bay Community College

How do companies in the eCommerce space shape customer expectations of the community college?

The most obvious way is the level of instant gratification that these companies provide. It’s embedded in people’s everyday lives. Students are used to the convenience of a click or swipe, and they’ve built this expectation into all aspects of how they use the internet, including for the purposes of higher education.

“Amazon is the perfect example: You know where your order is at every step in the process. For those of us who are older, we can find those expectations frustrating, but we have to recognize that instant gratification is now the norm.”

How can community colleges bring the Amazon experience to their customers, especially when it comes to driving enrollments?

Easy navigation is probably the most important thing to do really well. Amazon’s system is mobile, easily navigable and user friendly. It’s literally click and go. A lot of schools are heavily dependent on their website. If their website isn’t clean and easy to navigate, they’re not going to get very far with new enrollments.

Schools need to consider the website as part of their customer service experience. No matter where they are in the student funnel—whether they’re looking on the website for the first time, enrolling, paying their deposit or checking financial aid—the student has to have a positive customer service experience.

Is there anything that you’d like to add about the importance of taking lessons from the eCommerce space to improve the online experience in higher ed?

It’s always a challenge to find the resources to take on continuous improvement processes. It’s important for enrollment managers to start thinking not only about how to add eCommerce best practices into their budget but also to help their leadership team start to see it as part of their overall strategic plan.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read the complete interview here.

Self-service is a key-enabler for improving customer satisfaction. It is the mantra behind the success of many leading companies today – Amazon, Uber and Grubhub.

Read our paper and learn how you can apply self-service best practices and increase student satisfaction. 

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