The Customer Experience Central to Today’s Student Experience 

The Customer Experience Central to Today’s Student Experience 


Today’s students no longer fit the mold of an 18-22 year old fresh out of high school. They are non-traditional and the consumer mindset they bring to the table is forcing colleges and universities to change the way they operate.

Where students once allowed the institution to dictate the terms of their experience—everything from where, when, why and how they engaged with the university—this is no longer the reality.

Today, students want to set the terms of their experience. They want more personalization and customization from their institutions. Simply put, they want to enjoy an experience that matches what they have become used to in the consumer world.

According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2019 report on Adult Student Satisfaction and Priorities, non-traditional students don’t have any patience for “the runaround” from their college or university. They expect seamless processes, access to information from the institutional website and contextual service. When an institution can’t deliver on this expectation, it significantly impacts their satisfaction.

This certainly isn’t a new observation. Back in 2014, Marie Cini—now the President of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, but at the time Provost of the University of Maryland University College—shared a similar insight in an interview with The EvoLLLution.

Cini and the team at UMUC were trying to understand why they weren’t achieving a full graduation rate. After all, they’re an online institution designed specifically—from the ground up—to serve adult students. After conducting internal research, they found that the customer experience played a significant role in student retention.

“We lose them when they’ve had approximately three problems with administrative bureaucracy,” she said. “If they call about financial aid and they don’t get an answer they understand and then they stop in and they try to enroll with a face-to-face advisor and then they’re not given accurate information and then one other thing occurs, they leave us. We know that’s an incredible impact on student’s retention and success.”

Fundamentally, according to Cini, students are looking for the same quality of experience from their postsecondary institution as they get from every other customer engagement. After all, they’re not interested in why information might be harder to share in a postsecondary environment.

“Universities can create a better experience for students in terms of the customer service on the business side,” Cini continued. “Students see it as calling and having their questions answered just like we might with a bank so they can get into the educational experience.”

So, what does it take to deliver this kind of tailored, customer-minded experience?

First and foremost, colleges and universities need to adapt their IT infrastructure to create as much self-service functionality for learners as possible. They’re used to driving their own experience when they use services like Amazon, Uber or GrubHub, and postsecondary institutions should strive to match that experience.

“Whether it is the university website, registration information, the course catalog or looking up grades, today’s students, regardless of their generation, want to access these services online, without logging in to multiple systems,” wrote Nancy Rubin, Dean of Continuing and Distance Education at Northwestern Health Sciences University, in an article on The EvoLLLution.

“Universities have to provide students online access to more than just course content in a learning management system. Students need to be able to access administrative systems to choose classes, register and pay for them, lookup their grades, and order their transcripts.”

Second, institutions need to ensure they’re meeting learners where they are… and for non-traditional students, that means online.

“Students expect an online registration experience that is trustworthy and user-friendly,” said Carolyn Young, Director of Continuing Studies at Western University, in an interview with The EvoLLLution.

“Once they’ve registered in a course, students expect the communication between themselves and the continuing ed team, and even the instructors, to be respectful and timely. If they’ve taken several courses from us, they want to be able to go into our system, access those records, print off the grade report and take that to their employer. They don’t want to be jumping through hoops and doing three or four phone calls to get a simple transaction done.”

Colleges and universities today are serving a different kind of learner than traditional postsecondary institutions. Most learners are non-traditional; they’re adults with families and responsibilities outside of their education competing for their time and resources. Frankly, even those that fit the “traditional” age category are digital natives and have experience as consumers in customer-centric environments.

To meet the needs of the modern learner—and to stand out in an increasingly competitive and challenging marketplace—postsecondary institutions need to deliver a customer experience that follows the lead of eCommerce leaders.


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Student Experience

Last updated: February 1, 2021


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