Leaders' Perspectives: Customer Service in Higher Education


The definition of student experience has evolved over time. Traditionally, universities looked at student experience through the lens of providing world-class physical facilities—whether it meant investing in new gymnasiums, cafeterias or even hotel-style dormitories. While these facilities still carry weight for certain student segments, they do not reflect the values or needs of the majority of learners enrolling at universities today.

There are two reasons for this step change: changing student demographics, and the evolution of digital technologies.

Today, nearly half of students are adults, and the majority of these students are classified as non-traditional. This means they have numerous priorities competing for their time and resources, including holding down a job, and caring for a family. The fact of the matter is, though, that it’s not just older students who need something different from the college. “Traditional” (18-22-year-old) students today are digital natives. They’re focused on outcomes and they expect to be able to conduct most of their day-to-day activities (like shopping, banking, ordering food) online.

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 university must realign its focus and pay attention to delivering a modern student experience: One that empowers your students and lets them get focus on their education… not the university’s bureaucratic infrastructure. Otherwise, in an already crowded marketplace, you run the risk of losing students–your customers–to competitors.

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

We hope that these articles provide some context that help you shape your university for the modern era and its students.


Amrit Ahluwalia

Managing Editor | The EvoLLLution

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

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

The following interview is with Becky Takeda-Tinker, President of Colorado State University-Global Campus. In this interview, Takeda-Tinker discusses the "customer service versus diploma mill" debate and shares her thoughts on the importance of treating students as customers.

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

Customer service is key for student engagement, retention and completion leading to graduation. With slowed 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 and 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. 

Read the complete article here.


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

In this interview, Diane Johnson reflects on some of the factors that have led to this shift and shares a few ways that college and university leaders can ensure their institutions are meeting the needs of today’s students.

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 some 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 for universities to be competitive with 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.

How the Amazon Experience is Impacting Students’ Expectations Around Registrations

Belinda Elliott-Bielecki | Director of Marketing and Communications in the College of Extended Learning, University of New Brunswick

In this interview, Belinda Elliott-Bielecki shares her thoughts on how companies like Amazon have shaped learner expectations around the registration experience.

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

Amazon makes it easy to purchase whatever you are looking to buy. The best part is that with just one click, your item is on its way to your door. Amazon allows for the customization and tracking of the purchase process – you can track where your package is and when it will arrive.

“It would be wonderful if university registration and application processes worked similarly, so students can know exactly where they are in the process.”

To your mind, what are a few key characteristics of the shopping experience provided by Amazon?

Companies like Amazon and Uber provide completely online customer service. If there’s a problem, you don’t need to call; you can chat with someone online and get the issue resolved.

They’re also renowned for easy solutions. They don’t fight with customers about nitty-gritty details or get caught up in red tape. They do whatever they can to make the experience a positive one, including refunding orders with minimal effort on the part of the customer.

As a marketing professional, why is it important to pay attention to the enrollment and registration experience the institution provides?

Fundamentally, experience affects reputation. The enrollment and registration process are a direct reflection of the university. Ease of registration demonstrates valued customer service and may aid in the retention of a student.

All the marketing in the world won’t matter if the registration process is too confusing or difficult to navigate.

If universities fail at the enrollment and registration experience, they could lose the customer altogether. This can have a ripple effect as well. Frustrated individuals might tell other people how difficult the process was, thereby persuading even more people not to register.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Read the complete interview here.

Creating a Champagne Experience on a Beer Budget: Delivering on Modern Learners’ Customer Service Expectations

Heather Chakiris | Chief Student Experience Officer, UCLA Extension

In my experience, students’ expectations of what the university should be delivering varies greatly—especially in continuing education, because we serve such a large and diverse audience. These expectations can’t always be explained away as generational differences. Rather, you need to understand your students’ expectations, and you need to want to understand your students’ expectations.

As continuing education becomes increasingly commodified, leaders must understand that program offerings are only part of creating a competitive advantage. If you’re not able to compete on price, you better be able to compete on service.

What companies like Amazon and Uber get right is they start with human-centered design.

Amazon and Uber start with their desired customer experience. From there, they look at the processes and workflows needed to deliver that experience. Finally, they select the technology (or technologies) that will facilitate the processes required to deliver a seamless service experience. In the majority of cases, however, higher education does the opposite.

Four Key Characteristics of the Shopping Experience Provided by eCommerce Leaders:


1. Machine Learning and Predictive Commerce

Can you imagine your Amazon Alexa knowing which classes to register you for, then paying for them with your credit card on file–all without having to drive to the Registrar’s Office or log in to the campus website.

2. High-Quality Online Shopping Experience

Amazon’s transactional and shopping cart experiences are also a plus. Their design of the purchase process is clean and intuitive. Items stay in your cart even if you end the shopping session without completing a purchase. The whole process is easy.

3. Empowered Staff

The service agents are clearly empowered to make decisions regarding issues. In some cases that means not charging for a digital download; in others, it means sending another item at no cost.

4. Customer Reviews

Reviews are another powerful part of the Amazon shopping experience. Customers are more likely to trust the experiences of other customers over the sales pitch from the company.

Delivering the Amazon Experience in the Postsecondary Environment

The notion of students as customers is anathema to many ears, for sure, but I encourage my colleagues to embrace it in the context of continuing education. Adult learners are shopping education providers like never before, especially with the rise of for-profit institutions.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

Read the complete article here.


Student-Centricity and the Amazon Experience: Evolving IT to Meet Students’ Expectations

Jack Chen | Chief Information Officer (Retired), Adelphi University

In this interview, Jack Chen shares his thoughts on the key steps that must be taken for a college or university to be truly student-centric.

Why is it so important that universities today are able to deliver easy-to-find information on-demand to students?

Today’s college students expect access to information anywhere and anytime. Given that students can easily and quickly transfer bank funds or purchase an airline ticket, it is understandable that they want on-demand academic information.

Students also lead busy lives outside of college. In fact, students believe that a majority, if not all, of campus services should be available online 24/7.

How does creating this level of information accessibility impact administrative services?

While on-demand accessibility is convenient for students and the administrative staff, it also offers another significant benefit to a university: reduces operating costs. As colleges and universities set a priority of reducing operational costs, streamlining administrative services takes on new urgency.

What does the importance of making information accessible on-demand say about the changing nature of students?

In today’s world, students, like everyone else, want information in a nanosecond. And the administrative aspect of college—registering for classes, completing forms—is something students want taken care of immediately. Furthermore, students have become accustomed to the Amazon model of access and services. They want to be treated like customers with excellent customer service.

Students expect that completing their course registration should be similar to an Amazon shopping experience: It should be fluid, easy and transparent.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To read the complete interview, click here.

Flexibility and Personalization: How CE Can Evolve to Meet the Needs of Millennial Professionals

Steven VandenAvond | Vice President of Extended Learning and Community Engagement, Northern Michigan University

Most commonly accept that Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, putting the oldest well into adulthood and the youngest on the cusp of entering the working world after college. As such, Millennials are firmly in the target audience for continuing education.

Meeting the complex needs of a unique generation with an education sector that is undergoing immense change is going to challenge all of higher education.

Understanding the Expectations Millennials Bring to their CE Experience

When considering Millennial expectations for higher education institutions, it’s important to remind ourselves of the lived experience that Millennials share, as well as some of the general expectations and values that they seem to hold:

More Interested in Fit than Brand Loyalty

Millennials are less loyal to companies and more interested in finding employment that fits their values and lifestyle. Millennials expect to be able to learn not only when and where they want, but also to be able to structure and customize their learning experiences in ways that fit their personal preferences.

Looking For Creative and Personalized Models

Millennials’ experience of the world, especially as young adults, is just-in-time/as-needed. Millennials not only expect to be able to learn in their own time and in their own way; they also expect support services to be readily available.

Less Value in Traditional Credentials than in Competencies

Millennials are less concerned with traditional credentials and getting in line to climb the corporate ladder and are more interested in competencies. Not only will they expect to be taught by experts who can teach them to apply what they learn, but they will also expect competencies to be more important than traditional seat time.

How CE Divisions Can Adapt to Meet These Expectations

Here are a few key thoughts to bear in mind when it comes to serving the Millennial working professionals, who have a greater need for ongoing education than any previous generation:

  • Allow students to be creative in their own educational journey by offering student-designed credentials, alternative assessment methods, etc.
  • Use technology, but in meaningful ways. For example, use artificial intelligence and learning analytics to help tailor the learning experience to the individual.
  • Develop quick-response support systems, even if responses don’t immediately address an issue.
  • Allow for “just-in-time” learning models where students learn at times, in places, and in increments that fit their immediate learning needs.
  • Make sure that any educational programming (credit or non-credit) is applied and tied to some sector of the workforce.
  • Develop robust prior learning assessment systems.
  • Explore competency-based programming (both credit-based and direct assessment)

Additionally, it is imperative that CE divisions meet the Millennial generation where they are: online. This has significant implications not just on programming, but on marketing and enrollment functions as well.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. 

Read the complete article here.


Student Centricity and the Modern University: Rooting the Student Experience in Data

James Broomall | Associate Provost for Professional and Continuing Studies (Retired), University of Delaware

In this interview, James Broomall shares his thoughts on the critical role data plays in supporting student centricity and the personalized student experience today’s learners expect.

How can leaders leverage data analysis to help improve the personalization, relevance and timeliness of information being delivered to students?

We’re almost overrun with data, and we have to figure out what to do with it. If you have 30 people in the class, does that mean there are 30 personalized experiences? What you’re really trying to look for are trends, or repeating data. Relevance and timeliness are both also critical today, especially in programs that teach rapidly changing material.

How can data be leveraged to really create a student-centric institution?

Our business model is based on market economy. To survive, we’ve always focused on getting students enrolled, but now we have to focus just as much on the quality of the experience once they’re here, and data can help us do that.

The other thing we look at pretty closely is repeat customer data. We looked at the data and we find that we have a high percentage of repeat customers, which suggests to us that they’ve had a positive experience.

"The whole thing about data-informed decision-making is not getting overwhelmed by the data and using that data strategically."

How does that information inform the approach you take to managing a division?

Because of that data we’ve changed our marketing approach. We track analytics every single day across our 12 certificate programs. For these programs we have two major enrollment cycles—spring and fall—with start dates staggered over six weeks.

By tracking everything, we found we were under-performing in the first four weeks of the enrollment cycle and over-performing in the last two weeks. Now we roll out our marketing plan in the final two weeks, rather than across the whole six-week period.

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


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