Are You as Student-Centric as You Think You Are?

A few weeks ago, Inside Higher Education ran an article describing a survey of course catalogs from 30 Community Colleges. The survey* found the catalogs were bulky, hard to use, with lots of policy and industry jargon. The texts were dense, written by academics for academics. New students found it difficult to understand what classes they needed for their majors, what the costs were, what each class contained, or how it was delivered.

I am sure the administrators for each of those colleges would identify as student-centric and committed to their students’ success but think about a student who is the first in their family to attend college, who has no knowledge of college jargon, where to go to get their questions answered, or that they even could go anywhere to get answers.

For these students, the catalog is a hurdle, not a path. Here, at the first step of many students’ college career, they must climb over a wall constructed by the very same administrators claiming to be committed to their success.

Hidden Hurdles

Being student-centric is not about installing software. It is about developing a constant, relentless focus on the student at every step of every process. It means keeping eyes open for barriers that we as administrators, teachers, and consultants, unknowingly create (like the course catalog.) To be truly student-centric, we need to have a clear understanding of our students’ needs and get rid of the hidden hurdles we have mistakenly overlooked.

How can you find these hidden hurdles?

  • Firstly, and most obviously, ask your students. Talk to all different types of students; older students, ethnic students, mid-career students, 18-year-olds, veterans, and students with physical challenges. Don’t ask how they interact with your technology. Ask about their experience in your institution from beginning to end. Ask how they interact with your school, your processes, and your people. Have the courage to ask what they find difficult and the integrity to listen to their answers.
  • Secondly, complete the business process yourself as if you were a student. Don’t read the procedure or ask a staff member—complete the process as a student would. For example, travel the road your students must follow to register for a semester. Read your catalog, figure out what classes you need to take for your major, and try to enroll. Call the help desk and ask a question. Pay your fee. What was your experience? What went well and what didn’t? What can you change? Step into the shoes of your students and watch your organization transform.
  • Thirdly, bring in a third-party to help you look for hidden hurdles in policy, processes, and technology. Do you make your students go to different places to solve parts of the same problem? Do you have a process in place to keep the same problem from happening again? A fresh perspective can identify issues that you had previously been blind to.

Ask Yourself “Why?”

Don’t leave a process in place because “we’ve always done it this way.” The goal is to make each process as frictionless for the student as possible. One way to do this is to ask “Why?” 5 times. The “5 Whys” is an iterative but powerful technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda. It is based on the idea you can’t arrive at the root cause of a problem or a process until you ask a “why” question at least five times.

For example, when examining a step in your registration process you might ask, “Why does the student fill out this paper form?” The answer might be “We need the information.” Then ask, “Why do you need this information?” Repeat this sequence of “whys” and answers and by the fifth “why” you have either discovered the form is vital or its not needed at all.

If the information is needed, find out if it is captured somewhere else and you can keep the student from having to fill out a form. If it isn’t needed you can get rid of the form and reduce friction for both students and staff. Either way you have released the time and energy spent on supporting a form to supporting a student.

Software Enables, But People Transform

Becoming a student-centric institution is a journey, not a destination. Installing “student success” software is only one step along the way. Software only enables what you currently do. By itself, software won’t eliminate the barriers your students must overcome and transform your institution. People drive transformation. Being truly student-centric is a result of everyone in your faculty, staff, and administration seeing your institution through your students’ eyes and having the power to remove every barrier they find—no matter how steeped in tradition it is. Only then can you transform into a student-centric institution.

* The survey was completed by Terry O’Banion is a senior professor of practice at Kansas State University and president emeritus of the League for Innovation in the Community College. Cindy Miles is a professor of practice at Kansas State University and chancellor emerita at Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District. Rick Voorhees, principal and senior scholar with the Voorhees Group, for assistance in identifying their research study sample.