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The Student Experience In Higher Education Goes Digital

3 students take a selfie at their college graduation

In the post-pandemic era, providing a great student experience in higher education has never been so important.

Undergraduate college enrollment is plunging, with some calling the decline a crisis posing serious economic effects.

Surveys show Americans are increasingly pessimistic about whether a college degree is worth it at all, fueled by post-pandemic wariness and soaring student debt.

The swirl of challenging data leaves schools competing fiercely for a shrinking pool of students. All of which makes the student experience more vital than ever.

So what are institutions of higher education – some of whom traditionally resisted viewing students as customers – doing to get them to campus and give them great experiences once they arrive? And which of those experiences are most memorable to students?

Many colleges and universities are trying to meet students where they are.

Recognizing the power of TikTok for young people, for example, the University of South Dakota established a dynamic presence on the platform featuring a student named Riley. On Star Wars Day, he dressed up as Darth Vader and surprised students by challenging them to campus lightsaber duels. He also started a “make me laugh” challenge in which students could win free school swag.

The results: nearly 11 million views across 93 videos – and an engaged student body.

The University of California Los Angeles took advantage of another digital-fueled student experience trend: enlisting social media influencers or brand ambassadors to talk up the institution. One such influencer, Paris Sumpter – known by her YouTube name LeSweetpea – attracted more than 100,000 subscribers with videos of her dorm room and other aspects of campus life.

“People would approach me at events and tell me, ‘You are the reason I decided to go to UCLA,’” she said. “Or they’d say, ‘Your videos helped me make a decision.’”

Keeping Pace With Today’s Students

Though universities have long marketed themselves to attract students, some at elite institutions resisted viewing those efforts through the prism of customer experience, believing it might sacrifice academic integrity.

But that institutional resistance has gradually given way to the changing realities of today’s student body, which is far from the traditional image of 18-year-olds living away from home for four years. Data published last year shows that about a quarter of undergraduates now attend non-public institutions; about 20 percent of those students attend for-profit institutions.

That means that the majority of today’s students are considered non-traditional and may have to work or even care for a family. And the younger students are “digital natives” who “expected to be able to conduct most of their day-to-day activities… online.”

Into these troublesome trends came the COVID-19 pandemic, which triggered a reassessment of the value of higher education – and led to a record eight percent drop in undergraduate college enrollment from 2019 to 2022.

To keep pace, experts say colleges and universities must deliver stronger customer experience than ever – and adapt that experience to the student body of today. Thus the student experience in higher education – especially the digital experience – has become a crucial differentiator.

Examples of Unique Student Experience In Higher Education

For many, that means a digital focus, both for recruiting and retaining students. One survey showed that “communicating with schools digitally is the most important support factor for prospective students” and that 88% of students want the option of using different channels to connect with schools.

At the University of Notre Dame, a “Be Notre Dame” promotional video has won plaudits as short, punchy, and professionally produced. The Fighting Irish are among many institutions seizing on video’s “prominent role in how universities are portraying and positioning their brands to prospective applicants, current students, and alumni.”

The University of Michigan runs a separate website for athletics featuring exclusive content, while an a cappella group at the University of Oregon attracted more than 7 ½ million views for its arrangement of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

Other schools use immersive, guided virtual tours to walk prospective students through campus.

While many universities are using TikTok to showcase various parts of campus life, traditional non-digital student experience efforts remain a focus as well.

One study of colleges that offer the best student life experience hailed such features as Yale University’s Office Of International Students and Scholars and the “eco-friendly” campus at California State University Northridge, which offers “everything students could need – cutting-edge equipment, friendly and welcoming staff, and an abundance of school spirit.”

For-profit colleges also focus on student experience and are known for their savvy marketing tactics and television ads, memorably satirized by The Simpsons. Studies have found that for-profit schools far outspend public institutions on advertising.

The flexible, career and technical-focused curriculum that this outreach highlights has allowed some non-traditional students to obtain needed degrees and solid jobs, as students recalled when speaking to the authors of a study of for-profit career colleges in Florida.

Other students remember more traditional components of the college experience when talking about their schools, including sunny days in the quad, meeting new people, singing in student choirs, and taking fun classes.

As in most other industries, it’s hard to compete on price in higher education, and the “product” being sold is arguably similar across many schools. What’s left, then, is the student experience – one of the single best ways to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

Focusing on all aspects of the student experience – from the application process to the graduation ceremony, and everything in between – is the best way to attract more new students in a particularly competitive space.

This is part of a series of industry articles featuring customer experience examples that any company can use. 

Photo by RUT MIIT on Unsplash.

For more: Viewing the Customer Experience Through Your Customers’ Eyes

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