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Self-service students: How digital services are supporting student success

Picture an exhausted mother in her 30s, juggling her family life and a demanding job, while still trying to squeeze enough hours into the week to hit the books and attend her college classes.

This is the reality of education for many older students, as student bodies diversify. Yet education institutes have been slow to adapt to changing demographics. The result is what Bill Gates describes as America’s “tragic” drop-out rate.

A diverse student body – with a diverse set of challenges  

Writing for the Washington Post, President Emeritus of Michigan State University, Peter McPherson, noted that the “traditional” college student, aged between 17 and 21, actually only makes up around half the modern student body.

“More than a quarter of students are between 22 and 29 while another 20 percent are 30 or older,” McPherson wrote.

As a result, a ‘one size fits all’ approach – generally aimed at a younger audience – is no longer the way to engage with students and ensure they are adequately supported when the going gets tough.

And the issues go beyond age, with McPherson also noting, “Some 70 percent of students work while attending college, with a quarter of students in higher education handling a full course load while holding down full-time work.

“More than a quarter of college students have children, while an untold number are caregivers for other loved ones such as ill parents or elderly grandparents.”

With so many students engaged in employment and caring for others, this is a student population that requires a level of flexibility that the old model – attend class in person or risk flunking out – simply does not cater for.

An on-demand education

More than just requiring a level of flexibility in their weekly schedule, the student of 2019 demands it!

The likes of Spotify, Netflix and Uber have helped to create an on-demand economy and streamlined what used to be cumbersome procedures. Yet one of the most important processes in a person’s life – getting a good education – remains mired in legacy systems and complex bureaucracy.

As a result, rather than simply focussing on their studies, students are forced to spend precious time wrapping their minds around an institutional structure.

What’s more, oftentimes students haven’t had to deal with a bureaucracy of this size before – particularly for students who are the first in their family to attend college.

This demographic makes up one-third of the student body according to NCES figures. Yet, despite making up such a large proportion of the populace, Georgetown University history professor Marcia Chatelain said the college experience is “not designed with them in mind”.

“It's not you, it's the system that is rigged," Dr Chatelain recently told U.S. News & World Report of first-generation students.

So how do students facing such struggles go from feeling overwhelmed and under-serviced to graduating magna cum laude? It’s obviously a multi-faceted answer but making access to support programs and resources both clear and convenient is key.

A single portal providing multiple solutions

Universities are now embracing student portals – one-stop shops that are accessed by a single sign-on, are mobile-friendly, and can be personalized to both the college and each individual student based on their classes, timetables, tutors’ availabilities, fee due-dates and other specific needs.

Importantly, while they integrate with a complex back-end, these portals are designed around the student context. They act as a shield, only serving up content relevant to what the student needs – navigating the still-necessary bureaucracy for them but blocking the aspects that would only serve to confuse.

What’s more, a best-in-class portal also benefits faculty and admin staff by giving advisors the tools and visibility needed to be more efficient and effective in driving student success.

Take, for example, monitoring early alert systems. By simply checking the portal, an advisor can keep an eye on whether a student is displaying the kind of behaviors that suggest dropping out is imminent – such as failing multiple exams or attending fewer and fewer classes – and then offer more personalized help when a student needs more than a portal can offer.

And the personal touch makes such a difference! As Northwestern University’s Mesmin Destin reported, “It is a long-standing empirical finding that students who have discussions and informal contact with faculty outside of class time are less likely to drop out of college.”

As the actual delivery of classes grows increasingly varied, a well-developed portal makes for a smooth, seamless student and staff experience.

Just as there is no longer one type of student, nor can there be only one way to support them. By harnessing the power of data and digital technology, universities may finally have the solution to one of their most vexing problems.

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