The onboarding process has been a pain point for students, and a central student success priority for community colleges for years. Even under the best conditions, hurdles and hang-ups are commonplace, as our experience “secret shopping” the onboarding process at over 100 institutions over the past seven years has revealed. The pandemic has only made the task more challenging exacerbating roadblocks for students—and threatening student success and enrollment goals.
To better understand how community colleges can create a virtual student onboarding experience that quickly and seamlessly guides students to enrollment, we decided to secret shop an institution from the for-profit sector, which in addition to often competing for similar students, has been onboarding students virtually since well before the pandemic.
Here are our three biggest takeaways and action items for community college leaders.
1. Everyone is an advisor
Perhaps the biggest standout from the for-profit student onboarding experience? Every conversation with a frontline staff member felt like an advising discussion, and explicitly referenced the secret shopper’s goals, interests, and future plans. No matter whether the intent of the conversation was to discuss an application, financial aid form, or course availability, the staff member ensured that they connected it to a broader discussion of the applicant’s short- and long-term future.
Each staff member was also very knowledgeable about different stages of enrollment and the student onboarding experience. At many community colleges, institutional silos and lack of inter-office collaboration often means that students have to visit several different offices to have all of their questions answered, rather than communicating with a single point of contact. During the pandemic, that often manifests in several rounds of phone tag and communication delays. Equipping each student-facing staff member with the information and resources to address applicants’ most common concerns reduces friction and helps to sustain momentum.
2. The institution—not the student—is responsible for managing momentum
One of the most common roadblocks from our research team’s secret shopping of community colleges' student onboarding experiences were the delays or dead ends that effectively killed applicant momentum. For example, the legacy requirement of a high school transcript to submit an application can add weeks to the onboarding process, particularly in a largely remote and socially distanced environment where high schools remain closed to the public, and administrative staff time is largely consumed by current students’ immediate needs.
In contrast, the for-profit enrollment process places the burden of creating and sustaining momentum on the institution, rather than the student. Staff regularly follow up in multiple channels (e.g., email, text) after an applicant completes a specific task, like beginning an application. The institution also removes unnecessary barriers like forcing students to provide transcripts in the initial application stage.
3. There’s no such thing as a stealth applicant
One of the most effective practices that for-profit institutions use to draw students in is to require that prospective students provide personal details (e.g., name, contact info) to access valuable and—sometimes even necessary—enrollment information. Once a prospective student has done so, the institution is able to contact them repeatedly to encourage future action or provide help.
Many community colleges wait for prospective students to “raise their hands,” either by applying or submitting a request for more information. However, when we consider the current demands on our students’ attention—including health, financial, and basic needs concerns—it becomes clear that waiting for students to self-identify is an unfair expectation. While we don’t recommend gatekeeping necessary information, incenting students to provide their contact information pre-application gives colleges a head start on recruiting stealth shoppers as well as provide guidance and support for those who may be intimidated or confused by the enrollment process.
If the past year has taught us anything about our students, it’s that the off-campus challenges that many of them face are enormous, and the earlier colleges can reach out and triage some of students’ immediate concerns, the better.
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