To help identify chief pain points in community college online enrollment, my colleagues and I went undercover as prospective students, applied to community colleges, and attempted to complete as many onboarding steps as possible within a 5- to 7-day window. We’ve performed these virtual secret shopper audits at over 100 institutions at the request of their leadership. In this post, I’ll share what we learned and the steps you can take to overcome the two biggest hurdles we found.
Audits are available to partners of EAB's Strategic Advisory Services for Community Colleges. EAB researchers do not audit without prompting from the institution.
- 180 enrollment audits performed
- All regions (West, Midwest, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast) included
- Audits performed for a range of institution types, including community college systems, Hispanic-serving institutions, and minority-serving institutions
How to address the 2 biggest hurdles in virtual enrollment
Community colleges have made significant improvements to enrollment navigation and available prospective student information in recent years. Many have enhanced their websites to become more prospect-friendly by using prominent calls to action and providing tailored content to optimize the onboarding experience.
Despite these improvements, pain points in the remaining onboarding steps persist. Our research revealed that these two onboarding steps continue to pose the largest hurdles to prospective students: complex admission requirements and underutilization of advising services. Here’s what you can do.
1. Simplify admission requirements
At many community colleges, prospective students must take several tedious steps to complete the enrollment process. For example, students may be asked to track down official high school transcripts, complete 3-4 hours’ worth of placement testing, or upload sensitive documents. These requirements are often unclear, forcing students to navigate through several subpages on the website and make multiple phone calls to the admissions office. These steps are often prerequisites to receiving an official acceptance and student ID number, which can discourage students and delay their progress toward enrollment.
Multiple complicated steps, coupled with a lack of easy-to-understand information about how to accomplish them, create unnecessary barriers for students to complete the onboarding process and make it to the first day of class.
Here are three recommendations to help simplify your admission requirements:
- Clearly detail admission requirements on your website, and make sure students can easily find them. It is helpful for students to have this information located in several places, so include links to it in your pre-enrollment messaging as well.
- Allow leniency in transcripts and placement testing. Since obtaining official high school transcripts can be difficult and time-consuming, consider accepting unofficial transcripts while a student waits for the official transcript to be submitted.
- Consider including self-reported transcript surveys in your admission requirements. These questionnaires enable students to provide institutions with relevant math, reading, and writing coursework information while simplifying the admissions process.
2. Encourage all new students to attend an advising session
Advising is the most important step in the enrollment process, as it is often the first time a student receives one-on-one help from the institution. Advisors help students register for courses, find answers to specific questions, and obtain tailored resources. Despite its significance, advising is often excluded from a student’s step-by-step onboarding list. Students must proactively know to schedule an advising appointment—quite a big assumption for first-time-in-college or first-generation students. But even if they do know to take this step, students are often unable to schedule those meetings due to a lack of advisor availability.
Many community college students are first-generation, first-time-in-college, and juggling competing priorities. A lack of direction to schedule an advising appointment—or a lengthy wait time to get one—can significantly impact their persistence to enroll.
Here are three recommendations to ensure students attend advising sessions and that they are productive:
- Make advising a mandatory onboarding step. This demonstrates the importance of advising and enables students to plan ahead.
- Automatically schedule an advising appointment for a student after they complete their application. This puts the student on a path to quick completion and increases the likelihood of successful matriculation.
- Create a script or a list of questions for advisors who work with first-time-in-college students. This ensures that advisors don’t forget to share any important information (e.g., full time vs. part time, external time commitments) and takes the burden off the student to know who to ask.
Make virtual onboarding easier for prospective students
While our secret shopper research found that community colleges have made meaningful improvements to streamline enrollment processes, there is still more work to be done. A lack of onboarding clarity can frustrate prospective students and cause them to end their application prematurely.
Simpler admission requirements, coupled with transparent, intentional advising processes, will lessen friction in the onboarding experience and help more students get registered for their first day of class.
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