Total student experience: a holistic approach to addressing today’s student expectations

Expert Insight

Total student experience: a holistic approach to addressing today’s student expectations

Every university trumpets an improved student experience as a hallmark of its strategic plan for the next decade. This focus aligns well with the raison d’etre of higher education. A meaningful student experience is correlated with many markers of success both during a course of study and beyond: on-time degree completion, workplace preparation, emotional well-being, and more.

Distribution of focus in major student experience assessments

In an era of increased marketisation, attending to the student experience can also boost the institutional brand. Buttressed with improved league table rankings, positive results of regulatory surveys, and good word-of-mouth publicity, universities can craft a compelling message about value in the public square.

Part of the problem is inherent to common student experience assessments: they are oriented around an antiquated view of the student experience, one focused overwhelmingly on teaching and learning, as well as career outcomes. And while universities cannot ease off their efforts in that realm, students are nonetheless bringing to campus a much broader set of expectations that influence their experience—and that leaders must be prepared to address

Despite almost universal agreement on the importance of the student experience, there’s a widespread feeling among higher education leaders that what has worked in the past will not be good enough for the future. Universities have fallen into a game of Whack-a-Mole, chasing after improved performance in a never-ending deluge of surveys.

‘Historically, we have scrambled to respond to poor performance on individual NSS questions. And still our overall satisfaction has declined. We’re obsessed with the NSS—to the point of ignoring everything else. We have to think more holistically.’

Head of Student Experience, UK University

Embracing a holistic approach to student experience

Given students’ increasingly expansive expectations of their university experience, institutions need a new framework for organising and analysing their efforts. Too often, efforts to improve student experience take place in organisational silos. Improving the total student experience requires a holistic approach.

To that end, EAB has articulated six critical aspects of the student experience that institutions must take into account: enrolment, academic, administrative, well-being, social, and career. Elevating each of these areas is not meant to dilute or diminish the importance of teaching and learning or career preparation but instead to contextualise those activities alongside other aspects that influence the total student experience.

Emerging expectations of students in the new decade

Expanded Mental Health and Physical Safety Infrastructure:
‘I struggle with anxiety—what kind of support can you offer me?’

Frictionless, Amazon-Like Customer Experience:
It shouldn’t be so difficult for me to register for next term’s modules.’

Curated, Personalised Enrolment Pathways:
‘I want to feel like more than just another applicant.’

Intentional Physical and Social Environments:
What meaningful interactions can I have on campus?’

Six aspects of the total student experience

Not an either-or choice

This approach does not imply that national student experience survey results don’t matter or that they shouldn’t be monitored and managed. In fact, a strong focus on all dimensions of student experience will complement and support those efforts. Students will respond better to coordinated efforts to improve their holistic experience than they will to one-off solutions that address singular issues identified in a survey.

Snapshots of student experience innovation

In seeking to address the six aspects of the total student experience, institutions will likely encounter structural and cultural roadblocks inherent to the sector’s long-standing tradition of siloed problem-solving and decision-making. Overcoming these hurdles can be accomplished more easily with examples of institutions that have improved aspects of the student experience—and that’s where EAB comes in. Below are just a few snapshots of innovative approaches for bringing a vision of total student experience to life.

Queen’s University (CAN) brought together career services, academic staff, and students to develop course-specific ‘maps’ that chart academic, cocurricular, and career exploration opportunities for every academic programme. The maps are a valuable resource in both recruitment and advising, as well as career pathing for students unsure of the connection between their degree and employment.

San Jose State University (USA) recognised that first-generation and minority students struggled with their transition into higher education. Campus leaders recruited other first-in-family and minority students, academic staff, and alumni to record videos describing their own paths to success at the institution. Videos are shared online through a social media campaign, as well as during new student programming.

Wayne State University (USA) flipped the recruitment process: rather than inviting prospects to campus, leaders took the student experience to them via a VR app and 10,000 university-branded, cardboard headsets. Prospective students could tour campus, ‘attend’ graduation, visit classrooms, and more, boosting the university brand and increasing applicants from outside the region, where recruitment had been more challenging.

Deakin University (AUS) created the Scout wayfinding app to provide students with a portal into a digitally blended campus environment. Scout provides students with the fastest route and step-by-step directions to locations on each of its campuses, even inside buildings and across floors. Scout guides students towards essential facilities and services, such as a quiet place to study as measured by real-time library population density.

Swansea University (UK) accelerates the response to student concerns with the digital platform Unitu, on which thousands of students post feedback on the institution’s operational and strategic decisions. Swansea leaders continually track and address issues and ideas that attract the most attention, leading to concrete progress on projects such as sustainable transportation and student mental health.

University of Leicester (UK) emphasizes collective responsibility for student health and well-being by training every campus services employee—from porters and cleaners to managers and directors—to flag potential student issues. In the Making Every Contact Count campaign, staff use postcard-sized referral forms to quickly escalate any potential concerns for follow-up.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (USA) uses data signals in the learning management system to identify effective instructors. High levels of student engagement and success in the LMS platform often indicate innovative pedagogy; after following up, academic leaders give such instructors a platform to share their approaches with other academic staff, helping good ideas go viral.

Colorado State University (USA) developed the YOU@CSU platform to deliver timely academic and personal support to students by nudging them towards resources that address their specific needs. The mobile-optimised platform uses short ‘Reality Check’ quizzes to assess students’ current state of well-being and provide them with customised support based on any areas of concern, such as stress or physical health.

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