EAB’s Madeleine Rhyneer and Ed Venit discuss the impact of the staffing crisis on student advising. The two urge student success leaders to use the current crisis as an impetus to adopt a more technology-forward approach to strengthen early warning systems and use time devoted to one-on-one student advising sessions to greater effect.
Ed and Madeleine also offer a preview of CONNECTED22, the premier student success conference happening in Orlando this November.
0:00:11.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we examine ways to use student success technologies as a force multiplier in the ongoing battle to keep your students on track. Our experts talk about the silver lining amidst the staffing crisis and offer ways to use the current challenge as an opportunity to build a team that embraces technology instead of fearing it. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.
0:00:42.3 Madeleine Rhyneer: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Madeleine Rhyneer, and I'm back on the podcast to talk about how the staffing crisis is impacting more frontline staff. You may be more familiar than you'd like to be with the challenges of figuring out how to get your jobs done without a full team. And today we're gonna focus on how that's playing out for the dedicated professionals tasked with advising, supporting and retaining current students. I'm joined by my great colleague and friend, Ed Venit, to discuss strategies that help students stay on track. Ed has great ideas that will help your student success team be more agile and effective, regardless of circumstance. Hey Ed, welcome back to Office Hours.
0:01:22.4 Ed Venit: Alright. Hello, Madeleine. Thank you very much for the intro. And just a quick for the audience, if you don't know me, I lead our Student Success research here at EAB. And you and I have a chance to talk quite often these days about enrollment questions in general, as that impacts both the incoming recruiting students and also retaining students. That's enrollment overall. But recently, we've been talking a lot about human capital, which is something, of course, that's shared by both our worlds. The need for actual human interaction between school and prospect or school and student is still something that's very, very real in 2022.
0:02:05.0 EV: And so you and I have talked a little bit about some of the new work that we have around just how to help a middle manager, an AVP or a director support a team in general. And there's a lot of similarities between admissions teams and advising teams, advising being, what are the core parts of student success support. I think we got to the conclusion that there was a lot of similarities there and usefulness. So, I'm wondering if you can, you tell a little bit about your thoughts on that.
0:02:35.3 EV: So I know that you've been out there talking to admissions teams about how to support their staff, grow their teams, keep everything going at this time. So tell me a little bit about this. You've also led a lot of successful teams, of course, in your own life, both in admissions and also as a Gallup coach. So, yeah, what would you tell a frontline manager about how to keep their teams together in this difficult environment, and what advice could you offer them?
0:03:02.5 MR: Hey Ed, you know that this is a subject I'm truly passionate about because as a certified Gallup coach, I have put a ton of effort into coaching and mentoring teams. It's incredibly rewarding work and it creates opportunities in environments where the team is really sticky and they support one another and feel great about the work that they're doing. I will tell you that being a great supporter of your staff won't eliminate turnover, particularly in a hot job market, but it may persuade some members to continue because they are recognized and valued for doing the work that they love to do.
0:03:34.7 MR: So a couple of ideas to help our listeners think about the teams that you're coaching and mentoring. First of all, I would say in an era of constrained resources, please talk to each individual and find out what they love about their work, and also get their feedback about things that they might change if it were possible. Often, people in the trenches have great ideas about improving their streamlining processes. And I have to say, don't just ask. You have to truly listen to what they're telling you. This isn't like a window dressing conversation. This is a, "I deeply care about you and what you're thinking because I bet together, our team is gonna come up with some great ideas if we need to make some changes."
0:04:12.5 MR: And if you end up building a plan for change, you wanna be really transparent about what you've included and things that aren't moving forward and why, so people don't feel like, "Well, yeah, I shared all these great ideas with you, but then nothing happened and you never let me know." Second of all, I would say even though it's incredibly time-consuming, you need to have a meaningful touchpoint with every person that's on your team at least once a week. It could be a conversation about work, it could be about their family or something personal. It doesn't matter. But these relationships that you develop that are not just around the jobs and tasks to be done are very important in terms of team effectiveness and teams feeling valued.
0:04:51.0 MR: I have this phrase that I use, it's called, "Soon, certain and positive." When you say to somebody, "Good job," it's a total throwaway phrase. It doesn't mean anything. So, "soon" means in the moment or as soon as possible thereafter. "Certain" means really specific. "Hey, I saw that student come in yesterday who was in crisis. I saw how you went out and engaged with her. I saw that immediately her stress started to be reduced because she knew he was a caring individual who was gonna help her navigate the difficulties, and I want you to know how much I appreciated what you did, that you made a really big difference in the life of that student yesterday afternoon, and that matters."
0:05:27.6 MR: And then finally, "celebrate." Everybody needs an opportunity to celebrate, and I often think, and I would fault myself for this, I'm so busy doing my job that I don't take time to stop and smell the roses along the way and celebrate the good moments, 'cause there's always another task to be completed. But your team will tell you and individuals, what are the milestones that matter to them? How is it that you can engage them? Is it at like a pitch-in party at lunch? Is it a pizza party? Is it a barbecue for family members where people pitch in so that you can see people with families? Whatever it is, find things that matter to your team and find ways that will be fun for them to celebrate and step up.
0:06:04.3 MR: But that's enough for the overall team advice. Ed, I know that you've been studying this issue as it relates to Student Success efforts and that is staffing writ large. So what are you hearing from the schools that you're working with about how staffing challenges are impacting their ability to identify struggling students and help keep them on track?
0:06:24.7 EV: Yeah, we'll look at the other side of the coin. Let's look at the success in just a moment. I was reflecting a little bit on what you were just saying. You guys haven't talked about this too much, but I was an admissions officer for two years, straight out of undergrad. And that second bit you said about the meaningful touchpoints with each staff member, I remember that being a really important part of the experience for me as a relatively, just new to the workforce, in a role that I felt was pretty important. I had a lot of responsibilities and I felt that I was kind of faking it till I make it at that age, if you will, [laughter] doing the best I can. But there were a number of people in that office who had been around for a long time, and there were a bunch of them and they all served as mentors and really spent time with me whenever I asked for it to help coach me up on how to live into that role and I had... I look back on that even fondly now. Those were really meaningful moments.
0:07:24.5 EV: But let's talk a little bit about success. So when we... I need to tell you a bit about the landscape of what we work with in EAB. Of course, we have student success technologies, Navigate and Starfish, that are labor extenders, but there's human capital at the bottom of that. We need users. The users are what works here because those are the advisors and support people, the faculty, the students themselves, and if you have fewer of those folks, you just can get less done. Over the course of the last decade, we've really pushed hard for schools to hire more online advisors. The 300:1 student caseload ratio was something that was a kind of an aspirational goal for many schools 10 years ago that became normal before the pandemic, and a lot of schools reached those ratios, helping a lot of students as a result.
0:08:20.6 EV: Now we've kind of gone backwards. So let's talk a little bit about some of the numbers. At one point during the pandemic, higher ed overall was down 11% in its staffing. We were one of the more impacted industries out there. And you might have been looking around, seeing a lot of empty seats, or maybe not as many people on Zoom, as the case would have been at the time. We've largely recovered, but schools find themselves in, at least with the success staffing in kind of three places: Either they still have a lot of openings they're trying to fill, and maybe they are waiting for budget or whatever it might be; they are actively hiring, in which case, they're spending a lot of time on that as opposed to working with students; or they have a whole bunch of new folks suddenly right there and you're spending a lot of time on training, but also maybe worried about some of the institutional knowledge that left in that group. So that's the kind of landscape that we hear. Everybody's kind of in one of those stages; find yourself on this map, so to speak. But regardless, the answers are gonna be the same for each 'cause it's kind of a maturity curve, if you will. You move through those stages.
0:09:30.4 MR: Got it. So you know more about early warning systems and student success software than most people I know. Could you talk about how these systems work, how widely they've been adopted, how well they're understood, and then actually used by staff and by students?
0:09:46.9 EV: Yeah, I brought up the landscape about a decade ago because it's actually a little bit similar right now. When these technologies first entered the landscape, 2010-ish, there were a bunch of them and they were certainly in that game. Well, the way we were talking about it back then, it's very applicable now. You have lots of students, they have challenges. You can't just ask every student, "How do I help you?" and be with them all the time. You don't have enough time for that. And so instead, let's try to use sensing mechanisms to direct our efforts. One of the best ones, and has been consistently, and will become even more important in the future, was looking for students who are struggling academically in the classroom.
0:10:32.7 EV: That's one of the bases of these systems. If you have an advising core that is not just simply about picking classes but is about student support, knowing where to direct their efforts is really essential, and getting faculty to highlight students who are struggling in their classes, they're not sure what to do to help, they can refer them to you. Well, that instantly focuses your efforts. So if you are short on staff or trying to help staff understand, new staff understand what their job is, this is a great place to start 'cause you know that you're getting... The minutes you're spending on it, the time that you're spending in the day, you're getting a lot of value out of that. So just in terms of finding the students at all, it's really interesting and important.
0:11:15.3 EV: Another thing that you can use technology for is re-balancing your time. And let me explain that in a little bit broader terms. For a few years now, we've been talking about this idea of population health management, which we blatantly stole from the healthcare industry, but for similar reasons. Patients have different needs. Some patients have very high needs, other folks are totally fine, and it's an annual check-up type thing. Maybe you don't even... [chuckle] Nothing comes up during those check-ups and you're more of a WebMD consumer. And so you could see very, very different weights required. The healthcare industry would absolutely fail if we try to treat every single patient as if they were exactly the same. Yet that's our approach to students often, even though we know that a lot of them have very, very elevated needs and the others are...
0:12:07.4 EV: I mean, if you ever thought about a student, you're like, "Gosh, I just wasted 30 minutes in that meeting because they had all the answers, they were ready to go, that wasn't a good use of either of our time." Well, tech can help you create those re-balancings. So if you can use technology either with an early warning system to identify who might be at risk, or a predictive model that can scale students based on their likelihood to return, and then you can direct support to the students with more likelihood, or any other number of other mechanisms. Very, very useful for sort of stratifying students into different tiers of care so that you're spending your time with the students who need it most.
0:12:47.8 EV: And then really the last thing I wanna say here is like you've really never had enough staff [laughter] to do this. Ideally, we would have caseloads that were much, much, much smaller because you can always get smaller. Students always need more help. And so every single school out there needs to get a little bit better about using technology to extend their messaging and efforts. We are, if we're really honest and we're looking in the mirror, pretty bad at mass communication relative to the rest of the world. Your world over there in admissions Madeleine, is probably the best. Maybe the athletics department at some places is even better depending on their social media game.
0:13:27.6 EV: But overall, institutions aren't terribly good at this sort of thing. And we've identified a couple of different areas where, with a little bit of effort, you can pull yourself into the 21st century with these sort of things. So having a really coordinated communication strategy that uses multiple avenues like text messages, or sometimes social media, if that's appropriate. Those were important things. We oftentimes don't have our communication strategies oriented towards kind of high-value things that can be solved by students themselves, and here I'm talking about logistical things, a bursar hold, you gotta get registered, you gotta fill out a form, whatever it might be.
0:14:08.3 EV: We can mass communicate to students, but oftentimes, we're trying to deal with those in the moment because we didn't tell them how to do it, and of course they don't know themselves that they have to do things. And that leads to another thing, which is connecting students with self-service. Doesn't do very much good to tell a student to go fix a problem on their own if it's really, really hard for them to fix it. And this is where we have to remember that students are humans. And just like all the rest of us, a annoying customer service experience is an annoying customer service experience. And so the more streamlined and easier you can make it from a self-service standpoint, the more likely it is that they're gonna take your advice to heart and go do the thing that you told them to do. And then lastly, we encourage schools to really be focused on the first year with these efforts. That's where the most question is gonna be. And it's where you're spending most of your human time, so using that as a moment to also spend a lot of your messaging time and really guiding students in a scalable way through the first year, that's really key. So all these together are ways for schools to extend the in-person conversation through all the media you have available and create more touchpoints with students, regardless of how many staff you have. This is a good idea.
0:15:22.9 MR: I really appreciate what you were saying about the student experience and the multiple touchpoints, because when you think about these digital natives we're working with, their whole user experience is driven by sites like Amazon, where they work really hard to eliminate all of the barriers to taking the action that they want you to take. And colleges of course, don't have the same motivation to create that kind of streamline, reduced barriers, use language. You actually used the word "bursar". I swear to heaven that there is not one kid in high school right now who knows what a bursar is [laughter] and they like to get into college, and they don't either. So I think this idea of streamlining processes matters. But really to get to the heart of what you were talking about, how is it that you can balance the use of technology, and I mean effective technology in ways that are intuitive for students and mass communication with that intensive in-person advising to make sure that students really do understand that there is a real human being at the university who's listening to them and is ready to help?
0:16:23.3 EV: Yeah, well, we've done a lot of work on this over the course of the last few years, including around... The specific words you use in your messaging is really important. And if you have very generic... Well, you brought that up, the jargon that we use. What the heck's a bursar? Right? I don't even know that I knew that until I started this job. [laughter] What is this thing? Versus like, "You owe us money, pay this person right here at this place." A student will understand that. [laughter] Let's de-jargon by it. There's oftentimes a deficit language that comes in these messages that we really need to be mindful of. "You're a bad person because you owe us money. Now go make yourself a good person," versus, "Hey, we're here to support you. We noticed this thing. If you are having trouble paying, then come talk to us, we have lots of options. And you may not know about all of them, so let's get you connected." It's a very different message and one that is much more likely to elicit a response, particularly if you've got a student who knows that they're in a difficult situation. [laughter]
0:17:29.0 EV: No need to hit them over the head with it. And then lastly, just being really personal about it. "This is from me, Ed, to you, Susan, or whoever out there, and I am personally here, I'm invested in your success, I care about you and I believe in you." There are ways you can do this in your messaging just to be a real human with them, and it really does matter. So we have all these tools out there to do this sort of stuff, but there's a lot of art that goes into the how, the how you use it. And you and I have talked a little bit because it's so important to your world about AB testing. I'm wondering if you might be able to tell the audience just a little bit about what that concept is if they're not familiar with it. We don't need to go really in-depth, but just this idea of like, you have these tools, you could use them to optimize what you're doing. You can literally do this today.
0:18:24.0 MR: Well, often Ed, in AB testing admission, what you're really trying to do is elicit a particular kind of response. Raise your hand and say you're interested in my college, or it's time for you to apply for admission, or it's time for you to file your FAFSA, sort of task-oriented things. And so when you're not trying to... I think AB testing is harder when you're just trying to build a relationship 'cause it's much more difficult to measure the outcome, but when you're actually trying to drive students to a particular behavior that is in their interest, I am... I'm often thinking about how it is that... What's a catchy subject line? 'Cause you know everyone's reading all their communications on their phone, so it has to be a great subject line and the first few words has to say, "This is for me and I should pay attention," or "No, this is not for me."
0:19:07.9 MR: And you can think, same thing with text messaging as well if you're using that vehicle. So what you wanna do is you wanna come up with a couple of things that you think, "Hey, this might work," and gosh, think about it, ask a student out of some focus groups and say, "Hey, what would make you open this up and read it?" and then just give it a try, and then you can be measuring the response. Are people making appointments with their advisor, or are they actually pre-registering, or are they taking care of bursar holds, the thing you'd like for them to do? And if you can see that one message is clearly winning over the other, then obviously you switch to that one. But I do think...
0:19:42.6 EV: Yeah, yeah.
0:19:43.1 MR: I wanna double down on what you said, Ed, about the kind of message that we send. Because we know that students and families are very anxious and it's not just in the admission process, it's all the way through. And so basically what you talked about was leading with empathy and leading with care and concern. And I think that goes a long way to reaching students because then they believe you're on their side because you are, but it's because of the language you use that actually brings them forward.
0:20:09.9 EV: Yeah, and you're making me think right now, little message to my student success friends, your friends that you know, colleagues over in the admissions office may have already figured out a lot of this messaging stuff because they actually do have an economic motivation, especially. That's what the admissions office does. So maybe worth... If you've got a contact over there, give 'em a ring, or whatever we do these days, [chuckle] send them a TikTok or something, whatever it is. And maybe you need to test the way you should get in touch with your friends. But regardless, reach out to them and they may already have some tips and tricks figured out for your specific student body that have worked well in the recruitment process. Well, they're gonna work well for those students after they matriculate. It's not like they become completely different people. And so there might be a little bit of learning you can build on there in that context, so.
0:21:04.4 MR: So Ed, many of our listeners I'm sure have watched staff with significant institutional knowledge walk out the door.
0:21:10.7 EV: Oh yeah.
0:21:11.3 MR: But my glass is always half full. So I'm always looking for the silver lining. I mean, in the loss of great people who have a different opportunity and go another way, is there a silver lining to be found amidst the staff turnover?
0:21:24.9 EV: I mean, it's a crisis and an opportunity at the same time. When you lose staff in this game, you are losing possibly decades of institutional knowledge. Why is that so important in this context? Well, institutional knowledge is always back in the louche, right? But if you are one of those places where everybody... There's nothing on the books that says this, but we all know that you can swap this course for that course and they count for the same requirement 'cause department always approves that, or we all know the right way to get so-and-so in that office to respond is you have to talk to them in this exact way. And whatever it might be on this day of the week, whatever, that's all institutional knowledge.
0:22:07.3 EV: And that's the sort of stuff, if you think about your interactions with students, you're often using that kind of knowledge to be their ambassador. That's how you're interacting with them, with the school for them as their representative. And that stuff goes away. It's hard because your new person doesn't know these things. However, they don't know many things at all, which means that there's a lot of old stuff that they don't have to unlearn. And so if you've looked at your overall strategy and realized, "A lot of this is antiquated and I had a hard time getting my folks to adopt new practices. They were set in their ways, or had always been an uncertain way, and it was disruptive, and they were resisting it, and now they've left." Well, this is an opportunity to put new stuff in place that you've been wanting to for a long time. It's a completely de novo situation, a blank slate. So you can fill that with what you're trying to do and maybe advance change along those lines. So yeah, crisis, but also opportunity to support students better with new experiences, new processes and practices. And that's really what's gonna be needed in the next couple of years.
0:23:18.9 MR: So then what are the top pieces of advice you would give a VP or a senior level manager who's thinking about ways, both to bring in new staff members and set new patterns and establish new processes, but what about for that VP or the senior level manager, what are ways that they can get their team thinking about using student success software in a more comprehensive and effective way?
0:23:42.6 EV: Yeah, to answer the question, you need to give a little bit of context for what we see happening to our industry over the next couple of years. We're gonna be dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic, I call them ripple effects. Go search on eab.com for ripple effects and you'll be able to read some of this work. We're gonna keep putting more out. Because it's really important. Our industry is changing very quickly. And you can see that right now. If you look at your first-year students or even your second year students now, last year's first year class and compare them to your older students, you'll see pretty dramatic differences in their learning styles and their communication patterns and kind of who they are. And you can be looking at two siblings and they're different from each other because of how they developed.
0:24:26.6 EV: The pandemic was, for a 20-year-old, 10% of their life. And it was a big part of their adult life. They don't necessarily know the old way of doing things and there's some conflict there going forward. We have students who are struggling to learn in high school and have the cumulative effect of unfinished learning. That's coming our way. So we should anticipate several years, maybe half a decade of elevated need in the classroom and overall for students' mental health, financial support, just in general support, because they're gonna be a little bit banged up. So here's where you have to lean into technology to help you, because if you are feeling that you're a little bit constrained on staff right now, or you're kinda just getting out of that hole, well, the demand for that staff time is just gonna go up, up, up over the course of the next few years. So I'll come back to the three things we already talked about, and then I'll add a fourth.
0:25:24.7 EV: And the three things just to re-emphasize was we need to strengthen our early warning systems, we need to understand those students who are coming in, how they have changed, because they may have changed and we aren't tracking as fast as they are evolving right now, which is understandable. Maybe you have changed your admissions criteria and you have a new population of students that you've never had on your campus before. Well, that's gonna be an experience that you need to improve your sensing mechanisms. There are some schools that are doing really, really well right now in recruitment, but the mixture of their students has changed as a result. They need to support those students. So working on in the classroom with your faculty to identify student needs at that touchpoint is a top, top thing you need to do. And then once you get your faculty bought in, it's about processing those alerts.
0:26:13.5 EV: So they come in, making sure that they get follow-up and that there's something that's for students to do with good, clear communication, call to action, and your staff know exactly what career pathways those students need to follow. So we have these great technologies, they've been out there for a while, but they still aren't being fully optimally utilized and now is the time to do it. The good news is you're pretty familiar with them right now and if you're listening to this, there's a chance you have one of them, maybe from us. So reach out to your strategic leader for some help on the early warning systems, if that's a thing that you are listening to my words and saying, "Yeah, we could really be doing better." So that's one. Two, re-balancing your support efforts, figuring out how to tier your support staff in the high, medium and low effort activities to go along with students with low, medium and high levels of need along those lines.
0:27:05.5 EV: Using mass communication to extend your reach, so you get additional touchpoints. Touchpoints are the currency of the realm. They are the ruler here. So if you can increase the number of touchpoints effectively through mass communication, you are a big winner. And then the fourth thing I'll say, which we haven't talked about yet, this is a moment in time where there's a lot more... We... Sort of the difficult joke of the only growing population of students to recruit from right now are stopouts. And so if you have technology on your campus, if you have Navigate and if you have Starfish, you have the ability to do this. You can reach out to students that are in your system that are not currently enrolled in your classes, not currently registered for your campus. And go get them back. They're out there.
0:27:50.1 EV: In fact, we track something like two million additional stopouts across the 2019 and through 2021. About 40% of them, a little less than 40% of them come back to the school they left, but not if you wait too long. So if you let it last for a year or two or three and they're gone from school, they're not coming back. So you kind of have a... It's a burning fuse. You have a lot of students that have left, they're floating out there, they need to be re-engaged, you have the communications for it and go get them back. You need the enrollment. [laughter] And also, it would be nice if they actually completed their degrees too, along the ways. That's a pretty good place for us I think to pull up and bring this conversation to a close. Do you have any final thoughts for the group? You asked me for my advice for leaders, I suppose I should ask you the same with all your experience leading teams with Gallup, all these things. Any final advice you'd give for listeners who may be feeling a little uncertain about this moment?
0:28:57.9 MR: Often, what I just say to people is keep fighting the good fight.
0:29:00.9 EV: Yeah.
0:29:02.3 MR: In the admissions side of the house, what made me get up and wanna go to work every day was I knew I was opening the doors of college opportunity for wonderful young people and their families and helping them with a key pivotal life decision. And really, the same can be said for those on the student success side. Every day they're helping students achieve their dream of a college education. And I feel like that work is real and material and it matters in our world. So I would just say, don't give up, lean into each other, help those kids build a better world. That's the way I think of it. And I think we've scratched the surface, but do you wanna give our listeners a little teaser on what you're working on for EAB's upcoming CONNECTED Conference, where we'll be talking about all of this?
0:29:47.4 EV: Yeah, let's tease it. So CONNECTED, right, it's for Navigate and Starfish users. If you are one of those and you don't have somebody from your campus going, what are you waiting for? We're down in Orlando, it's gonna be the 7th, 8th and 9th of November, with the 8th and 9th being the big days for programming. A lot of the things I talked about today are gonna be in the keynote that I'll be delivering on the 8th, talking about those pandemic ripple effects. We'll cover a lot of ground there. We talked about the academic situation in high school, a little bit about mental health. We will talk a little bit about staffing and transfer students and a few other things. Overall, the conference is just gonna be great.
0:30:29.4 EV: We have a whole line-up this year that is a lot of our partners telling their stories about how to use these technologies for a lot of the issues that we've talked about today. I mean, they're all going through this as you might be. And we also have our own staff members as we work with schools every day, sharing what we're calling transformation labs. How do you move from point A to point B? We've done this many, many times. You've done it one time. [chuckle] And so we can guide you along the way. And so there's a lot of good work that will happen there. So if you aren't registered for CONNECTED, please come on down, there's still plenty of time, and let's get you there.
0:31:08.2 MR: Awesome. Thanks again, Ed. And thanks to all of you for listening to this episode of Office Hours.
0:31:20.1 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when our experts take a deep dive into student transfer pathways and talk about institutional changes your school can make to attract and onboard transfer students more effectively. Until next week, thank you for your time.
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