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Create a streamlined student onboarding experience

March 26, 2021


Create a streamlined student onboarding experience

3 lessons for community colleges from our “secret shopping” of for-profit schools

By Larisa Hussak and Becca Debus March 26, 2021 4 min read Illustration-PAE-Blog-Illustration-1-1000x700

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.


At over 90% of community colleges we secret shopped during the pandemic, it took a minimum of 3 weeks to progress from application to registration

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.

How schools can help students navigate pivotal moments

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.

For-profit experience

“I only called initially to ask a few questions about my application, and before I could even ask any questions, they swept me into one of the most detailed advising appointments I’ve ever had, and I hadn’t even submitted the application yet.” -Secret shopper from EAB research team

Lesson for community colleges

Ask frontline staff in each enrollment office (e.g., financial aid, advising) for the top three most common student questions (and responses). Then, provide all student-facing staff with this “cheat sheet” of FAQs that they can rely on to address common student concerns without sending them from office to office.

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.

Recruit and enroll students in the era of social distancing

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.

For-profit experience

EAB researcher received nine emails and dozens of phone calls in follow-up after initially beginning an application at the for-profit institution.

Lesson for community colleges

Provide applicants with a temporary ID number immediately following application submission, to ensure you have contact information and a means for tracking their enrollment progress.

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.

For-profit experience

For-profit website had requests for information on nearly every page, ensuring that even a visitor with passing interest was captured by the institution.

Lesson for community colleges

Provide prospective students with a high-value resource (e.g., a brochure detailing relevant academic programs and career outcomes related to their major of interest) in exchange for contact information.

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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Learn three effective strategies to engage and holistically support post-traditional students now and in a post-pandemic world, with an emphasis on best practices in technology-enabled advising and career preparation.


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