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Could Your Students Benefit from “One Front Door” Onboarding?

Episode 166

September 19, 2023 30 minutes


EAB’s Tara Zirkel is joined by Dr. Tiffany Ray-Patterson, VP of Student Services at Germanna Community College, to discuss her “One Front Door” approach to student onboarding that is breaking down institutional silos and connecting more students to the guidance they need. The two contrast the “One Front Door” method versus traditional bifurcated onboarding and share some of the tangible improvements the new approach is having on students.

Dr. Ray also shares valuable insights for community college leaders nationwide who are looking to make similar changes to the way they onboard students.


0:00:09.3 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. We’re joined today by Dr. Tiffany Ray-Patterson, VP of Student Services at Germanna Community College. Dr. Ray-Patterson discusses her work to unify the student onboarding experience at Germanna to ensure that everyone gets access to the same comprehensive advising and holistic student support, regardless of whether they’re pursuing vocational training or a degree. She and EAB’s Tara Zirkel, also talk about how this approach to onboarding all students through one front door is gaining traction at other institutions. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:52.5 Tara Zirkel: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Tara Zirkel, and I’m a Director of Strategic Research at EAB. I’ve spent most of the past 20 years working directly in or alongside community colleges, and one thing I know to be true is that this sector is a leader in workforce development, however, two often teams at these institutions who serve students who take classes to acquire specific job skills as opposed to students who are looking to earn an associate’s degree are often siloed away from the rest of the college. For listeners who might be unfamiliar, workforce development programs and community colleges are often focused on short-term career-oriented credentials. This entire operation from Admissions through completion usually lives in its own area of the college and students in these programs don’t always have access to services like academic advising and tutoring. Germanna Community College saw an opportunity for a new approach that unifies all students through having one enrollment process and offering broad student supports. Regardless of whether students are in a workforce development program or a more traditional degree program. By creating One Front Door to the college, they are breaking down institutional silos and connecting more students to the guidance they need.

0:02:09.9 TZ: With me today to discuss the good work happening at Germanna is the Vice President of Student Services and equity advancement and Chief Diversity Officer, Dr. Tiffany Ray Patterson. Welcome to the program, Dr. Ray Patterson.

0:02:24.0 Dr. Tiffany Ray-Patterson: Thank you, Tara, I’m so happy to be here with you all today.

0:02:28.7 TZ: When you and I sat down with a group of community college educators just a few weeks ago, this topic got a lot of attention and folks were really clamoring to understand how and why Germanna unified the experiences, again, of workforce students and degree seeking students. And before we jump into how Germanna started this unification, I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit more about Germanna, which students you serve and what challenges you were facing before adopting this approach.

0:03:00.6 DR: Germanna is a mid-sized community college. Part of the Virginia Community College system, and we are one of 23 colleges, we are the fourth largest in the state of Virginia, we serve about 13,000 credit and non-credit students annually. So we’re really excited to be part of the system and be able to leverage the power of Virginia Community College system to get some things done. One of those things has really been looking around onboarding, and for us, that’s really been our One-Door approach, it’s grounded in our belief that students at Germanna, all of our students, all our students, and we have the ultimate goal of making sure that whether a student is in the transfer path or career-related path, that they’re all grounded in the fact that they want to get a career eventually, even if they’re going to a baccalaureate institution in the future.

0:04:01.9 DR: We also wanna make sure that all of our students get the benefit of comprehensive student advising, that they get high touch onboarding, that they get holistic student support no matter what type of academic program they’re pursuing, and we also wanna make sure that we have a seamless onboarding process that puts the responsibility on ensuring students are in their seats on the first day of classes on the staff. We wanna make sure that we’re personally guiding our students through each step of the process, and that we’re treating non-credit credential program students and degree-seeking students equally.

0:04:36.5 TZ: And I think a lot of colleges wrestle with problems around that question of equity and making sure that these students are treated equally. I know when I was on campus, the Workforce Development students were in a different building across campus and never did they cross paths with the credit-bearing students on the other side of campus where I worked. And I think a lot of our colleges, again, are wrestling with these problems of how do we create a more unified approach and they eye up taking on this type of project but never quite move forward. Was there a critical point when you knew that you had to unify your student experience?

0:05:18.3 DR: Definitely, we realized that we were losing a lot of students in our onboarding process. So we had a large number of applications, and by the time the first day of classes rolled around, we didn’t see nearly half of those students. So our application yield was really suffering as a result of some things that were happening during our onboarding process. We were also sending students depending on their program, whether they were credit or non-credit to different areas of the college, like you just mentioned. So if you’re a credit student and you happen to get to the front door, you’re probably safe, if you’re a non-credit student, you’re probably walking down the stairs somewhere at another door into another building, and hopefully you’d find your way to somebody that can assist you with a non-credit program. That’s not the way it should be. You should be able to enter any door on our college campus and receive the help that you need.

0:06:07.5 DR: We also realize that we weren’t really giving our students the menu of options and the holistic pathways available to our students, and so if a student said they wanna do a credit program, we just kept them on the credit track. If a student said they wanted to do a non-credit program, then we just talked to them about non-credit programs. What we really wanted to do is make sure that we’re talking to students about everything in their pathway, so if there are issues in healthcare generally, we could have greater conversations about all of the opportunities available in healthcare, and really drill down into what was appropriate for the student at that point in time in their life.

0:06:43.9 DR: And then lastly, we really wanted to make sure that operationally we weren’t duplicating functions across the college. So we had two different areas with two different staffs who did kind of the same things and we wanted to make sure that we were mitigating some of those inefficiencies from a budgetary and a staffing standpoint as well.

0:07:04.6 TZ: I really love the point about making sure that we are putting the students aspiration first and center above maybe the notion of tracking the student into a non-credit course versus a credit course. I think often when students come to us, we expect them to know beforehand which track or which type of program might be the right fit for them, and the answer is that they probably don’t know until they sit down and actually have a conversation with us. And I really love the notion of both of those options being equally legitimate, both of those options being prioritized and really letting, again, the student’s goal becomes center, and making sure that every student that comes to the front door, the institution, doesn’t feel that they have to choose between. They can do either. They could do both, they could do different things at different points in their life. And I know we talked about how it was kind of before, where students you had mentioned they might go down one stairwell, and go out a side door. But I love to switch gears and talk about what the students experience now. How is this process different now than it was before? What can a student expect if they’re enrolling in the college and taking classes for the first time? So if I walk onto Germanna’s campus right now, I don’t really know what I wanna do. What’s that experience going to look like for me?

0:08:28.8 DR: Yeah, so one of my favorite EAB graphics is kind of the spaghetti chart where you just see students trying to navigate these endless rounds of trying to get through our processes, and we recognize that that was one of the issues that we had, and so we wanted to make sure that we were funneling students to a single point of contact, in a single point of entry. That could be virtual, that could be physically. We wanted to make sure that they didn’t have to understand the bureaucracy of a college to understand how to start with us, and so we created a single point of entry and a single contact, we created a new position known as the admissions coach, their responsibility is guiding students through the onboarding process.

0:09:11.6 DR: So they’re basically their liaison for other departments, they’re the person that they meet with throughout the onboarding process through census, and that if they had any question about the college, their case load was defined in such a way where the students knew that that’s who they were assigned to. So we really wanted to make sure that our admissions and coaches were trained on the entire menu of the programs, both credit and non-credit, and we wanted to make sure that they had basic financial aid knowledge, so that we were kind of reorienting our financial aid staff to be able to process paperwork, are we able to deal with really intricate cases and some of the things in financial aid that bottled-neck students that the admissions coach can solve without having to refer students.

0:10:00.4 DR: We also wanted to make sure that we’re identifying students who needed basic needs support sooner. So we didn’t wanna wait till the first day of classes to identify that the student had housing issues or food insecurity issues, we really wanted to do that right up front, so we can mitigate the impact of any of the basic needs issue on their initial academic progress. So our admissions coach really was the defining, I think staff point where we said, This is kind of the difference that we need to make in our process, and then we really worked on also designing a process that was more seamless, that integrated technology where it needed to be, that integrated high touch where it needed to be. And then really bringing all those things together to make sure that a student didn’t have to understand what they need to do next, they were told what they needed to do next.

0:10:53.6 TZ: And I hear you said that the Admissions coach would work, again, both with Workforce Development students, non-credit students and degree-seeking students in the exact same manner.

0:11:04.2 DR: That’s exactly right. We wanna make sure that we weren’t making assumptions and also we weren’t kind of relying on students’ assumptions about what they thought they wanted, that we really take the role as experts. So if a student came in and said, I’m really interested in something in healthcare, then we really talked about, here are the options that will get you a degree, here are the top options that will get you a short-term certificate and here are all the options in between, and sometimes that meant that a student may be pursuing a degree and maybe a short term credential simultaneously, but we’re able to eat that out in our conversations with the admissions coach.

0:11:40.2 DR: And then we really wanted to look at the fact that a student can be both a credit and non-credit student at the same time, and I think that was kind of a paradigm shift for our student services staff because we really did think about them as separate things and things that had to happen at separate moments, and I think you probably have seen that a lot of college are looking at that a little differently, and we’re no different than that.

0:12:03.9 TZ: Yes, we have seen institutions that are trying to blur the line between workforce development and degree-seeking or build a bridge or really tear down that wall, knowing that, a, like you had mentioned, every student is your student regardless of the credential that they’re seeking, but also recognizing that there are pathways potentially from that workforce development program into a degree collusion program or vice versa, where that student might take credit-bearing program credentials and earnings and move them into a workforce development program.

0:12:39.9 TZ: So just the notion of, We are one college with one unified mission, and all of these things are equally and important, is something that we’re hearing our partners talk about. But the flip side of that, which is kind of my next question is, it takes a lot of moving parts to do that, and you use the phrase paradigm shift in thinking about how do we change how we think about these groups of students as sort of two separate, again, never should the paths cross kind of situations. So I’m curious, when you first started to revamp your process, what were the first things that you tackled to move this initiative forward?

0:13:20.4 DR: I think at first we had to all agree that we believe that all students are our students, and so once we all agree that that was the case, then I think we started with the process, and so often institutions start with their limitations, and I think try to back into that. We started with, what is the ideal process that we want our students to go through, and then we charted that out, and then we wanted to match that with the positions we needed to make that happen, and then the technologies to navigate that we wanted to support the process, but we’re always live with the process, what should students do, what do students need to get through their onboarding process? What do we need to support that? So once we did that, we revise job descriptions or we created new positions, like the admissions coach, we started hiring for those positions, we discontinued hiring for others that we felt like we needed to maybe not prioritize, since we needed admissions coaches, and then I think the most critical thing that we really wanted to focus on during this time was training in professional and development. You had two historically separate parts of the college that really need to come together and learn each others area, and so we really started with what is workforce?

0:14:42.1 DR: What does it mean? How does this integrate into the things that we already know about our college and the things that students like to do, and then we really kinda roll that out gradually to our whole student services staff to make sure that everybody was well-equipped to talk about. The other thing that we focus on for everybody was financial aid, because that is one of those things that we typically let the financial aid people do, nobody wants to touch it, nobody wants to answer questions about it, but we really wanted to demystify that for our team and make sure that everybody had a basic working knowledge of financial aid, so they could ask the basic question, so they were cutting out times where we needed to hand off students, we wanted to do that as little as possible. And so our missions coaches and our academic advisers were equipped to answer the questions without having to refer our students, that is one less time a student would have to be hand off and then we would risk them being lost to us forever. And so that is why we spent so much time on training and professional development.

0:15:43.5 TZ: I think it’s exactly right with the training and professional development part, because we ask a lot of our Student Affairs staff to be knowledgeable about different programs, to be knowledgeable about financial aid, and I think that training becomes such a critical part in making sure that they feel confident that they’re working with students and giving them correct information and accurate information, and that’s something I know that we stress here at EAB is just the frequency and the quality of communication that we have with everybody on the team, so no one has kind of left not knowing what to do next. And I know when I’ve implemented programs like this when I was still on campus, you kind of start with a roadmap of, We’re going to implement this part of the initiative at this time with these people, and when it starts off, it’s beautiful, you have a plan. You’re going to stick to the plan. And we know that sometimes there are speed bumps or there are hanging ups, and I’m just really curious, did you experience any of that? And also, how did you generate buy-in from different areas of the college?

0:16:49.9 DR: I think it’s funny what you said, because in higher ed, and I’ve been around long enough to know that we love a pilot, that this is our favorite thing to do with dipping our toe in, so that we don’t have to fully jump in ….. cases, the kind of the whole system is impacted, you really need to tackle the whole thing, and any major change is kind of an upheaval for our college. I think there can be a healthy amount of skepticism and there’ll be several bumps in the road. I think that if there are bumps in the road, you work through those and you kind of have a plan to tackle those things. I think what I think about when I think about major change is ensuring that everyone that needs to be is around the table designing the process. Right. So not me, probably not me as an administrator, but the people who are the boots on the ground that really understand the process on our students, really being at the table to have input about how the process should look and how the students may be impacted by. So that was one thing that we try to do is make sure that we had enough people around the table that knew enough about what we were trying to do to get their feedback. I think it’s easy to get buy-in that the people are already at the table who need to be.

0:18:13.2 DR: We also wanted to make sure that the process was iterative, so that we weren’t saying, We have to do it because we designed it this way, that we said if we were negatively impacting students that we would course correct if we needed to, right, in real-time. I think the thing that’s really important and the thing that navigate and other areas help us with, is data. And really leading with data and ensuring that if we want the college to understand why this is important, that we’re really demonstrating to them that we’ve done our research around how this is impacting our students. So it was pretty compelling to our campus community about the number of students that we were losing through our onboarding process, and once you say that they’re say, Oh yeah, something has to change.

0:18:54.8 DR: So I think while we have some of this, I don’t know about this, these new positions and I am an academic advisor. Does this mean I’m gonna lose my job to an admissions coach? We had some of those feelings, but I think what we’re really trying to do is say, Here’s what’s happening in our current process, we all can’t be comfortable with that, so now what should we do and what’s each of our individual parts in making sure to change that for our students? That’s a really strong case maker, the data.

0:19:21.5 TZ: Yeah, I agree, and I like something that you said earlier too, about duplication of services, right. So if we have an admissions process that’s just for credit students, and then an admissions process that’s just for Workforce Development students, there is likely that duplication of labor, and some of the research that we’re doing at EAB, we’ve talked a lot about staffing and how many institutions, both two-year and four-year are having, we’ll say barriers to staffing or declines in staffing and thinking about how do we build processes that are obviously beneficial to students is top of mind, top concern for everyone, but also how do we build processes that truly make the best use of our staff’s time is something that we’re seeing a lot of institutions really reflect on, and I think what you’ve done at Germanna is a really great example of this, where you kind of saw processes that were duplicative and thought, How do we make this better for everyone, primarily the student, but also our teams. And I can see how that value proposition too might be a way to quiet the detractors or you provide some assurance to folks that might say, We aren’t so sure about merging these two areas of the college together.

0:20:38.3 DR: Yeah, I think we first have to sell the value of making sure that we didn’t have people dispersed to the college that were doing similar functions in a way that was a little unwieldy for students to understand. Do I go to this admissions office, do I go to this admissions office, or I talk to this financial aid person or talk to this financial aid person? That’s hard for anybody to cipher. And so we wanted to make sure that was really clear. And I think once we kind of talked about that with our teams and we understood that by making some of these changes, we can better utilize people who are skilled in areas that workforce people could work on at the programs and work on the business-to-business relationships.

0:21:29.1 DR: And that our admissions people could do admissions because they’re really good at it, and then our advisors can talk about academic programs and non-credit programs, ’cause they’re really good at it. People really felt like they could be kind of their full professional selves in their expertise and so that was really exciting I think. I think what was really interesting about when we started to share the data was that people really understood that even though they probably already felt really good about their specific expertise in certain areas, that they understood that maybe something wasn’t right about how we were operationalizing that, and so when we got to the table, people kind of understood, or maybe some of those bottle necks or maybe some of those hold-ups were occurring, and so they could really tackle how to fix that. So that’s been a really interesting thing to see about the teams and about how they kind of said, Oh, I see what’s happening here, and they solved it for our students.

0:22:27.4 TZ: Okay. On the note of solving things for students, obviously that’s the main purpose of this, right? It’s create a more seamless experience for students to make sure that all students are treated equitably and to make sure the mission of the college is being carried out. What types of outcomes are you seeing from this new model?

0:22:46.8 DR: Yeah, we’re excited. We are really lucky to have continued to grow during the pandemic, and I think as a result of some of our onboarding changes and some of the integration with our One-Door approach, we’ve been able to continue that, and we’ve even seen that growth on our Workforce arm. So we’re really excited that we’ve created a process that unifies the institution in such a way where we’ve owned our students and that whatever student we get in whatever pathway we’re really excited to have, so we’re excited about our enrollment and the students that we’re able to serve through this process. We’ve seen the increased application yield, that was kind of the impetus of this whole thing that we saw that just kind of at abysmal levels when we wanted to do something about that, and so we’re not losing as many students as we once did through that onboarding process, that is not where they’re getting stuck, we have an increased number of appointments for our advisors and our admissions coaches. That’s exciting number. We don’t mandate advising appointments by a hold or anything like that, but just the mere fact that we’ve engineered this process with the single point of entry, it makes advising appointments kind of mandatory in a way that the guide presents this as an opportunity that’s necessary for our students.

0:24:14.9 DR: Which is kind of close to my heart, is that we are able to connect students to basic needs support sooner. So we’re able to identify even before they sit in the class, whether a student needs to be referred to either internal or external resources and to me, that help set them up for success when they sit in the class. That’s not an onboarding thing per se, but for us we make sure that we’re keeping an eye on students that we know might have risk factors beyond the classroom, and so we wanna get ahead of that.

0:24:44.3 TZ: I think that’s so great to hear, and I think I’m right in thinking that since 2020, Germanna has seen kind of like a double digit increase in enrollment, is that right?

0:24:53.1 DR: That’s correct. We’re really, really excited about that. It’s partly because of this onboarding process, kind of what we’ve done to re-engineer the process, and it’s also a lot of our retention programs, our basic needs support in keeping the students that we have, and so we’ve kind of joined those things together to make sure that collectively, our students who come to Germanna ultimately end up doing the thing that they intended to come here to do, which is to graduate and get a job.

0:25:21.8 TZ: I think that’s such a good point about… And graduate can mean a lot of different things. It can mean an Associate’s degree or certificate, some other type of credential, and making sure that students who have a variety of goals are able to undertake what it is that they want, rather than maybe being steered into option that isn’t a good match for them or what the student desires.

0:25:44.3 TZ: In closing, I’d love to ask, if you have three pieces of advice for community college leaders who wanted to take on this type of project, creating this one-door approach, creating this philosophy that every student is one of our students regardless of their programs, what would your three pieces of advice be?

0:26:04.6 DR: Sure. I think first, I think you would need to identify with data of where those kind of breakdowns are, and I’ve always said that the pain of losing students is probably worse than the temporary pain of making a change to better serve those students, and so really letting the data lead those conversations about what needs to be done and maybe what approaches should be taken to solve them.

0:26:30.9 DR: I think the second thing I would think about is just not being afraid to blow the whole thing up and start from scratch. I think we’re often reluctant to do that because we don’t want to create a negative impact for students or teams, but I think students not getting through on-boarding processes or any other issues that are rising probably are just as powerful to students. So you wanna make sure that if there’s a problem that we give ourselves the opportunity to really tackle it head-on and really be open about changing processes [0:27:07.3] ____ student progress. And I think the last thing, and I can’t underscore this enough, I can sit on this podcast and talk about all the things that I think we should do, but there are people who are boots on the ground that really know these processes in these students, and so for us, we really wanted to make sure that we let our team members lead in a way that they were able to bring their ideas and their suggestions to the table, and they know most about how to make things work, and so our design is really based on the ideas and the experience of our team and we wanted to trust them, we wanted to provide them with the resources they needed, we wanted to provide them with the training and professional development that they needed, and we gave them the ball. To me that, to me is the most consequential part of what we did with this whole process.

0:28:00.4 TZ: I think that point of letting boots on the ground lead is just such a thing that we’re hearing from all of our leaders, and just really to your point, trusting the expertise of the people who are interacting with students the most, and giving people the autonomy to really use that knowledge, use that professional skill set to service students in the best way that we can. So it’s really encouraging to hear that this is having positive results, again, not only for students, but it sounds like for your team and that’s ultimately what we want. And something that I wrote down that you said that I love is, the pain of losing students is worse than the pain of change, and I think that there’s kind of a moral to the story when we take on these large-scale process changes, like creating this one door approach. But that is something truly to remember. But with that, I think that brings us close to the end of our time together today, but I just wanted to thank you so much for being generous with your time, having the conversation with us and we are all wishing you well over at Germanna.

0:29:07.5 DR: I’m so happy to be here, thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk a little bit about Germanna and this process that we’ve created, one door, which is very near and dear in my heart, and I hope that there’s somebody out there that it resonated with. So thank you so much for allowing me to talk about it today.

0:29:29.6 S1: Thank you for listening, the podcast team will be on site at NACAC this week, which means we won’t have an episode to share with you next week, but check back soon for a new episode of Office Hours with EAB. Thank you for your time.