I'm sure you've gone through this process before: You dial the number to customer service, answer some questions from an automated machine and get placed on hold for the next available agent. Once you finally get connected with a representative, they ask you the same questions again, listen as you explain your reason for calling, only to transfer your call elsewhere and repeat. Being given the runaround when we need an answer is not ideal. And though this process is more often than not unintentional, it can reflect a lack of knowledge, training or communication processes.
This is the same situation many students experience when we bounce them around campus; they go from office to office to get answers to their questions or to get connected to the supports they need. Students see the college as one single entity, but institutions are more commonly structured as discrete, disconnected units or silos. While it is clear that aligning student-focused services would streamline student experiences, the question for many colleges is, "How?"
Achieving the Dream, the nonprofit higher ed reform organization where I work, has collaborated with institutions across the country to develop models to tackle this challenge on their campuses. We've found that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for colleges to streamline services for students or to bridge departmental silos. Similarly, there is no one way for student services to best work together, because the model will ultimately depend on the campus culture and context.
Below are a few examples of successful approaches to bridging the gaps:
Bring Offices Together
In some instances, our campuses—buildings, layouts, offices—just aren't designed in a user friendly (in this case student friendly) manner. Students can get pinballed to various offices, going back and forth across campus to resolve overlapping issues and waiting in lines at each office only to retell their story again.
To address this issue, many of our colleges are physically unifying different services for students by creating hubs for just this purpose. One of our colleges has a One Stop, which houses all of their student services in the same building and enables students to access all of the services they need in one place. Another has created Meta-Major Centers. Each center houses the meta-major's faculty and support staff, placed to work alongside instructors. The impact of the center is two-fold. First, it streamlines the student experience from a guided pathways perspective, reducing the amount of confusing choices students face in developing an academic path through meta majors. Second, it allows students to build relationships with both staff and faculty through these centers.
Learn to Communicate Differently
Many colleges have employed various pieces of technology at their institutions, but are not using them effectively to streamline communication. Leveraging technology is essential in promoting collaboration across student-focused services because the systems facilitate and promote communication and information sharing across departments. One of our colleges was very intentional about getting their advisors, faculty, graduate coordinators, tutors and peer mentors trained on their software; it supports scheduling appointments, note taking, referrals and following up on alerts with students as appropriate. They proactively tracked the software usage of each department, and continue to actively work to increase and encourage the usage amongst all staff by providing ongoing training and accountability so they can work together more efficiently to serve students.
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Feedback from students indicated that they strongly agreed that this new software impacted their experience for the better. The use of alerts and positive outreach messages helped to notify staff, faculty and students of student progress and action items. Consistent practices and protocols for entering case notes into the system ensured that a student only had to tell their story once, when coming into contact with various student support staff, and to quickly view a student's history and progression. This not only creates a better experience for the student, but also frees up valuable meeting time so that advisors and support staff can have more developmental and meaningful conversations with students.
Reshaping Roles and Creating New Ones
Beyond the idea of breaking down (physical) silos and streamlining communication, for many institutions bridging gaps means systematically changing the way in which staff and faculty work. This means changing roles and responsibilities, and sometimes bringing in new positions to create a more student-centered experience. Several colleges have developed "Navigator" positions, which are full time roles with employees cross-trained to work with new students starting from the admissions process, through onboarding and academic planning and seamlessly connect them to the supports they need when they need them. Navigators offer personalized, holistic and hands-on support and can ease the handoff to faculty advisors and smooth connections between departments, ensuring that students are better equipped and prepared for more meaningful interactions. One year after the implementation of navigators, one college reported high student satisfaction, with more than 90 percent of students reporting that their navigators were both knowledgeable and helpful.
Several institutions have also worked to get their advisors and faculty more active outside of their departments. One college had advisors work alongside the faculty members of their designated programs to provide advising sessions in conjunction with class time. Thanks to this new level of engagement, the school reports that full-time advisors at the college are now seen as a more active and essential component to the learning experience. Faculty were also impacted by this collaboration, and updated their curriculum maps in a way that provided more opportunities for guidance to students.
Today, many campuses struggle to meet the needs of students because their structures, policies, practices and people operate in a manner that does not reflect student needs and experiences. Unifying the student-focused supports that have been historically detached on campuses can create efficiencies for a more streamlined and holistic student experience. Such efforts can be created through assessing student needs and identifying gaps in how we connect those students to the supports they need when they need them.
To learn more about what works and how your college can approach student support redesign, check out Achieving the Dream's Integrated Student Support Toolkit.