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Op-Ed: America's Colleges Must Get Into the Customer Service Game Because They Have Failed to Meet the Needs of All Students

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  • College enrollment has been falling steadily for a decade and, since 2020, student numbers have fallen by 1 million.
  • Many prospective and current students no longer see the value that a college education actually does still afford.
  • U.S. colleges should emulate the customer service innovations of successful private corporations to turn public perceptions around.

College enrollment in the U.S. has dropped by roughly 1 million students since 2020. And while the pandemic contributed to that decline, it didn't cause it. Enrollment has been falling for nearly a decade.

These numbers should be a wake-up call for my fellow college administrators — and everyone who cares about social progress and a robust economy.

A college education still provides immense value to individuals and society. However, the students investing in those degrees today no longer perceive that value, in large part because institutions of higher education have done a poor job of adapting to the evolving needs of students.

That must change. College administrators should take a page out of corporate America's playbook — and start making customer service the top priority. Our students, after all, are our customers.

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Historically, post-secondary institutions were designed for "traditional" students. These were primarily freshly minted high-school graduates — predominantly from white middle- and upper-class families — who enrolled directly in a degree-seeking program with the tools they needed to succeed already in hand.

But increasingly, college students come from different backgrounds. Minority students in the U.S. now account for 46% of the college population. About 20% of enrollees are older than 30, once part-time students are included. More than 1 in 5 students has a child.

In other words, just as customer bases evolve over time, so do student bodies. Yet higher education has failed to keep up.

We, as college administrators, should look to Disney and other companies for customer service insight.

When Disney's market research detected a falloff in customer satisfaction among theme park visitors 20 years ago, the company invested in creating "MyMagic+," a suite of technologies to personalize and enrich consumers' experience. The Magic Bands guests wear allow characters to greet them by name and provide easy access to rides, hotel check-in and park purchases.

What's the corollary to MyMagic+ for higher education?

It could entail an overhaul of the grades appeal process. For example, if a student wants to contest a grade, the existing process typically involves several redundant in-person meetings, with no standardized digital method of ensuring that the issue is resolved to the student's satisfaction.

Streamlined, inclusive customer service is key

America's college student population is more diverse than ever.
Sam Edwards | Ojo Images | Getty Images
America's college student population is more diverse than ever.

We could also look to online shoe retailer Zappos, where executives realized that building a strong e-commerce business depended on great customer service at its call center. So it stopped evaluating call-center workers on how long a call lasted and, instead, placed the emphasis on customer satisfaction at its end.

By comparison, where's the typical university's customer service number or one-stop service portal?

As JP Morgan Chase — another "customer-obsessed" business — has noted, for Gen Z, the phone is the entry point for digital access. From registering for classes to paying bills to accessing advising and tutoring, much of a student's transactional relationship with their institution should be a seamless digital experience.

Higher education must also prioritize the equity and inclusion initiatives embraced by corporate America. Nearly 90% of students think it's important for their schools to direct more funding toward diversity, equity and inclusion. However, just 66% believe their institutions are actually delivering adequate support to their classmates from underserved groups.

That's problematic, given the challenges that students from less-advantaged backgrounds experience. For example, around 58% of college students — and 70% of Black and 64% of Hispanic students — experienced food or housing insecurity or homelessness in 2020.

Colleges need to identify new ways to remove barriers to student success. Since the student bodies across many college campuses are incredibly diverse, it should be a mandate to deliver services that meet their unique needs — just as companies do with their customers.

With that in mind, colleges also need to work hard to broaden virtual learning options, expand resources for nontraditional students, and provide the streamlined digital experience that students expect.

These changes won't just optimize student success and provide a sense of belonging. They'll also help to bolster the economy and increase financial mobility.

According to a 2021 analysis, individuals with a bachelor's degree make 84% more than those with just a high school diploma. That amounts to an average of $1.2 million in additional lifetime earnings.

By keeping students in college, institutions will also do their part to graduate the skilled talent required to sustain the economy. About 20% of current college students report feeling unprepared to join the workforce, and many companies report their current employees aren't equipped with the skills employers need.

Disparities like these have exacerbated workforce shortages, too. This includes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, where the U.S. faces a shortfall of 3.5 million workers by 2025.

For too long, America's colleges have failed to recognize and meet the range of needs of all their students. Now is the time to change that. The success of our students — and our nation's economy — depend on it.

— By Felipe Henao, Ed.D., dean of students at New York Institute of Technology

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