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7 Questions with Qualtrics Head of Education Lee Perlis

What constitutes student success? Traditional measurements such as enrollment, retention, and graduation rates fail to paint the larger picture of the student experience. Here's how institutions can rethink the metrics that define successful outcomes on campus.

Too often, higher education institutions and their students view "success" through a very different lens. A college or university might focus primarily on graduation rates, for example, while a student takes a more holistic view across both academic and social experiences. Ultimately, that gap in perception can hold institutions back from adapting to students' evolving needs and goals. To explore the metrics that can help higher education better understand the student experience, we spoke with Lee Perlis, head of education at experience management provider Qualtrics. Perlis has worked in the tech space for nearly two decades, starting his career at Internet2 and later working for Blackboard's public sector team and at Salesforce, where he was involved in launching the Salesforce Education Cloud. At Qualtrics, he leads the company's strategy and solutions supporting the student experience in the K–12 and higher education markets.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

7 questions with Lee Perlis

Campus Technology: "Student experience" is a term we hear a lot lately. How would you define what that means, and why is it important in higher ed?

Lee Perlis: There are different interpretations of what a student experience might mean for different universities. But the way that I look at it is about how we make education more human. We partner with institutions to deliver frictionless experiences at the front lines, from admissions and enrollment through student success — and to make sure that what we're doing is tied back to some of the key metrics that institutions are looking to track, whether that be admissions and enrollment numbers, student retention numbers, or student satisfaction.

If you think about when a student enters college, they have a lot of expectations. And some of that comes from their consumer lives. I can go on Amazon and order something with one click, and it can be in my house in a matter of hours. When we think about student experiences on a campus, how can we remove a lot of those barriers for students when they are interacting with their institution? We want to make sure that whether they're dealing with financial aid departments, with advising, with the registrar's office, we just take all those kinds of red tape out of it, and make sure that they can get what they need in a very timely manner.

CT: Last year, Qualtrics came out with a report on the State of College Student Experience, and only 65% of the students surveyed said that their institution understands what matters to them. Why is there such a gap in understanding between university and student?

Perlis: Leaders really need to listen more critically to their students, understanding what's important, what matters, and then apply that feedback to the overall education experience. I think of that report in four buckets. One is, as you mentioned, really understanding what matters to the students, and sometimes there's a misalignment that might happen there. The second is about fostering social experiences: Some of the biggest gaps in student and administrator perspective are around that social experience, compared to other experiences that go beyond the classroom. And these social experiences have a large impact on students' level of satisfaction. This could be anything from, "Hey, I was in the dining hall and they didn't have the type of food I was expecting," to, "I got into an argument with a classmate," to, "I couldn't join that sorority that I was looking for." Third is creating inclusive environments. One of the data points from the report was that one out of three students has experienced discrimination at their institution, and students who work full-time and African American students actually experienced discrimination at a higher rate than other types of students. And then fourth, prioritizing mental health. Thirty-nine percent of students said that their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic, and almost a third of students didn't know that they have access to mental health resources on campus. And among those who were aware, 63% identified a problem with what is available. Whether you're doing really well at an Ivy League school, or you are at a smaller, liberal arts type of college, mental health is just such a concern that so many university administrators are dealing with these days — making sure that students know where to go and that administrators are able to understand where the gaps are in what they're offering versus what students are taking advantage of.

CT: What are some ways to get a real-time picture of how students are feeling?

Perlis: I was talking to the CIO of Utah Valley University the other day. They support more than 40,000 students across Utah — I think they're the largest campus in the state. And they're on this mission to deliver digital transformation across all these different student-facing technologies, and to create these frictionless student experiences. They're developing integrations, for instance, with their learning management system, so they can post a digital intercept whenever there's a deadline for class that might be coming up or an exam that's coming up. They can then route that over to a course evaluation survey to get a pulse on that relationship between the student and that faculty member.

They're also using QR codes, where a student could, for example, scan a QR code in the bathroom to let the school know if there's enough hand sanitizer — little things like that to make sure students are feeling comfortable. And they actually developed a new app, which I'll call the Tinder for program selections, where students can swipe left or swipe right based upon different programs that they might be interested in. Maybe it's a study abroad program, or maybe it's, "Hey, I want to go into a career in marketing." So they're trying to create these technologies that are seamless for the students to use, and are very similar to what students might use on the consumer side of their lives as well.

CT: Going back to the gap in understanding what matters to students, how do you think today's students measure success? And how does that compare to how most institutions define student success?

Perlis: Students tend to get judged by their GPA. And I don't know if that really looks at the whole picture. For the university, understanding what's meaningful for students is becoming more and more important. That could be: What's their satisfaction level with the university? Are they getting the right services that they need when speaking with an adviser? When they go into the financial aid office, are they getting the right customer service? These "experience metrics" are going to become even more important as schools look to differentiate themselves and really figure out, what's their secret sauce? What makes them unique? And why are students choosing that particular school over another? Having these new metrics to think about student success and student satisfaction is going to be even more important as we move into this next phase post-pandemic.

CT: If institutions need to incorporate these new types of metrics that connect to the student experience, what's the best way to start?

Perlis: It starts with knowing your students. Many schools do a school climate survey or student pulse check. But it's one thing to just take the survey, be done, and not do anything with the data. It's another to put the right people, the right process, the right programs in place to really manage that throughout the entire lifecycle. So it's a) hearing what students are saying, and b) polling your faculty and staff as well, to really understand what they're hearing and what their interactions are with the students, because they're having those more regularly than the administration might be. Combine those two data points together, and that can be really powerful for those at the provost level, those who are focused on student success and student experience, to be able to take that data and act on it.

CT: Is there a culture change needed to assign value to newer types of metrics, as opposed to the traditional measurements of enrollment and retention and graduation rates that everyone's used to?

Perlis: Some of that starts with breaking down the data silos that are on campus today. So many schools get information from their SIS, and then there's different information and metrics that they can pull from their CRM, or from their learning management system. But how do you combine the operational data from all those different systems to really understand the student sentiment, and then ultimately turn that into a system of action? And really work to improve upon some of those metrics, whether those are around enrollment, retention, student satisfaction, etc. Being able to get that holistic picture and understand all those different data points is key to making that happen.

CT: Do you have any final advice for institutions navigating this shift to focusing more on student experience?

Perlis: Similar to how a business might think about working with customers, my advice would be just listening and putting your customers at the center of everything that you're doing, especially as we're moving into tougher times economically. Understanding what that student wants, what that student needs, what your staff wants, what your staff needs, at these critical times, is just going to be so important. Great employee experiences lead to great student experiences. And if you are putting your staff and your faculty in a good position to succeed, they're going to make sure that your students are succeeding, and that they have the resources and holistic support that they need to be successful.

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