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Student Information Systems >> Winning Loyalty Through Service

Institutions ebb and flow riding on a tide of loyal students and alumni. 'Student-centered' services can strengthen those relationships.

You can’t help but notice the increasing presence on campuses of large retail chains like Barnes & Noble bookstores (—and the phenomenon is not just about increased yearly sales for the corporate booksellers. As Rachel Deahl recently pointed out in The Book Standard (“Get ’Em While They’re Young: Do Chains Change How Students Think About Bookstores?” July 1, 2005), marketing experts and chain bookstore executives agree that providing excellent service to students during their college years translates into brand loyalty to the chain after graduation.

More and more, higher education administrators are beginning to ask themselves this question: Are we doing as good a job earning brand loyalty from our own students as our fast food and bookstore outsourcers are?

The Crucial Question Is…
Do students feel well-treated when they interact with your institution? Many campuses have adopted the explicit goal of offering excellent services, but sometimes they are disappointed with the feedback they get from students, even after making considerable effort toward the desired level of services. And it’s not just that the rules of the services game have changed; it’s that the services playing field itself has gotten much broader and steeper in places. It’s simply harder and harder to keep up with the state of the art in student services. Experts today point to “student-centered” services as the gold ring, and putting services online is just the start.
Student-Centered? Not!

Before the Internet, most student interactions with an institution were face-toface. To change a course, pay a bill, solve a financial aid problem, or get help looking for a summer internship, students simply had to line up at the right window or office door. If they found themselves at the wrong window, they could trudge off to queue up somewhere else.

But campus automation and information systems have changed all that. At many colleges and universities, students can perform routine tasks from a Web browser, 24/7. Yet, what if the Web experience turns into a frustrating cyber-runaround? Unless you design and monitor your Web-based services from a student perspective, you run the risk of merely recreating the old bureaucratic maze.

The solution? Instead of constructing services around the institution’s internal organization (for instance, who outside of academe has any idea what a Bursar’s Office is for?), look at things from the student’s vantage point: organize services around what students need, when they need it.

We Aren’t There Yet

To paint a clearer picture of what is truly meant by student-centered services, let’s take the quintessential student-centered moment—a high point of excitement and positive feelings for most students: signing up for classes.

Now, from the institutional point of view, there have been great advances in registration processes. At many institutions, students can register for classes online, pay tuition and fees, and view individual course syllabi and textbook lists. This ideally smooth, student-centered flow looks something like this:

  • Pat registers for Econ 101. (click)
  • Pat reviews the textbook information for the course. (click)
  • Pat decides to order the textbooks immediately. (click)
  • Pat pays for the textbooks, or applies available financial aid funds to the purchase. (click)

But here is what Pat actually has to do at her school, even in the automated campus environment:

  • Pat logs in to the campus ERP (enterprise resource planning) system.
  • Pat registers for a course.
  • Pat logs in to the course management system.
  • Pat locates the course.
  • Pat finds out after she’s signed up for the course that it is no longer available, or not available in her time slots. She repeats the locateand- sign-up process many times, juggling other decisions until she is able to secure the course, a similar one, or whichever course may still be available to her.
  • Pat locates the textbook informationfor the course she has secured.
  • Pat copies/prints out the textbook list.
  • Pat g'es to the bookstore, stands in line and purchases the books, or she g'es to the Internet and purchases them from an online bookseller.
  • Pat figures out how to use financial aid funds to pay for the books (or not).

Poor, tired Pat. Her institution d'esn’t know that new products such as Datatel’s ( e-Advising solution could launch a pre-registration e-mail to her that, weeks before the process, would give her a link opening the door to a comprehensive, academic-planning support system complete with wizard, her prepopulated course and studies history, program “rules” that seek out sign-up conflicts, and more.

The Competition

If the straightforward click-click-click experience seems too elusive an ideal to try to achieve, just remember who the competition is. Students and their families are not just comparing your services to those of other colleges and universities, but with the whole universe of services that surround them daily. Those services might include one-click shopping on Amazon (, the smooth purchase and download of music from subscriber sites, or access to vital news and financial information online. And if you think you have a captive audience that will make do with the level of service you offer, wait until your student post office folks complain that they are overburdened with packages from online booksellers, while your bookstore director rues the flagging sales.

The truth is, most of higher education is nowhere near the ideal yet, but there are forward-looking institutions that have grasped the principles of studentcentered services, and they are moving ahead as fast as technology and human change management will allow.

Steve Smith

" The portal needed to be a joint project from the beginning; we all needed to sit around the same table "

Steve Smith , U of Alaska system

How to Get There: UA

There has been a multiyear SIS (student information systems) process underway at the University of Alaska that demonstrates what student-centered services can be today, and how the IT and SIS areas of an institution can work together to acheive that goal. In 2003, UA administrators decided it was time to construct a systemwide portal—an ambitious project, since UA has 16 campuses organized under the chancellors who preside over the three urban campuses, boasts a thriving distance learning program, and is dispersed over the largest state in the union.

Importantly, the portal project was not just about adding a new wrinkle to UA’s technology arsenal; right from the start, the higher goal was to improve the level of student services. To ensure the portal was truly a joint project, a pact between the IT and the Student Affairs sides of the institution was actually drawn up and signed. “It needed to be a partnership from the beginning,” says Steve Smith, chief IT officer for the UA system. “We all needed to sit around the same table.”

Adds Mike Sfraga, the university system’s associate VP for Student Enrollment Services, “Typically, IT and Student Services work together only when forced to, but we could see that that would be counter to the university’s good.” Sfraga and Smith had already leveraged the cooperation of the two areas to make a success of the university’s suite of student service modules, UAOnline. Most of the motivation for the cooperative effort came from within the university system, although support also came from the Board of Regents and the system president, who saw what other institutions were doing.

“My office and the individual Student Affairs offices around the system came to the realization that we had to move to the next level of service,” says Sfraga. “After all, our students are accustomed to going to Yahoo!, Google, and eBay; if you don’t give them similar services, they’ll vote with their feet. So, some of the motive is self-preservation: We wanted a new service model to help attract and retain students.”

Three Rules, Three Clicks

The UA partners laid down three rules for the portal project:

  1. It must take no more than three clicks to get to the information or service that a student needs.
  2. The portal must be customizable for each individual.
  3. There must be a single sign-on for each individual, no matter what part of the system she is using.

“Adhering to those rules pushed a lot of changes,” says Smith. Turf boundaries had to give way, and prevailing business practices had to be changed to conform to each other. Then too, even though UA was already using software that was the same brand as the portal it was implementing (SunGard SCT Luminis;, the team found that the university had used subtly different ways of defining individuals and setting up business processes in SCT’s Banner HR and Student modules. Those differences had to be worked out to make the portal experience as smooth as possible.

Even something as apparently simple as resetting a lost password was handled with myriad practices across departments and institutions. Yet, for students using the portal, getting a new password had to be handled consistently and at any hour, 24/7. “That took longer than anticipated,” admits Smith, “and we are still working on the vestiges.”

Mike Sfraga

" Our Students are accustomed to going to Google and eBay; if you don't give them similar services, they'll vote with their fee."

Mike Sfraga, U of Alaska system

Progress Report

The effort to center services around students’ needs may already have started to pay off for UA. For the first time ever, more than half the graduating high school seniors in Alaska who are heading for college will be attending a school in their own state’s system. “That is monumental for us,” says Sfraga. The question, he says, now is: Can you really create loyalty with service?

“I want to win students’ affinity because of our great academic programs, but also because we know how to do service,” says Sfraga. “I want to make it easier for them to love us.”

The next stage for UA is to move more of the university’s peripheral systems into conformity with the three laws of UA’s portal, including the law of the three clicks. With Blackboard (, for example—the course management software that UA uses—the goal of a single sign-on has been achieved. With a single click from the portal, a UA student can get to the Blackboard system entrance without having to log in again. “Where we are challenged right now,” says Smith, “is to go all the way, directly to a student’s course, without going down a path of sequential clicks.” UA is attacking this problem by developing a university-wide enterprise architecture, defining a set of standards that will let all major applications interact. “Like the single ID project, that will take more than a year,” predicts Smith.

Tools for Auditing Service Levels: WCET

For reasons that are easy to understand, distance learning programs were among the first to have to deal seriously with the issue of how to provide student-centered services in an online environment. The Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (, now known simply as WCET, has long been a leader in thinking about online service standards and, in cooperation with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and custom eLearning solution provider Seward Inc. (, has developed extensive tools for auditing existing services at any institution and determining which model those services conform to.

“We identified critical components for schools that engage the WCET Audit Service [] in each of 20 services, at four levels of sophistication,” says Patricia Shea, assistant director of WCET. The four levels or “generations” of student services that WCET uses have been previously defined by Darlene Burnett of Burnett & Associates ( When an institution reaches generation four, services are organized around student needs, not around the institution’s organizational chart; information is personalized for each student; services aim to create a positive experience for the student and to build a long-term relationship; and info is provided in a context that actually helps the student make use of it—for instance, by providing “high touch” advising and counseling online.

In WCET’s view, “student services” cover a wide range that can include academic advising, admissions, assessment and testing, bookstore services, career planning, catalogs, communications (institution to student), disability services, financial aid, library services, orientation, personal counseling, placement services, registration, schedule of classes, services for international students, student accounts, student activities, technical support, and tutoring, along with other services.

Not surprisingly, generation four is more of a sought-after goal these days than an achieved reality at most institutions. “We anticipated that schools might be at different generations in different service areas,” says Shea, “but we discovered it was even more mixed than that. Even in a single area like academic advising, a school might have achieved a high level in some components, but not in others. No institution we found was at generation four across the board.”

In addition to its audit services, WCET is helping institutions toward the generation four goal by making available information about best practices. It is not always easy to find out what really works. “One of the challenges in schools learning from one another,” says Shea, “is that some of the more sophisticated services are behind firewalls, so it is hard to see what other schools are doing.”

Through its own Web site and through the EduTools project (, WCET provides guidelines, streaming videos, Web casts, PowerPoint slides, and other resources for improving and fine-tuning student service efforts in many areas.

Proprietary Often Means Student-Centered

SIS lessons learned in the distance education market have proven valuable to all kinds of institutions. In the same way, techniques developed by proprietary schools are now being scrutinized by traditional institutions. Mahendran Jawaharlal, who spent years as a top executive in the traditional higher education software arena, is now the President of Campus Management Corp. (, which has recently started to expand beyond its original heavy focus on proprietary and career schools.

“Things have traditionally been much more competitive in the for-profit world,” says Jawaharlal. “We have to make things easy to do, and fast. Our platform [CampusVue] is built on the idea of getting students in the door and in a seat quickly, so they can start learning.” Retention is also an important part of the for-profit model, which demands a highly predictable model of student enrollment.

To achieve this focus, CampusVue allows students to apply for admission, secure financial aid, and register for courses online. Specialists can help with transfer credit and financial aid problems, aided by tight integration with call-center technology, third-party financial aid services, and online chat.

Students can order books and supplies online via Campus Management’s partner, Ambassador College Bookstores. An alert can be triggered to an admissions counselor if a student hasn’t ordered any books, revealing how a personalized approach to retention and enrollment is at the heart of the system. Because the students, schools, and bookstore are linked in real time, the students get their books faster, even if they change courses.

Job placement is an important success gauge for proprietary schools, so career services are tightly integrated into CampusVue. Potential employers can add job offerings from within the portal and find matches with students who have posted their qualifications through the placement office.

Jawaharlal and Campus Management are betting that their student-centered approach, honed in the proprietary market, will now prove attractive to traditional institutions that want to stress personalized student services. They may be right; time—and the students— will tell.

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