College classroom

Reinventing the Student Journey

5 min read

Institutions that dictate what a student’s journey should be are alienating their audiences. 

A substantial reason for declining enrollment and retention rates is the fact that many prospective students are questioning the value of higher education. When students do not feel a sense of belonging on campus, or they feel overwhelmed by complex, antiquated processes, they’ll seek other options. 

In a recent discussion, hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and Mongoose, experienced college staff members sought to reinvent the student journey, providing input and examples on what is being done around the country to make students feel accepted and seen on campus.


It Starts With Conversations

It’s impossible to know how students are finding their way through the various steps of the college journey without asking and engaging with them. Students who form a connection with an institution are not only more likely to attend classes there, they’re also more likely to graduate. To form that connection, schools need to ensure students feel like they belong.


“When students are educated, trained, involved, and engaged in campus environments where they feel like they matter, that there's a support system where students are free and encouraged to be themselves. They go to class, they  join clubs and organizations, they are retained, they graduate at higher rates. They become connected. Belonging matters, but it must be nurtured, facilitated, fostered, and promoted.” 

- Terrell Strayhorn, Professor of Higher Education and Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University


Some might dismiss “belonging” as a buzzword, but students have real concerns about their own futures, their families, and their investment. If they do not feel connected to a college or university, they’ll invest in other opportunities.


How Can Schools Meet Students Where They’re At?

Even the institutions that understand the importance of engaging with their students don’t always bridge the gap. Schools  form programs, create communication campaigns, and develop curriculum to make students feel welcome, but there can be many roadblocks in the way of that connection. 

Some students might not have access to technology. Commuter students who live off-campus often have no idea where to acquire resources. Some students have busy family lives and work obligations that make it difficult to research what’s available to them. 

Admittance is not acceptance. College staff members can go the extra mile to be there for students and it could be as simple as sending a text message or adjusting schedules.


“We lean on marketing materials for belonging, but it goes beyond what we present on the surface. We need to define what the campus community is all about. How do we engage students, proactively, not only when it’s convenient for staff and faculty? Expand office hours, engage students on the weekend, and get out of the traditional model.” 

- Jamila S. Lyn ,Director of Specialized Programming at Benedict College


You can have high impact policies and high impact programming, but if you don’t connect  with students, it’s going to fall apart.  The most efficient way to figure out where students are struggling in their journey is to ask them. Take the responses to important questions like, “Are you having trouble figuring out this form?” or, “Is there a reason you missed this appointment?” to understand what barriers exist, update processes, and create a support model for students.


“I've seen a lot of our clients be successful with being a liaison between students and the community. The community that the colleges are in are rich with resources, and if the students are able to be exposed to those resources, that can be really helpful. I've also seen our clients not only have meaningful conversations with students, but with the workers at the institution that are exposed to the students. People who work in food service can ask students what's going on? How can we help?”

- Dave Marshall, Founder and CEO of Mongoose


The Pandemic Set Student Engagement Back

Colleges and universities had challenges before the pandemic, but the two years of isolation and virtual struggles amplified the need for student engagement solutions. There’s opportunity in adversity, and the lessons we’ve learned from the results of the pandemic can help institutions change the way they think about their campuses as a community. 


“We are challenged by the pandemic. Our students have been through two years of learned disengagement. Not being in community. We’re almost at a point where we have to re-define what community means again. Belonging to what? That’s what we’re focusing on and being intentional about, this change, and how we re-establish what community means to students.” 

- Gail Zimmerman, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at University of Virginia’s College at Wise


Because students went through two years of remote-dominated learning, there were student leadership roles that had always been taken for granted that disappeared. Student club leaders and organization leaders weren’t present to show the next generation of students how to function. University of Virginia created a position of Vibrant Campus Coordinator to help re-establish those important student leader roles. 


Utilizing Technology to Engage Students

Higher ed is full of compassionate people who want to help students, but staff members are challenged by a lack of time and resources. The right technology, like an engagement platform, can help staff members save time and reach more students. There are also helpful features that make it possible to personalize messages and better connect with your audience, all while saving staff time. Features like data integration can also prevent staff from alienating students by calling them the wrong name.

“Everybody wants to go to a place where somebody knows their name. But for our trans and nonbinary students, it is psychologically, socially, emotionally harmful, and devastating to be to be dead-named, to be called by a name that you don't identify with. I think Mongoose’s Cadence and other technologies are very powerful for helping campuses do this. When we do that hard work it leads to belonging and ultimately student success.” 

-Terrell Strayhorn, Professor of Higher Education and Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University


Know What’s Working

Traditionally, institutions use metrics like retention and graduation rates to determine what is working and where help is needed. But, these results can be broad and hard to analyze. Using softer metrics like event participation, traffic patterns on campus, or counseling appointments can help staff better pinpoint where help is needed and who may need it the most.

When institutions know more about their students and can identify obstacles, it’s easy to see why students choose a different path. When some schools discover students are having problems with technology, they make loaner laptops available to help keep students stay engaged. When students are forced to leave for finances, schools can create scholarships for emergency aid. The only way to know what’s necessary is to stay connected and find out where the pain points are.

The journey from hopeful prospective student to enthusiastic alum is filled with pitfalls that can only be avoided with proper support from institutions themselves. 


For more on reinventing the student journey, watch the entire Chronicle Forum below.




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