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Business Officer Magazine

Greater Expectations

Every year, students want more stuff, parents want more say. While you address their rising demands, help both parties understand the value of your institution’s most important asset: education.

By Karla Hignite

In reality, says McGuire, the parent factor plays a small role among the 550 traditional-age students enrolled in the women’s college of Trinity Washington, which also encompasses schools of education and professional studies serving working adults. Yet those two moments encapsulate dramatically escalating expectations about campus amenities and the close emotional bonds that some families maintain as parents turn their children loose to mature into young men and women. Those two scenarios likewise highlight what McGuire argues is the duty of higher education: namely, to provide an environment conducive for students to learn. And that, she says, includes learning to manage their own advocacy and find their way through the maze of interpersonal conflict and ethical decision making called “life.”

Like the students they teach, colleges and universities grapple with peer pressure as they face competition for top students and talented faculty. McGuire is fully aware, for example, that replacing current 1960s-era dorms with apartment-style residences would likely increase her college’s enrollment and improve the institution’s ability to attract a more geographically diverse student body. In fact, modern student housing is on Trinity Washington’s master agenda, along with the redevelopment of the university’s academic center to incorporate more classrooms equipped with smart technologies. The latter is what will appeal most to Trinity Washington’s larger student segment: more than 1,000 commuters.

Striking the right balance between fulfilling students’ wants and giving them what they need is a complex undertaking, especially when confronting today’s tech-attuned consumers. Mission, audience, and institutional philosophy play a part in the decision matrix determining campus offerings. And, while leaders focus on the need to communicate the real value and purpose of higher education to a new generation of students and their families, they must also come up with the goods.

First Impressions

The truth is, if you don’t build it—or at least keep it clean—they might not come.

Whether for lawns or learning spaces or what you serve for lunch, money must be spent on making and maintaining a good impression. The best way to target dollars to what matters most is to listen up and look around.

“It’s a given that we’re going to experience increased expectations,” says Gerald Whittington, vice president for business, finance, and technology, Elon University, North Carolina. “Instead of managing expectations, we try to anticipate what students want so that we can get in front of a request before students ask for it.” Institution leaders not only engage in ongoing discussions with students, prospective students, parents, and friends of Elon, but they also research what other institutions are offering and monitor external trends taking shape.

For example, the university is bringing 670 single bedrooms online for the fall 2007 semester, partly in response to the larger societal reality that many incoming students have grown up never sharing a room at home. While that may be seen as simply catering to students’ desires for privacy, creating a campus living experience that attracts students is important for other reasons, says Whittington. Several years ago, the university changed a policy that now requires sophomores as well as freshmen to live on campus. “From our research,” explains Whittington, “we know that a higher freshman-to-sophomore retention rate occurs when sophomores live on campus.” Since implementing the policy, Elon’s retention of first-year-to-second-year students has increased from 86 percent in 1999-2000 to 89 percent for 2005-06. The four-year graduation rate during that same time grew from 53 percent to 65 percent.

In other enhancements, the university is building a restaurant-style dining venue and has made meal plans fully flexible. Elon’s strategy for improving its food service program included conducting in-depth student focus groups and rounding up students for a road trip to tour other campus facilities. Leaders wanted to hear and see firsthand what had greatest appeal. According to Vickie Somers, Elon’s director of auxiliary services, the university’s revamped food services program includes more venues on campus, all with significantly different menus and with options that cover all hours of the day.

Overall, says Whittington, “we spend significant institutional energy trying to anticipate what students expect, not only from a services standpoint but also in terms of academic programming—what makes a good history program, or what ensures the best experience for a graduate student in our school of business.”

Convenience Needs

Whether food for the body or mind, round-the-clock access to services and seamless transactions are virtually assumed in a wireless, Web age. Elon University has responded by partnering with its software company and bookstore vendor to make ordering textbooks a breeze. When students access their class schedules online and click on a course, all texts associated with that class appear on screen. Another click and students can choose whether they want “new” or “used” for each resource. Finally, says Somers, after students place the order and select a payment type, they can choose from numerous shipping options, including having books boxed and ready for pickup when they arrive on campus.

Waukesha County Technical College, Pewaukee, Wisconsin, also looks for every opportunity to streamline student services and related business processes. In addition to online admissions applications and course registration, says Lesley Frederick, admissions director, WCTC students can access via the Web details on new-student orientation, campus tours, college information nights, and much more.

Applying for and receiving financial aid is also easier and faster these days, according to Ben Dobner, WCTC’s financial aid manager. “Many students have an ATM service concept. They think everything takes place in real time,” says Dobner. While he can’t promise instantaneous service in the financial aid arena, after careful review of application materials, he and his staff decreased the number of required forms by half. Dobner’s next goal is to reduce processing and aid distribution turnaround by 50 percent as well. Currently 96 percent of WCTC students who file for financial aid do so online, thanks to information and application materials readily available from the college’s Web site.

Bridging the Generational Technology Gap

Tackling the Cost–Benefit Trade-off

As the costs of education have increased, parents have adopted more of a consumer mentality, asserts Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts. “Directly linked to the cost of education for many parents is the notion that their investment should ensure a much greater income stream for their sons and daughters.” Higher education already accomplishes that, argues Bacow. “The return on investment in education has never been higher than today when you look at the differential between what high school and college graduates earn.”

What bothers Bacow is that, in many cases, parents seem to have lost sight of the true value of a liberal education, viewing education primarily as preparation for the job market. “Many parents believe it is a university’s responsibility to make sure we guarantee their sons and daughters jobs when they graduate,” says Bacow. “But I tell parents this: ‘Our job is to educate students for the world they will inhabit.’”

Developing interesting people. Talk to industry leaders, suggests Bacow. “They will tell you they are looking for critical thinking abilities, written and oral communication skills, and people who are capable of being part of a team and can succeed in a diverse workforce.” That is what you get from a good liberal education regardless of your major, says Bacow. He is convinced there is little correlation between what an individual studies as an undergraduate and what he or she does in life. “We study certain subjects not because they will enhance our future earning potential but because they make us more interesting people.”

That’s what Bacow tells students every chance he gets. Yet, he concedes this can be a tough sell. “Students today have been programmed since they were five years old to have precious little free time,” he says. “They arrive on campus thinking they should know what they want to study and should definitely [pursue a] double major while they’re here.” The problem runs deeper, notes Bacow. “Our nationwide concern with the education of the labor force is missing another important function of higher education and a liberal education, which is to educate citizens to assume their role in democracy.”

Fostering responsible, reasonable citizens. Many college and university campuses are hotbeds of civic leaders in the making, with students organizing around political, social, and environmental issues. “It may be green power, endowment transparency, or living wages for janitorial workers,” says Bacow. Among its many distinctions, Tufts is a recognized leader in the green campus movement. Bacow convened the Taillores Conference in 2005 at the Tufts European Center in France, paving the way for an international network committed to elevating the civic and social missions of their institutions.

“What I try to do when specific issues such as green energy emerge on my campus is to frame the choices we have to make individually and as a university community,” says Bacow. “To show leadership, it’s not only the university’s responsibility to, in this case, conserve energy. It’s also the responsibility of students to conserve resources. So, I naturally ask students to demonstrate their commitment to changing their behavior patterns,” says Bacow.

He recalls several years ago when institution leaders endured considerable backlash because the university instituted a modest per-page charge for printing services in the library. In the past, students could download and print a 200-page document whenever they wanted. “When you set a zero price on a scarce resource, you encourage over-consumption,” notes Bacow. When the new policy was first announced, articles appeared in the Tufts student newspaper with “students pounding the proverbial desk” about having to pay for paper, says Bacow.

Creating conscientious consumers. The more recent outcry among some students at Tufts has been for a fully wireless campus—a request Bacow views in light of how the rising costs of education have translated into a growing consumer expectation with respect to services. “My response is that while our wireless capability in certain places on campus makes sense, I don’t know of any student at this institution whose education has been impaired by the inability to sit on the library roof and surf the Web. This is costly stuff,” says Bacow.

“I look at every resource allocation at Tufts through the lens of how this will help us enhance our ability to attract the best students and faculty and create the best learning environment for students,” says Bacow. “We are in a fortunate position. We receive 15,400 applications for 1,275 freshman slots. But we want to be fully need blind, and that also costs money.”

Bacow believes that leaders must do a better job of framing questions and responses in terms that students and parents understand concerning trade-offs that institutions of higher education must often make. “If all you look at are the benefits and not the costs, it’s easy to express preferences,” says Bacow. “But if I ask students to choose between wireless capability or more financial aid, how would they respond? It all depends on how you frame the question.”

No longer thought of as fancy bells and whistles, high-tech tools are considered by today’s students as standard operating procedure for communicating and learning. If your institution wants to be heard and understood—and attract prospective students—you have to speak the same language.

Waukesha County Technical College has gotten that message. The college provides network accounts that link students to e-mail, network file storage, and a learning management system with a built-in blogging feature. Ninety percent of classrooms are equipped for multimedia, and the campus is fully wireless. Students also have access to a 90-station computer lab open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and a help desk that is staffed 80-plus hours per week. According to Randy Coorough, WCTC’s director of academic technologies, the college is currently exploring new ways to distribute content, including delivering class materials and lectures via podcast so that they are available for online students and are fully portable for others on the run.

While WCTC’s high-tech campus is a great marketing tool to attract new students, it’s the current students who are influencing where the college is going with technology systems, says Coorough. “In part, this reflects the changing nature of the students we are serving and the nature of our programs, which are increasing in technological sophistication.”

The remaining challenge is getting faculty up to speed with incorporating new technologies in the classroom. “Years ago,” says Coorough, “the push to get faculty to embrace new teaching methods came largely from administration. Today, students are driving that charge.” WCTC’s response: In the college’s Teaching Innovation Center, faculty can experiment with new tools and techniques for developing online content. The college also conducts a three-day program each year during which faculty can share best practices with peers.

All the focus on electronic and digital tools requires significant capital dollars, says Cary Tessmann, chief financial officer. In 2006-07 alone, WCTC spent $1.5 million to upgrade computer labs and retrofit existing buildings to incorporate high-tech and wireless capability. Ironically, investment in systems and automation has pushed the college to consider even more ambitious—but often cost-effective—expenditures. “Centralized technology procurement allows us to make collegewide decisions,” says Tessmann. In addition to purchases, installation and support are also centrally managed across the campus, including all classroom amenities. Coorough explains also that WCTC participates in a strong technical college system consortium that keeps costs low, allowing for better deals on purchasing, repairs, and warranties.

Healthy Concerns

Although technology keeps families connected while students are often living many miles from home, parents want reassurance that the transition to campus life will be a healthy one for their sons and daughters.

Elon University has assumed a frontline stance in health services, offering the most current in options and care. Because the university’s student population is predominantly female (59 percent), one priority is to offer complete well-woman care, including gynecological services. With the release of the cervical cancer vaccination Gardasil, for example, the university began offering its female students the vaccine in fall 2006, says Jana Lynn Patterson, Elon’s associate dean of students. All students have access to on-campus treatment and the institution’s pharmaceutical formulary, saving them trips off campus for doctor visits and prescription purchases. “We believe students are more likely to follow through with care,” says Patterson, “if they can be seen, treated, and medicated at the same place.”

McGuire is also committed to quality health care for Trinity Washington’s students, even though it represents a huge expense for the institution. All full-time students enrolled in the women’s college are required to join the student health plan. “We build services against that plan,” says McGuire, “so it’s important to have full participation.” Even so, in charging $166 per student per semester, the institution recovers only one third of the costs it incurs. While we don’t like to have mandatory fees tacked on to student expenses,” says McGuire, “we have to ensure a volume that will enable us to keep providing care.”

So far, Whittington has heard no serious complaints about the cost of health services at Elon. “In our experience, students and parents are willing to pay for excellent services and programs they want,” he says. “They complain when they pay and don’t think they receive value. Satisfaction is never about price only—but the ratio of value to price.”

Perceived Parental Rights

Whittington doesn’t think it should surprise anyone that parents have higher expectations these days. “Many of today’s parents are sophisticated consumers of education because they themselves have advanced degrees,” he says. “These are individuals who have been there and who want the college experience to be even better for their sons and daughters. So, of course they are going to have strong opinions about what that experience should include.” Yes, some parents are over-involved, says Whittington. “In those cases, part of the responsibility of institution leaders is to guide parents to help their sons and daughters start learning to make their own decisions.”

One way Elon’s leaders get in front of parents’ expectations is to schedule interactions during new student orientation. In addition to hearing from staff about campus services, parents can meet with academic advisers. “Part of that time is spent discussing the transition of students from high school to college,” says Patterson, “and how parents can help [students] develop autonomy.” At the same time, institutional leaders must understand that, culturally, parents of this current generation of students have tended to participate significantly in the lives of their children as they’ve grown up, says Patterson. “You can’t just cut parents off once students come to campus.” Elon hosts a parents’ council, which is not a policy-setting entity but a sounding board for parental concerns.

Proactive communication with parents is also key, notes Patterson. “Our approach has always been to help parents understand institutional processes. We provide parents the same information that we provide students, whether that is information about campus services or sexual assault policies,” says Patterson. Posting the university’s student handbook online, for example, allows parents to access information on everything from how the institution handles security issues to what is available in terms of health counseling services.

A Sense of Entitlement

Students’ wants and parents’ expectations are certainly subject to change. At Trinity Washington, that’s in large part because the student base of its women’s college has shifted from predominantly East Coasters hailing from traditional Catholic families to mostly urban minorities, including new immigrants. McGuire believes those demographic changes influence the debate about amenities on her campus. “Students are shoppers. They visit friends on other campuses and compare notes,” she says. “Our students want the same things everyone else does, but they are probably more focused than most on quality of education. Getting a degree means so much to them,” says McGuire. “What is most important to us is that students can afford to be here. We need to help students understand and value the education, not the stuff.

McGuire acknowledges the temptation for institutions to fall into an arms-race mentality, competing head to head using their amenities for leverage. “That is where the great cost drivers come in, and it makes it harder for institutions that can’t continue to ratchet up their services,” she says. What McGuire finds interesting is that as the costs of services and education in general have increased, so has a sense of entitlement.

“Students will come to me and say that for what they pay to go here they should get ‘fill in the blank,’ ” says McGuire. “Even among our adult commuter students, some think that paying $4,000 for classes means they should be able to park wherever they want. Sometimes,” she says, “you have to remind students what their tuition buys: the time and talent of faculty and a decent, functional classroom with state-of-the-art technology.” McGuire believes that institutional leaders have to stand firm. “We can’t afford to provide everything that students or parents may want.”

Ways to Win-Win

One reason McGuire is certain that new student residences would bring an enrollment boost is that she has seen what happened with the university’s new $20 million sports facility. Following construction of the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports, freshmen enrollment in the women’s college grew in fall 2006 from an average of approximately 125 to approximately 200 new students. “We attribute a good deal of that growth to the sports center,” says McGuire.

The project wasn’t an easy sell, and it took the university almost 10 years from concept to opening. While the desire for a sports facility was driven largely by long-time student demand, says McGuire, institution leaders also understood that if Trinity Washington wished to maintain its reputation as a first-class women’s college, university leadership could not deny the importance of women’s sports. Even so, the board resisted spending the then-proposed $10 million to build a facility for what seemed a handful of student athletes.

Fast-forward several years to the time that the board gave the go-ahead to spend $20 million. The difference in concept was the clincher, says McGuire. “As we thought through this further, we recognized the need for a signature sports venue for women in the Washington region beyond our campus.” The university was able to leverage significant gifts and grants by partnering with the Women’s Sports Foundation, an organization through which female championship athletes create educational and support programs for other women and girls. The center also serves the surrounding community, offering sports lessons and health club memberships and renting space to amateur athletic teams. The roughly $800,000 in annual revenue is enough to cover operating expenses, says McGuire.

How do you gauge what programs and services are necessary to remain competitive in recruiting students and faculty? Where do you draw the line? E-mail to share details.

The huge undertaking of the sports center has made McGuire mindful of two things: 1) to think creatively about providing services and amenities in ways that don’t overburden institution resources, and 2) to balance the expectations of current students with what you offer future enrollees. Once construction of the sports facility was underway, those students nearing graduation realized that they would likely never get to use the new center, says McGuire. “We had to show current students we were still committed to meeting their needs.”

Even as plans loom for future residential spaces and academic upgrades, the university has reinvested several million dollars in current structures to add computer labs, buy new furniture, and improve heating and air conditioning. “Nothing glamorous,” notes McGuire. Despite her personal disdain for allowing cable access in dorm rooms, she has even agreed to explore options for providers to sell services directly to students. Something McGuire still refuses, however, is to settle disputes by talking with parents on a student’s cell phone.

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, is senior editor of Business Officer.