What is the Student Experience at a College or University?

Do you prefer shopping at Target or Walmart? Or Amazon or Google? To a large extent, your preference is based on your user experience - your unconscious, emotional reaction to the convenience, palette of colors, product placement, ease of use, and perceived economic value.

At colleges and universities, there has been a focus on student success, which in many institutions has been translated into numbers, such as first-year retention, graduation rates in four or six years, job placement after graduation, and staring salary (assuming you are lucky to find a full-time job) upon graduation. With less than 40 percent of college students earning a bachelor's degree within four years, is this truly a measure of success? And there is of course a debate on student loans and the impact of student debt on student success.

As befits academic institutions, a fair number have turned the research lens on themselves, examining the concept of "student experience" as they would any topic in the social sciences. Andreea Orîndarua, a doctoral student at the Bucharest Academy of Economic Studies in Romania, sums up recent efforts to do just that: "Adopting the student-as-customer model within a higher education setting is defined as an attempt to increased accountability and modernization of the academic life under the pressure of customer on higher education (Furedi, 2011)," she writes. When it comes to defining students' satisfaction, Navarro, Iglesias and Torres (2005) refer to it "as a short-term attitude that results from the evaluation of their experience with the education service received."

But this kind of analysis, helpful as it may be, takes us only so far. I believe insufficient research has been done on the "softer" area of the student experience. As a former manager and executive in the private sector, if I had a choice between two candidates for a job that had the same hard skills (e.g., marketing or accounting skills), the one with the better soft skills got the job. But how do you measure soft skills, such as self-confidence, empathy, diplomacy and etiquette? You certainly know it when you see it.

Echoing this sentiment, architect Jeff Homes offers this observation: "In any business scenario, customer support service bears great significance...The best possible way of achieving this is to concentrate more focus on fulfilling the expectations and needs of the customers, namely their students."

The student experience is the softer side of student success since it focuses on meeting the expectations of students. Some studies suggest that a first-year college student makes up his/her mind between Thanksgiving and the holiday season as to whether the institution is the right "fit." That it meets their expectations. If not, they drop out or move to another institution. Just like a website. If you are not comfortable with Amazon, you move on to Google.

"Higher education serves an almost captive customer," says education blogger Justin Zackal. "Institutions aren't responding to customers off the street. But that's all the more reason to shift the customer service culture, offering clearer communication that is instructive and preventative. For example, even if a problem is the student's fault and he or she didn't follow directions, front-line staff should see it as a teaching opportunity." In other words, colleges and universities need to model behavior. It may sound basic, even obvious, but it cannot be overemphasized.

I'm with Peter Konwerski, Dean of Student Affairs at George Washington University, who recognizes the value and the power of making a connection, however abstract that may seem: "We hope to provide our students with the experiences that make them feel passionate..."

That's what we try to do at Woodbury University. What gets students passionate (or not!) when they interface with the business office, financial aid, the director of the residence halls, or their many professors? Do they have input on important campus matters like safety and the quality of the food? Are "customer reviews" collected to improve student expectations of value? Do the students interface with the President and other members of the cabinet to create a sense of shared accountability?
The point is that students need to have a voice. And the administration needs to listen. Yes, we are formally taught to write and to speak, but many of us are not taught to listen or to think about the softer intangibles.

David Steele-Figueredo is President of Woodbury University in Burbank, Calif.