College enrollment has been falling for nearly a decade, which should be a warning for college administrators and everyone who cares about social progress and a robust economy.
While a college education still provides immense value, the students investing in degrees today no longer perceive that value, largely because higher education has not adapted to students’ evolving needs.
Historically, post-secondary institutions were designed for “traditional” students. But increasingly, college students come from different backgrounds. Minority students now account for 46 percent of the college population. Many enrollees are older than 30, and more than one in five has a child.
“In other words, just as customer bases evolve over time, so do student bodies. Yet higher ed has failed to keep up,” Henao says.
He suggests looking to Disney and other companies for customer service insight. When Disney detected a falloff in customer satisfaction among theme park visitors 20 years ago, it created “Magic+,” a suite of technologies to personalize and enrich consumers’ experience, he notes. Similarly, online shoe retailer Zappos stopped evaluating call-center workers on a call’s length and instead emphasized customers’ call satisfaction.
By comparison, Henao asks, where’s the typical university’s customer service number or one-stop service portal? From registering for classes to paying bills to accessing advising and tutoring, much of a student's transactional relationship with their institution should be a seamless digital experience.
“Higher ed must also prioritize the equity and inclusion initiatives embraced by corporate America,” Henao writes. Nearly 90 percent of students think it’s important for their schools to direct more funding toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. But far fewer believe their institutions are actually delivering adequate support.
That’s problematic, given the challenges that students from less-advantaged backgrounds experience. For example, around 58 percent of college students—and 70 percent of Black and 64 percent of Hispanic students—experienced food or housing insecurity or homelessness in 2020.
Henao also urged colleges to identify new ways to remove barriers to student success. Since student bodies across many college campuses are incredibly diverse, it should be a mandate to deliver services that meet their unique needs—just as companies do with their customers.
Such changes won’t just optimize student success and provide a sense of belonging. They’ll also help to bolster the economy and increase financial mobility, Henao concludes.
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