Is higher education ready to serve the new traditional and connected students?

The demographics of higher education students are changing rapidly. Their needs and expectations are shifting. Institutions that are not prepared to serve the needs of new traditional students face significant challenges in meeting their enrollment and retention goals.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

I have the privilege to visit colleges and universities on a very regular basis. I work closely with higher education CIOs, CMOs, and most recently, presidents and provosts to better understand their digital transformation vision and strategy. Higher education trailblazers recognize that all digital transformation in education must start and end with student success in mind.

My home is Boston, so I have plenty of opportunities to speak with students, faculty, and administration from dozens of schools in New England. I am also the chairperson for Salesforce.org's chief marketing officers (CMO) council -- a group of 20+ best and brightest CMOs trailblazers in higher education -- which give me the opportunity to regularly meet and discuss the latest business and technology trends in higher education. Digital transformation is about technology, culture and business model innovation, so our discussions often entail multiple dimensions of tactical, operational and strategic objectives.

I have also engaged with thousands of students in the past few years, and I can definitively tell you that today's students are digital natives with incredible levels of creativity, ambition, high technology IQ, and an unquenchable thirst for purpose, values, and sense of belonging. These digital natives -- born with mobile, social, cloud and analytics technologies around them -- expect institutions to leverage technology to eliminate process friction and to improve their experience throughout their learning journey. Given my active involvement with student collaboration, mentoring and recruitment related activities, I was thrilled to see research from Salesforce.org focused on how higher education institutions can better serve students.  

To better understand the significant trends, insights, and opportunities for higher education institutions to improve the student experience across the entire life-cycle, Salesforce conducted a North America and Europe survey of over 1,000 students and staff and published its findings in the first edition of the Connected Student Report. The report reveals the implications of shifting student demographics, including the rise of the new traditional student in higher education. The report looks closely at student and staff expectations to better understand how technology can drive more connected engagements across recruitment and admissions, student experience, and advancement operations.

"Institutions that can successfully use technology to not only personalize the student experience but also drive academic success, have a unique chance to deepen engagement among today's students and alumni for years to come." -- Salesforce

The rise of the new traditional student

According to the report, today's higher education landscape is changing rapidly. There is a growing number of adult learners and institutions must recognize the different needs and expectations of the new traditional student. From an institution's point of view, increased competition, reduced government funding, and new student demographics are causing declining enrollment numbers, challenges with student retention, and an increased focus on student well-being. For example, 8% of staff said onsite childcare played a role in past year enrollment increases.


The new traditional student 

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

How can institutions support new traditional students at scale? 

  • Build meaningful relationships using tailored communications throughout the student journey.
  • Have the right technology in place to adequately support students wherever they may be.
  • Highlight affordability through targeted marketing to stand out from the crowd and boost enrollment.
  • Consider new ways to connect with students through personalized, proactive, and digital-first experiences that foster a sense of belonging.

Students expect a connected experience 

Students expect their institutions to know who they are. One of the greatest areas of opportunity for institutions to improve their students' satisfaction lies in the digital experience. Only 44% of students report that they are having an "outstanding" or "very good" student experience. Here are key findings of the report regarding the overall student digital experience:

  • Eighty-one percent of students report they should not have to provide the same information to different departments
  • Sixty-seven percent of students agree with the statement that "it's frustrating to have to sign into more than one app to get the info I need" 
  • Seventy-eight percent of students expect their experience to be personalized, yet 65% of staff report that it is hard to get the data they need to help students due to organizational silos/bureaucracy
  • Forty-five percent of students want a centralized app for accessing student information, but only 30% have one

Student expectations for online support 

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

Online support for students is not readily available. When it comes to getting help -- whether it's with registration, financial aid, or academics -- today's students don't have time to sit in an office for hours to wait for an appointment or trek across campus to seek out an answer. There are significant gaps that exist for the ability to get questions answered, one-on-one online advising, and online application support.

A meaningful online presence matters

Prospective students are researching institutions across multiple digital channels: Through social media, online rankings, and news.  The report states: 

"Today's students are on the go, and they are primarily researching institutions through digital channels like websites, social media, and online news. These digital platforms are becoming more influential on student perceptions and decision-making, especially because digital media provides prospective students with a view inside an institution's culture without setting foot on campus." 


Digital and social media marketing are here to stay

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

Among marketing staff, 45% list "better use of social media to engage students" as a top priority.

Belonging is key to student success

Creating a sense of belonging starts with tailored communications at the beginning of the student journey and continues throughout their experience. " That sense of connection and community truly starts with a student's very first interaction with an institution -- when they visit your website and request information," this according to the report.

78% of students say personalized messages help convey that their college/ university cares about their success.


Personalized messages help establish a sense of community 

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

While only 38% of staff consider personalized messages a marketing priority, this type of student engagement is another area of opportunity for significant ROI across higher ed. Technology platforms can make personalized communications scalable.

Technology enables a supportive community

Access to self-service help is one area where technology can have the biggest impact on creating a supportive community.


Creating a student-centric support system on and off campus

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

Today's students are on the move between work, school, and home. A majority (80%) of students agree that technology plays a vital role in their success.

However, their needs are not being met:

  • Forty-seven percent of students want a self-service chat tool for support, but only 26% say it is available.
  • Forty percent of students expect online communities by academic focus, but only 27% have these at their institution.
  • Thirty-nine percent of students expect to be able to schedule an advising appointment on a mobile device, yet only 27% can. 

Students prefer digital communication channels. The findings reveal that on average, staff say 61% of their students are something other than full-time students ages 18 to 22. Thus, it's no surprise that a large majority of students (69%) prefer to request help via technology or self-help channels.


Students prefer digital communication channels

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

Students have come to expect access to digital platforms to enable their experience both on and off-campus.

  • Seventy-nine percent of students say they are more likely to reach out to advisors when technology makes them more accessible. This also extends beyond academic support to mental health, stress management, and overall wellbeing. 
  • Over half of students (51%) look to find this kind of support on an institution's website or via email communications (42%). 
  • Close to half (42%) of students say digital communications around wellbeing and ways to best manage stress show that an institution is invested in their success.

Innovating to support today's students

Institutions are looking to digitally transform to best serve the needs of today's students at scale. Embracing video chat, chatbots and virtual reality (VR) are technologies that can help institutions foster a deeper connection between staff and students.

Approximately three-quarters of staff currently use or plan to use video chat (76%), chatbots (75%), and/or virtual reality (72%)


Staff are adopting advanced technology to support students virtually

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

Artificial intelligence can improve interactions between staff and students. According to the report, institutions are deploying AI technology across departments, allowing faculty and staff to provide students with real-time answers on admissions, academics, financial aid, and on-campus activities. AI makes it possible to intervene with students and provide tailored support at scale. Some key findings around AI usage and benefits:

  • Sixty-nine percent of staff currently use or plan to use AI in the next two years.
  • Most staff currently use or plan to use AI within the next two years for student engagement (40%), academic planning -- advising, degree plans, major changes (35%), and registration, records, financial aid, billing payment (35%).

Institutions have an opportunity to close student support gaps 

Salesforce.org Connected Student Report 2020

In summary, transforming the student engagement into lifelong relationships requires a 360-degree view of every student along their entire journey. Delivering a personalized experience at the speed of need throughout the student life-cycle means placing the student at the center of everything your institution does. 

In a hyper-connected, knowledge-sharing economy, where the experience that you provide is as important as the products and services of your institution, the ability to anticipate the needs of your stakeholders (students, staff and entire community) will require investments in technology (AI-powered CRM platform, AI-powered mobile applications (chatbots) and mixed reality (VR/AR) solutions.  

You can learn more about the Salesforce State of Connected Student Report here.

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