The time a student spends at university is often a transformative period of their life.
For most, it is the start of a journey that will lead them to expand their horizons, develop new skills and, hopefully, embark on their desired career. It is a period of self-learning, where students can equip themselves with soft skills that will enable them to thrive throughout life – professionally and personally.
The support that we offer students along this journey can play a big role in helping them maximise the value of their university experience. Effective student support services help students survive and thrive – but getting it wrong can result in poorer academic performances and increased dropout rates.
With university admissions rising, online and blended learning increasingly commonplace, and student numbers expected to increase in the post-pandemic world, many universities are faced with having to significantly scale up support services to give large, diverse students bodies access to the resources and, perhaps most importantly, the people they need.
This is particularly challenging in the online-first environment we live in right now. Scheduling a 15-minute Zoom call with a student is all well and good, but it can be harder to spot subtle signs that they are struggling via online videoconferencing, which makes it trickier to offer timely help.
However, there are steps you can take to ensure that student support services are able to scale up to meet this challenge and provide effective support for students throughout their time at university.
A personal approach
Growing student numbers can create problems if your student services function is under-resourced, because colleagues – no matter how well trained – will lack the time to get to know students individually and spot issues.
And with online education now ubiquitous at universities globally, it can be easy for students who need help to fall between the cracks of differing departments, key contacts and individual specialists.
This is where a set contact for each student – or a success coach, as we like to call them – can prove invaluable. Having one individual allocated to a student who they can forge a relationship with and rely on through the good times and the bad means that they know where to go when they need support or advice.
When considering how to maximise the one-to-one nature of your support function, think about how to effectively escalate key issues and signpost specific experts.
Frontline support staff cannot be expected to be pros in all the challenges that might be faced by a large, diverse group of students, they should instead be seen as the hub of the student support wheel – directing students to the right expert who can work with them to address issues they may be facing.
Experts on the welfare side should talk and engage with individuals on the academic side, too, to ensure that red flags are identified, that no issues fall through the cracks and that students are provided with appropriate support.
All this helps to ensure that meaningful, targeted preventive action is taken early, before an issue has been exacerbated or reached crisis point, giving students the support to meet any challenges ahead.
Creating multiple touchpoints
It’s always been important to offer students multiple touchpoints as they embark on their university journey – but this is increasingly key in a post-pandemic world.
Alongside frontline support, a robust telephone and live chat option can be incredibly valuable – backed up by a remote team who are able to jump in when needed.
This emulates the kind of support that students are used to accessing in other settings, it recognises that everyone is different, and enables each individual to engage with the university in whichever way makes them feel most comfortable – increasing the likelihood of students seeking help.
It also assists time management, allowing students to access support services during study days at home when they are likely to feel calmer, more relaxed and under less pressure.
Recognising that even the most proactive of staff teams cannot spot every issue impacting students, it is important to have solid technological solutions in place that back up teams on the ground.
There are systems that enable predictive reporting to take place – identifying students who show hallmarks of being at risk and processing the relevant data so that teams can be alerted early. Designed to complement the reactive processes in place, this technology provides packets of student information that allow staff teams to provide proactive, targeted outreach well ahead of any reported issues emerging. Early intervention enables conversations that can help keep students on the right track.
Communication is key
When scaling up or adapting services, internal communication is always key. We can make changes with the best intentions, but if staff don’t know where to direct a student when they ask for help, the whole process is undermined and becomes a hindrance, rather than a help.
It’s important to sell the idea internally and take key figures through the rationale behind any planned changes to secure their understanding and backing, before rolling this out through the wider business.
Consider the size of the organisation you’re representing. Universities often have hundreds of staff based across different locations. Think about the impact of staff turnover, holidays and sabbaticals that may prevent your audience from receiving your message. Then think about how this complicates the ways in which people engage with your service.
For this reason, it’s important to communicate using multiple touchpoints. Consultations with senior management teams and formal staff updates, on a quarterly basis if possible, can help to provide repetition of message while your internal communications team should be able to support through emails and promotion on the university intranet to ensure that your teams are aligned with, and informed about, the most effective ways to work with the student support service. This way, you will ensure that all students benefit from equal access to these services.
Suzanne Mitchell, student experience director at Arden University.