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A critical time for higher education. University selection as a 'buying experience' for students

Steph Tortorella

Steph Tortorella

Steph is a Consultant at Evolve. Steph is passionate about providing strategic insights by interrogating both quantitative and qualitative data.

The last 10 years has seen significant shifts in the Australian higher education landscape, with increased education options (including online, TAFE, and short courses etc.), government funding cuts, and recent market saturation leading to greater competition amongst universities. Just as corporate businesses rise and fall according to their ability to satisfy customers, the ability of a university to meet its customers’ needs and expectations can determine its survival and future growth.

The student experience is not just about the teaching and learning. Although research we have conducted shows that learning experience can contribute up to 60% to a students’ likelihood to recommend (NPS score), services and facilities offerings are also crucial. Students seek career and employability opportunities, support functions, as well as social and community networks. Just as financial institutions and retail services have dedicated customer experience programs, universities are now challenged to consider their students as ‘customers’, their course offering as their suite of ‘core products’ and their services and facilities as ‘ancillary products’.

Importantly, disciplines developed over the years in the broader business sector to improve the ‘customer experience’ are readily transferrable to the higher education sector. Strategies for improving customer experience easily translate to the ‘student experience’. That’s not surprising when we think that selecting a university is a ‘buying experience’ for the potential student, with the eventual decision based on factors that are personally meaningful for the individual. Failing to deliver on either the ‘core product’ or ‘ancillary products’ results in disengagement, dissatisfaction, and potentially post purchase detraction.

That’s why a formal customer experience program is a critical strategic capability for higher education providers. Such a program enables understanding what is important to their student base with insights informing tailored acquisition and retention strategies in a highly competitive environment. Without such a program, Australian universities must rely on the results of the Social Research Centre’s Student Experience Survey (SES) which are published sporadically once a year following ministerial release. Critically, tracking customer experience outside of the SES allows universities to assess the concerns and issues experienced by current students in real-time and action feedback in a timely manner. In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the student experience program may act as a lead indicator for the SES, which is part of the information set that students use to guide their admissions choices.

Attraction

Students don’t just have the choice of what they want to study, they also have the choice of where (i.e. university, TAFE etc.) and how (i.e. online, or on-campus etc.). This choice differs vastly by student segment (i.e. international vs. domestic, undergraduate vs. postgraduate). Understanding what students’ value overall, by segment, and by course or discipline, helps assist the education provider attract students to ‘buy in’. In the same way that a retail store markets to its potential customers, universities can target potential students by learning what is important to their current student base and using it to develop promotional material that resonates. When we consider current advertising campaigns for universities, it is clear that many use similar aspirational marketing – clear messages about ambition, empowerment and graduate outcomes, designed to sell the ‘brand’ of higher education to a discerning market.

Retention

By improving the experience of its students, universities can also reduce their attrition rates, generate repeat business through post-graduate course admissions and build an alumni of advocates. A university that addresses common issues for the student population – from burnout, financial issues, accessibility and inclusiveness – is far more likely to retain students until graduation – resulting in greater profitability for the institution.
A recent study by the Grattan Institute showed that 25% of students dropped out of a degree they started last year – this is a serious issue for universities, and there is a strong business case for being able to understand how and why students may disengage. our experience in the sector suggest students’ decision to leave their current course is multifactorial. Students may feel unsupported by their university at a time when they are experiencing personal hardships. Alternatively, they may have been promised an experience during the ‘buy in’ that is not delivered. Sometimes, the student wants to move in a different direction to their initial choice of area of study. The common denominator to all three scenarios, is that the university has the opportunity to retain these students. The ability to identify ‘at risk’ students and intervene before they drop out is critical to a comprehensive student experience program.

Real World Advantage

So what does this look like in the real world? A customer experience program should impact every stage of the student lifecycle. These stages include:

  • Consideration: We look to understand why individuals consider the university as a place to study as well as their experience at events targeted at attracting students to apply to the specific university (i.e. open day etc.).
  • Preference: We look to understand the decision-making process in deciding to ‘buy’ or to ‘continue shopping around’.
  • Enrolment and student experience: We look to understand what aspects of the student experience drive advocacy and detraction, satisfaction and dissatisfaction. How can we support students through their university experience from onboarding to graduation?
  • Attrition: We look to understand why students are leaving the university, and to explore how we can intervene before students decide to drop out.
  • Graduate outcomes: Our results suggest that as the student journey progresses, students are less likely to advocate for their university – it is necessary to understand why in order to improve.

In summary, the shifting expectations of consumers of higher education has brought fascinating changes in the sector over the last 10 years. What kinds of trends or strategies have you noticed universities or higher education providers using, to recruit, engage and retain students? Importantly, where do you see universities heading in the future – becoming more like banks or retail products, or towards something different altogether? Please feel free to leave your comments below.

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