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With recent changes to the FE landscape, we’ve been researching and working with some of our Further Education clients to understand how students make the crucial decision about where to study, and why the application and enrolment process plays such a key role in attracting students.
The FE landscape is changing dramatically, with more students engaging in Further Education, increased competition from alternative providers and changes to funding.
Students generally have higher expectations of the application process, and expect digital services to be available as standard. Mobile access to quality websites and online application systems now fit with the social norms of the 16-19 year old demographic. They expect a quality service, supported by advanced technology, in keeping with their extensive digital experience.
With greater purchasing power, students now view themselves as consumers of education. In research conducted in the US, Blackboard Student Services found that students “want colleges and universities to serve their individual needs in enrolment, curriculum and degree offerings. To win these students, schools must distinguish themselves from the competition with a responsive and personalized admissions process tailored to the school’s environment and the needs of prospective students.” (S Cruley, 2012.)
Research conducted with students at one of the Colleges we work with found that they disliked paper-based application systems, preferring an online application process. They described paper-based application systems as “old-fashioned” “a pain” “time-consuming” and “boring”.
Generally, students are better informed, have higher expectations, access to more resources and funding, and have more choice than ever when it comes to selecting somewhere to study once they turn 16.
To deliver a service that successfully attracts and retains a specific student cohort, it is important to understand their exact requirements, and this can be achieved by taking a Service Design approach. Service Design principles and Service Blueprinting have been used in business for many years, and education providers now understand the value of taking a Service Design approach to the delivery of their services.
Service Design puts the end-user at the heart of the process, taking a holistic approach to the delivery of a service by looking at each and every step from the user’s perspective. To design a service that is fit for purpose, it is essential to understand your users, their requirements and the wider environment.
Researchers at Derby University recently undertook a project with JISC and the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS), examining the enrolment process from a Service Design perspective. Their aim was to “improve the transition stage from applicant to registered student.” Their findings have been published as a briefing paper “Service Design in Higher and Further Education” where they outline the five key stages of service design as below:
Mapping and detailing all of the touchpoints with students through the entire application and enrolment process identifies all of the critical elements that go into the service delivery. Some elements are visible to students, others are invisible, but both are equally important. Everything is detailed, from the people who deal with students face-to-face to the lighting and temperature of the rooms that students use. Technology that is used to deliver the service must also be examined, and all elements are assessed to identify areas of strength and weakness.
For example, designing the application process for school leavers aged 15/16 would begin with their first contact with the College, and map each and every contact point up until the student arrives for their first day. Once a student is interested in applying, when, where and how are they going to be in contact with the College, and what will be the outcome of each contact experience? If they phone the admissions office for advice, are they dealt with promptly? If they are looking for course information on the College website, can they find what they are looking for? If they are making their application, can they do it online, or do they need to fill out a form and post it? When they enrol, do they need to travel to the College and queue, or can they do it online? How do they calculate and pay their fees? Do they need any assistance, and can they find out where to access it? How long do they have to wait for a response from the College once their application is made?
By identifying areas where the service is failing to meet expectations, Colleges can make alterations to the process to create a better experience for the student.
With particular reference to self-service elements of the application process, such as online enrolment, the research at Derby led to the recommendation: “In order to offer a quality student experience, universities and colleges need to ensure that it does not feel like a burden, but an experience that adds value, or one that is so simple and straightforward that it appears effortless.”
This is supported by recent research in the US, which indicated that students can be discouraged from applying if systems are perceived to be complex, especially with financial elements of an application (Betinger et al, 2009).
Derby identified that one of their own main fail points was the non-completion of online enrolment, and their recommendations to address this fail point included redesigning the website layout for online enrolment, rephrasing instructions to avoid misunderstanding and using a progress bar as a tracking tool, so that it is very clear to students when they have actually completed the enrolment process.
In recent research, we looked at how web design plays a crucial role in attracting applications and converting them to enrolments, but it is also equally important that the application and enrolment process itself adds value to their student experience and is easy to use. Otherwise, they may abandon their application.
Our recent work with Richmond College examined their enrolment process, and in response to current student expectations and requirements, they began using our online enrolment platform eEnrol in 2012
eEnrol is designed to be simple-to-use for the student, and removes many of the fail points and areas of excessive wait that typically frustrate students.
After using eEnrol for 12 months, Researchers at Richmond College surveyed 1653 students about their application process, and 96.68% stated that they found the online application process either ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good.’
By understanding student requirements by placing the student at the centre of the service, and identifying elements that cause delays, frustration or fail to meet the students’ expectations, Colleges can develop a superior application and enrolment process. Using technology like eEnrol to support the process helps to address many problem areas, ultimately increasing applications and improving conversion rates.
Sara Cruley, (2012) Enrolment solutions – how to leverage the right resources at the right time, Blackboard Student Services.
Polina Baranova, Sue Morrison and Jean Mutton (University of Derby). “Service Design in Higher and Further Education” Commissioned by JISC and the Centre for Educational Technology and Interoperability Standards (CETIS)
Bettinger, E. P., Long, B. T., Oreopoulos, P., & Sanbonmatsu, L. (2009). The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results and implications from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment (NCPR Working Paper). New York, NY: National Center for Postsecondary Research