Higher education often gives students too few ways in which they can choose specific degrees or programs or change their course schedules. Students may encounter a totally autonomous experience in which they have to independently navigate where to go, with whom to speak, and how to contact the right person. These barriers can be considerable, especially for first-generation college students.
Alternatively, students may experience a more hands-on approach in which an enrollment counselor guides them through each step. While this approach minimizes the questions students face in completely autonomous enrollment processes, it can include many laborious, manual steps. For example, a student may have to call an enrollment counselor simply to have the staff member check a box, which can cause frustration for the student and delay their enrollment. Additionally, box-checking tasks take enrollment counselors away from more meaningful conversations about the best educational paths for students.
Higher education needs more options that blend autonomous and hands-on approaches, leveraging technology to provide students the opportunity to choose what is right for them at any given moment of the enrollment process. Blended self-service enrollment might be the answer. This approach employs technology to balance autonomy with the human element students need during certain touchpoints.
The Need for Human-Centered Self-Service Enrollment
Western Governors University (WGU) turned to WGU Labs — the nonprofit EdTech consulting, incubation, research, and design arm of the university — to enhance its existing self-service enrollment option. We made it our priority to ensure the student and staff voice was at the center of WGU’s enhanced offering.
To understand student expectations and needs, as well as identify the most impactful approaches, we analyzed WGU’s data, conducted surveys and interviews with current and prospective students, interviewed WGU experts, and conducted market analysis. From the research, we identified a range of effective service levels for different students, ranging from low self-service to high self-service. As with any spectrum defined by its extremes, the majority of prospective students fall somewhere in the middle.
Based on our research, we put together three findings that higher education leaders should understand before launching self-service enrollment.
1. Self-Service Can Improve the Enrollment Funnel
Behavior design theories like the Fogg Behavior Model have shown there is a trade-off between motivation and the ease of a task. In enrollment, that trade-off can be observed when prospective students start but don’t complete the sign-up process because of laborious steps. This rate of drop-off represents a loss for the institution. Time and money spent recruiting students and nurturing them to the point of enrollment is lost.
More importantly, the drop-off represents a loss for the learner. People who get frustrated with enrollment processes, feel unsure of their status or the next step, or find the process cumbersome may stop even though their motivation is high. Furthermore, an arduous enrollment process could inadvertently discourage learners from under-resourced communities from continuing their journeys by increasing the feeling that they don’t belong in higher education, or that it is “not for them.”
For enrollment teams, closing the gap in the enrollment funnel — which represents the stages prospective students move through while deciding which institution to attend — could represent a light-touch way to boost numbers and increase time to conversion. Streamlining enrollment through self-service can also enable student agency and help students stay motivated to continue with their post-secondary goals.
2. Students Want Enrollment Choice
In our research, there was a great variety of preferences and needs among students. An individual’s profession, major, previous experience with higher education, or language might influence their preferences for self-service enrollment. For example, someone might start off wanting to pursue self-enrollment, but then because of licensure or document requirements may need to speak to university staff. Of course, there are also students who simply prefer to speak with a live person.
Mapping each unique case of students’ preferences and needs for self-service versus guided enrollment is a complex undertaking. College and university administrators should take time to study their own data to identify major inflection points. At the same time, ensuring numerous exit points are built into self-service enrollment will ensure prospective students can contact a real person when they want or need to along the way.
3. Self-Service Can Reshape the Profession
Many of the enrollment managers and counselors that we spoke with supported self-service enrollment but believed that there was still a great need for guided enrollment. The responses from student surveys and interviews confirmed this as well. However, blended self-service enrollment has the potential to transform the role of the enrollment counselor, reducing administrative duties and allowing enrollment teams to focus more on the human-centered part of enrollment.
The challenges faced by enrollment teams, coupled with evolving student expectations, create the right environment for a blended self-service enrollment model. By striking the right balance between technology and the human touch, colleges and universities can streamline the enrollment process while still providing personalized support to students.