Holistic support for students is a major priority of college leaders, but few colleges have the right tools to help students navigate what is available to them. College leaders are genuinely concerned with supporting the whole student, and institutions today offer a variety of academic, wellness, financial, and other support services. But it remains a challenge to connect students to the right resource at the right time.

A student’s main point of entry to finding support services is the college’s website or a general search engine. But, many current student service search systems are difficult for students to navigate. If the student encounters clunky websites, unorganized search results, and unclear information, they may become overwhelmed and discouraged. If they are unsure what to search for, they may stop looking for help, potentially impacting persistence toward their education goals.

How can college leaders better help students find the support they need?

To remedy this challenge, the College Innovation Network (CIN) at WGU Labs has been researching and developing solutions to ensure students are supported in the ways they need most. Through research and interviews with students at our Network institutions, we’ve identified three barriers students face when navigating institutional support services. If your institution is looking to better help students access support services, here are the three barriers you must address.

1 – Complex Systems

Searching for support can be daunting. But when students encounter hundreds of unorganized search results on the university website, it’s easy for students to become quickly overwhelmed. Search results may include multiple, irrelevant listings, and unrelated links, or out-of-date information. Generally, there is just too much information to sift through.

Complex systems need to be streamlined into targeted systems in which results are informed by the specific needs of the student, and even offer proactive recommendations. By tailoring search results to the student’s needs, students spend less time searching and more time getting the support they need.

2 – Student Vulnerability

When students are in need, they often experience a moment of vulnerability. They may worry about being negatively judged or stigmatized for reaching out for support. A student may imagine they are the only one accessing a certain service and may feel shame or embarrassment. The feeling increases when the student can’t determine how to find what they need. These psychological states are a barrier to accessing what they need and may potentially discourage students from persisting in their search for support.

Student support services exist precisely because there is a demand for them by students. Institutions can normalize the use of support services on their campuses by displaying how many students have accessed particular resources to help reduce the negative psychological states students might experience.

3 – Dynamic Needs

Students’ needs are sequential and dynamic, not static. A student benefits from transparency about particular processes and, importantly, step-by step guidance to make timely and effective progress. Financial aid is a common example – most students don’t know exactly what steps to take when pursuing federal loans and scholarships.

Systems should be responsive to the complexity that is inherent in educational systems. By tracking students’ progress through complex tasks and offering support at each step, we can make complexity less daunting.

CIN recognizes the need for a new tool that addresses the complexity of student support and resource navigation within today’s college systems. We’re currently partnering with higher ed institutions in our Network to build a solution that will overcome access barriers and successfully connect students to institutional resources.

The College Innovation Network at WGU Labs is dedicated to supporting institutions throughout the full life cycle of EdTech implementation, from needs identification to research evaluation. Interested in joining? Find out more: https://wgulabs.org/cin-institutions/