Recently, the Student Affairs Collective’s Twitter #SAChat held a discussion about issues with bureaucracy in higher education—and wow, do people ever have issues with bureaucracy! Student affairs pros nationwide hashtagged their grievances about hierarchy, institutional distrust, and office politics. As a newcomer to the college-as-workplace, I have fewer years of cynicism to overcome than many of my colleagues. Still, you don’t have to work for a school to understand that educational institutions in this country are tangled up in red tape. It’s hardly surprising that so many of our professionals are frustrated.
Now, I should mention that I’m in the somewhat uncommon position of not having a background in student affairs. My prior experience and education are rooted in communications, specifically writing and marketing, so my natural inclination is to see these kinds of challenges in terms of a communication problem. And it seems clear to me that the higher ed field is the victim of its own communication breakdown. On a fundamental level, we have not only failed to keep up with the times; we have failed to keep up with our students’ expectations. Even worse, we have failed to keep up with their needs.
Over the past ten or twenty years, the world has changed in unprecedented ways. Personal technology usage has skyrocketed, transforming the way we interact and the methods we use to acquire information. Today’s students and prospective students—the notoriously techy Millennials, and their even more digitally advanced younger siblings, Gen Z—have been brought up in a culture of immediacy. For them, knowledge has always been literally at their fingertips, available with the click of a mouse or tap of a tablet. They’ve spent their whole lives updating Facebook statuses, writing blog posts, buying music from the iTunes store, and texting.
Imagine, then, how they must feel when faced with a university website that’s practically impossible to navigate. Put yourselves in the shoes of an individual who has been tweeting since middle school, and think about how they would react when someone says, “Sorry, we don’t have that information. You need to visit [insert name of cross-campus office here].” And why would anyone who downloads entire software programs onto their telephone in a matter of seconds ever find it acceptable to hear “we’ll get back to you in a couple weeks?”
I know what you’re thinking. Spoiled. Lazy. Self-centered. But here’s the thing: They’re not the ones who are trying to sell something. And make no mistake—higher education is trying to sell something. It is not a student’s job to adapt to our needs; it’s our job to anticipate theirs, and to create an environment in which they can thrive. In a time when the world’s greatest minds are writing articles for the Huffington Post, chronicling their formidable thoughts on Blogger, teaching MOOCs, and recording speeches for YouTube, it is becoming increasingly important for colleges and universities to improve the sales pitch for our services. Academia doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge these days. Our business model has to change accordingly, and while that’s a topic for another blog post, it begins with developing effective, efficient communications strategies. Like any other business, we need to meet our customers where they are. Our message is only relevant if it is heard.
I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, and certainly every campus has a different set of needs to match their unique student populations. But I do know that it is essential for various divisions, departments, and offices to communicate with each other, as well as students. Campus websites need to be user-friendly, with easy access to information. Social media accounts must be implemented, not only eagerly, but strategically. We need to stop the constant back-and-forth, the long wait times, the sluggish response rates. We have to evaluate our structures and processes, particularly those that are most time consuming from a student services perspective, and ask ourselves: Why do we do this? Is there a better way? We should be our students’ best advocates when they come to us with complaints, not voices of dissent telling them, “This is how it is,” and making excuses for institutional inefficiencies. We need to be proactive, instead of reactive when it comes to emerging technologies—after all, there’s no use hopping on the bandwagon for the latest trend if, by the time we get on board, our audience has already moved onto the next big thing.
Students need to be able to work effectively in the fast-paced digital age, and the people preparing them for future careers are responsible for setting a good example. It’s long past time for us to start.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Kedrick Nicholas on Assessment of Student Programming