May 15, 2019

Ending the Runaround: 12 Steps to Integrated Student Services

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix and Adam Griff

Wondering if you need an integrated service model for your academic and administrative student services? Then ask yourself if any of these sound familiar:

  • One student is frustrated because she is waiting in line for something she should easily be able to do on her phone such as paying a bill or booking a counseling session.
  • A first-generation student is confused because he’s getting the “runaround” from office to office trying to understand the registration, financial aid, and career implications of studying abroad.
  • A “non-traditional” student with young children is disengaging because she can’t get the help she needs when she needs it – on nights and weekends.
  • Students dismiss your outreach  because of the overwhelming and uncoordinated communications by different providers, and only come to you after there is a problem.
  • Staff want to help but their systems get in the way and they spend too much time on questions that could be better answered by student peers or a chatbot.
  • Staff are frustrated because students aren’t even aware of all the support that’s available, and staff are separated physically and organizationally from the other groups they need to work with.
  • Administrators are concerned as staffing and budgets increase every year but response times, satisfaction scores, and graduation rates hold steady or decline.
University of Virginia Total Advising Service Resources

If these and other “runaround” issues sound familiar, then read on to learn the process we use to create better integrated student services: designing the process, assessing the needs, describing how you’ll work together, defining your future portfolio of services, thinking through service delivery, forecasting future needs, creating digital and physical hubs, piloting new services, reorganizing staff, develop and cross-train staff, and then assessing and adapting continuously.

What Do We Mean by Integrated?

The default setting for student services is separation: separate locations, reporting lines, technologies, cultures, and metrics, and so integrating means bringing some or all of these aspects together.

This allows you to have a service model that provides a “one-stop-shop” on campus and online and a staffing model that uses the right combination cross-trained students staff and full-time staff generalist complemented by the right specialists.

In recent years, this problem has become exacerbated by the introduction of new technologies and by the increasing diversity of students which typically begets specialized support functions (e.g., Office of Transfer Students, Office of First Gen Students, Office of Veteran Students, etc…). By the way, how will multi-category students – like first-gen transfer students who’s a veteran – know where to go? These new technologies and specialized functions make services even harder to navigate. What gets integrated exactly? Fundamentally, there are three aspects: digital integration of different self-service functions online, physical integration into single-stop student service centers, and back-end integration of technology, data, work processes, people, and back-office spaces.

Academic service providers can collaborate to offer the right support services, in the right place, at the right time, in the right way using the Service Center Canvas — a tool to design the future experience of a consolidated service point. Fill out the form below to download a free, editable PDF of the Canvas.

Why Integrated Student Services in Digital and Physical One-Stop-Shops?

Why should colleges and universities integrate their student services? Maybe you’ve picked the low hanging fruit and created a one-stop-shop student service center for registration, finance, and financial aid and now want to expand it? Are you looking for ways to reach specific populations like veterans, first-gen students, or older students with children? Maybe you’re trying to create seamless academic support for a student who may need help with her research, writing support for her thesis, and data to sharpen her analysis? For these reasons and more, in this post, we’ll outline the twelve steps we use to help institutions create integrated student services – digitally, physically, organizationally, and operationally.

University of Miami Learning Commons Shared Service Model

Student success for a diverse student body is a team sport that depends upon a panoply of staff, faculty, and administrators working together to understand needs, provide the right services, and deliver seamlessly.

Student needs are increasingly complex and interdependent but the services to support them are often distributed, outdated, and ineffective.

For example, student services are often designed based on two false assumptions: that students are aware of the support available to them and that they are able to access it.

brightspot’s Student Experience Snapshot shows that 62% of students view administrative services favorably and 64% of students approve of academic services. Many institutions score far lower. When colleges and universities integrate their services into one-stop-shops, they see results like 90% question resolution, 80% student satisfaction, a 10% increase in persistence, and a 6% increase in graduation rates.1

Current Service Models and Staffing Models Aren’t Working and Aren’t Sustainable

When we work with institutions, what we hear is that student services aren’t working and aren’t sustainable. It’s not working because students have long wait times, they get “runaround” from office to office, the people helping them don’t have access to the same data, and ultimately they may not get the help they need or it may not solve their problem. It’s not sustainable because the cost of student services has increased 22% in the last 10 years,2 professional administrative staff has increased 38% from 1990 to 2012 at public universities and 42% at private non-profit universities,3 and office space on a per-student basis has increased 153% since 1974.4

Tuition Growth, College Board

Beyond cost, it’s also not sustainable from a people perspective: there is a mismatch between staff skills and their tasks when asked to do things that ought to be self-service online, and there is also frustration when space, technology, and processes get in the way of doing good work. No wonder only about a third of faculty and staff are engaged in their work, meaning they are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”5 However, when done right, integrated student services can create a more consistent experience for students and staff, can shift interactions from transactional to consultative so staff can be more helpful on complex problems, and free up staff time to take deep dives on strategic projects.

Staff Aren’t Organized to Deliver Services Successfully

Students do not neatly compartmentalize their needs but think of them holistically; goals for academic, career, financial, and physical and emotional well-being are all connected aspects of their future vision for themselves. But, collaborative services often span multiple departments with different reporting lines, incentives, and processes. A traditional one-stop shop of registrar, student accounts, and financial aid may involve academic affairs, student affairs, and finance and administration. Advising may be split between the central administration and schools depending on whether a student has declared a major or has multiple majors.

As long as institutions do not organize themselves to match student needs and their perspective, it will be incredibly challenging to change staff mindsets to focus on students first before the needs of their group and departments. Without shared processes, incentives, reporting lines, and values, projects to deliver services collaboratively will often end in co-location rather than true integration.

What are the 12 Steps to Integrate Your Student Services?

How can you integrate your college or university’s academic and administrative student services – digitally, physically, organizationally, and operationally? In our work on dozens of integration projects, we’ve identified the key steps for transformation. Let’s walk through each of these using a short example from our work.

  1. Design the Process: Integration projects succeed or fail based on who’s at the table and how they work together. So, you need an informed and inclusive process in which you get student input, enable staff to co-create the future service model, and provide leaders with the data needed to make decisions. When we worked with the University of Pittsburgh on the reinvention of Hillman Library, we got input from students through surveys and in-depth interviews, engaged a diverse staff working committee, and met with our steering committee at each milestone.
  2. Assess the Needs: A student service integration project is a unique opportunity to step back and ask: “What do students really need?” Universities are typically accretive, adding services and offices overtime without taking things away. So, when we worked with SUNY Fredonia on their “Building Toward Student Success” project, we conducted interviews, workshops, and surveys with students to uncover insights; for instance “managing myself” was the most important aspect of student success, “friendliness and courtesy” was the most important aspect of service delivery, and students most valued gaining the “mindset and ability to learn and adapt.”
  3. Imagine a Collaborative Service Model: Informed by your assessment, the most critical step is creating the concept for how you’ll bring the services, people, processes, and technology together. Will departments simply co-locate and each delivers their services nearby one another or will the front-line staff be cross-trained to answer questions for a variety of service functions? What will be handled by self-service online vs. by generalists vs. by specialists – will you use UC Santa Cruz’s 70/20/10 model? In our work creating the service model with the University of Miami Library, we defined how the dispersed providers would come together: moving their headquarters to the library, creating a satellite presence, visiting to provide programming, and supporting behind-the-scenes.
  4. Reimagine your Portfolio of Services: Once you’ve assessed user needs – which will keep changing by the way… sorry! – and defined your integration strategy, then you need to look at your portfolio of student service offerings from two perspectives: communication and innovation. For the former, you need to look at what services are called (i.e., maybe “bursar” isn’t the best term anymore?) and how they are organized. For the latter, you need to address unmet needs to address by adding services or redesigning existing ones. To reinvent Georgia Tech’s Library, we created a playbook of new services like a “Research Navigator” to guide researchers over the administrative hurdles and then organized self-directed staff teams to design the service.
  5. “Blueprint” Future Service Delivery: Service blueprints are simple yet powerful tools to think through the front-line staff actions, the backstage staff actions, and the infrastructure needed at each user touchpoint in the process of using a service. Roleplaying, quantitati ve modeling, and piloting are all great ways to think through a service before it exists. When we helped NYU create the service model and staff training program for two prominent makerspaces, we used service blueprints to design new services like technology lending and pop-up tech consultations. This process uncovered how much we knew, what we didn’t know, and what we needed to train student staff on going forward.
  6. Forecast your Space, Staff, and Tech Needs: With the services defined and a good sense of who’s going to provide them and how, you then need to think about the spaces, staffing, and technology you will need – and how it might change. The University of Virginia wanted to create a one-stop-shop for student advising as part of a holistic approach they called “Total Advising.” So, brightspot worked with them to assess their needs, define services, forge partnerships and forecast the spaces they would need. We evaluated their staffing model by role and level, the technology needs, the back-end support needs, and the operating budget for what became known as the Georges Student Center. This integrated student support hub was centrally located in Clemons library to meet students where they are and remove the stigma associated with getting help. The Georges Student Center provides a variety of support services including career advising, peer tutoring, and psychological counseling.
  7. Create Digital Student Service Hubs: Beyond saving time and money for students and institutions alike, students expect seamless service online because of how they interact with the likes of Google, Amazon, and other platforms. There are also over 6 million students in the US studying online and that’s growing at more than 5% annually.6 So, colleges and universities need to bring together their services in one place. We worked with Portland State University to remove barriers to equitable access and improve their student experience, and redesigning their “myPSU” digital service hub was a key part of that. In the year or so since launch, it’s been used 9 million times and is the top-rated university platform among PSU students.
  8. Create Physical Student Service Hubs: While many tasks can be self-serve online, there’s still a need for physical hubs to tackle the most complex problems, meet students where they are, and uncover opportunities to help; for instance how research help begets writing help begets data visualization help. Our service center canvas tool can help create these hubs. When we worked with Normandale Community College on rethinking their student services building. We established a hub with layers of support including an initial welcome and triage desk, and a flexible common area that mixes studying, peer tutoring, informal advising, and socializing. The common area was surrounded by shared consultation spaces and back-office spaces for each department.
  9. Prototype and Pilot New Concepts: Some of the services you’ll provide will be new. How you provide them will be new too. So, the best way to test and develop your ideas, mitigate risk, and build momentum is to prototype and pilot new concepts. These can range in fidelity from a storyboard to roleplay to a mock-up to working prototype to a functioning pilot. When we developed the service model for the Hunt Library, we knew the integrated service point would be tricky as it brings together research, technology, and circulation functions in a place designed for side-by-side conversations between users and staff. So, we did full-scale mock-ups with foam core and props which we tested through roleplay and walk-throughs.
  10. Reorganize Staff to Deliver Services: Changes to space, technology, and services require corresponding changes in your staffing model. The organizational charts of many colleges and universities have evolved organically with little alignment between the services to be provided and the groups providing them. Further, closing physical, digital, and operational gaps between providers need to be complemented by reorganizing staff. In our work with Miami University of Ohio’s Library, we developed a new service model and then organized the staff to align with the services, using brightspot’s org design approach that considers purpose, roles, structure, process, and the platforms that support these.
  11. Develop Staff to Better Deliver Services: The right service model, space, and technology will fall flat if staff don’t have a shared culture and values, and lack the skills to deliver. So, using your needs assessment, your service blueprints, and your pilot lessons, you can create a training program for student staff and professional staff to succeed in your new staffing model. MIT Libraries reorganized and sought a shared service philosophy to stitch the new departments together and improve their customer services. So, brightspot developed and delivered a training program that covered topics like empathy, non-verbal communication, and referrals. A PDF of MIT Libraries’ project results presentation can be downloaded here.
  12. Create a Dashboard and Conduct Ongoing Assessment: When you integrate your academic and administrative services, you won’t get it all right the first time. The needs of your students will also change. The technology platforms will also change. For all these reasons, you need to be evaluating your digital and physical service centers in an ongoing way – and doing so with shared metrics that help unify and align different groups. When we worked with NYU to integrate their instructional technology support services like instructional design, media production, content hosting, and assessment, the first thing we noticed was that everyone was collecting different data and collecting it differently. An initial shared dashboard helped alignment immediately and at the end of the pilot, they achieved 88% faculty satisfaction with support services, 78% faculty satisfaction with tools and platform, and 80% staff satisfaction with our training sessions.

What Are the Benefits of Digital and Physical Student Service Hubs?

The common drivers for integrated service models and staffing models for administrative and academic student services – digitally, physically, organizationally, and operationally – are that they aren’t working and aren’t sustainable. So, the benefits you can anticipate are: saving time and money, improving awareness and access, greater consistency of delivery, better matching skills and work to be done, enabling more meaningful and impactful interactions, and improving staff morale. These benefits might be measured in process metrics, outcome metrics, or both.

Portland State MyPSU App

For process metrics, some case studies provide more specifics for both. Ivy Tech Community College reduced their average wait time from 19 minutes to 30 seconds, achieved 91% first-call resolution, reduced student abandonment (i.e., hang-ups) from 49% to 1.5%, and reduced referral transfers by more than 40%.7 Wichita State University achieved 88% question resolution, a 48 second average response time, and 88% student satisfaction.8 The University of Alberta cut average wait times from 18 minutes to 6:23 and achieved 79% student satisfaction, over 104,252 annual interactions.9

For outcome metrics, it’s useful to look at reports that look across institutions as well as specific case studies. For increasing access and equity, a Rand Corporation study of four community college systems found a 3% average increase in student retention from moving to an integrated model, with better outcomes for adult learners (>25 years old) and minority students. The Driving Toward a Degree report found that institutions with integrated service models were more likely to have exemplary retention of 85% or higher.10 The Community College of Philadelphia worked with SingleStop to conclude that users of the integrated support model experienced pass rates 5.6% higher, that students were 9.6% more likely to stay enrolled or have graduated, and that graduation rates for first-time students who utilized Single Stop services were 6 percentage points higher.11 Interviews with institutions that have moved to one-stop-shop student service centers also qualitatively report improved staff morale.

SUNY Fredonia Student Services Hubs

Getting these kinds of results won’t be easy, but it will be worthwhile. Think about the impact when questions are answered in less than a minute, 90% of questions are resolved right away, 80% of the students are satisfied, and 10% more students graduate each year! To get there, carefully design the process, assess students’ needs, describe how services will come together, define service offerings, create your service blueprints, forecast your future needs, create digital and physical hubs, pilot new services, reorganize staff, develop and cross-train staff, and then assess and adapt continuously. Good luck as you move ahead!


Endnote 1 This is generalization of specific data included at the end of this article
Endnote 2 Delta Cost Project
Endnote 3 National Center for Education Statistics
Endnote 4 UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute
Endnote 5 Gallup State of the University Workplace
Endnote 6 Babson Survey Research Group
Endnote 7 Blackboard One-Stop Services
Endnote 8 Blackboard One-Stop Services
Endnote 9 Academic Impressions: University of Alberta “Connect” Case Study
Endnote 10 Driving Toward a Degree, 2019 Report
Endnote 11 Blackboard: One-Stop Student Services: Benefits for Today’s Learner

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