June 18, 2019

Five Tips for Effective Student Service Collaboration

Achieving Impact

By Elliot Felix

Student services are becoming more specialized to meet the needs of groups like international students, first-generation students, veterans, students with children, and students who might experience food or housing insecurity. At the same time, there is growing recognition in the value of collaboration across departments to better enable student success. There is also consensus on the need to do so in a cost-effective way since the cost of student services has gone up 22% in the last 10 years1 and professional staff at public and private non-profit institutions has gone up about 40% since 1990.2

To balance these opposing forces, colleges and universities are moving toward integrated student services.

Colleges and universities are making progress to facilitate student service integration and cross-departmental collaboration. They are reorganizing to create more inclusive departments like “student experience.” They are creating student hubs that end “the runaround” bring together disparate services on campus and online. Departments are working together on shared programs, sharing systems and data behind-the-scenes, and sharing space to facilitate these collaborations.

Student Success Center (Temple University)

Integrated Student Services: Partnering and Co-locating for Student Success

In all these cases, departments are collaborating in new ways. So, how can institutions best facilitate these partnerships? In this post, we’ll share five lessons learned from dozens of projects that bring together different student services—physically, digitally, and organizationally. These partnerships can take a variety of different forms, for example:

  • Financial aid counselors might be embedded within an admissions welcome center so that prospective students and their families can get information and advice as part of their visit.
  • Writing centers and math/statistics centers might partner with the libraries so that a student who comes to the library for help on a paper can get help identifying sources, clarifying their thesis, and improving a graph all in one visit.
  • Academic advising and career advising are coming together to implement strategies like “guided pathways” so that guidance on courses of study and classes to take is aligned with a career path.
  • Student health centers that previously students only went to when they had the flu are now embracing more dimensions of wellness including emotional, intellectual, social, spiritual, environmental, and occupational.
  • Course registration, student financial services, and financial aid are co-locating in one-stop-shop service points; for instance, a student could seek help with a registration hold that turns out to be caused by an account balance due to a loan that hasn’t been processed.

When you bring together different departments, you need to define the shared vision, goals, metrics, and assessment practices. If not, everyone’s day-to-day work will literally pull the groups apart.

Student Financial Services Programming (UVA Georges Student Services Center)

Creating Collaboration Across Academic and Administrative Departments

So, how can you best facilitate these partnerships as different academic and administrative student service departments come together to share space, technology, and ideas?

  1. Define what you are working toward: When you bring together different departments, you need to define the shared vision, goals, metrics, and assessment practices. If not, everyone’s day-to-day work will literally pull the groups apart; for instance, if one group is focused on reducing wait times but another is focused on first-time call resolution. The more concrete you can be, the better. A vision should communicate the ideal future state, such as Bill Gates’s vision for Microsoft, “A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software.” Goals should be the core thing you need to do to achieve the vision. Metrics are how you measure your success along the way. Crucially, you’ll also need to define the frequency of assessment and reporting about these shared goals and metrics so that different departments are not operating on different rhythms.
  2. Decide how space will be shared: In many cases, partnership means one group moving into another’s space or moving together to a new shared space. Space is personal, symbolic, and valuable. Conversations about it can be stressful. We’ve found that defining the shared space model upfront is essential—especially to calm fears that come with labels like “land grab” or “takeover.” So, ask yourself: will groups be embedded and move in their whole front-of-house operation (i.e., help desk and consult rooms) and back-of-house stage operation (i.e., offices), create storefront of front-stage spaces, create a small satellite including front-stage and back-stage spaces, or just visit for programming like office hours and workshops? You can read more about this process in our blog post which dates back to 2013 and is among our most-read insights.
  3. Create shared workplace norms: When people come together and have new colleagues, tensions can emerge when they are working together on projects or sharing space and technology. Some common issues include: Is it okay to interrupt you if you’re wearing headphones? Can I eat lunch at my desk? Can I erase what’s on this whiteboard? Can I use your office for a meeting if you’re not around? You can think of norms as the kind of “software” which is the interface for the “hardware” that is the space, furniture, and equipment you’re working on. These need to be thought about together. Often a workshop to surface issues like those above and come up with shared principles and norms is a great way to proceed. You can read more about this process in our Touchpoint article.
  4. Decide on how integrated you’ll be: When groups come together and work together, there are different aspects to integrate and different degrees of integration. For instance, some student service hubs just co-locate different functions but keep separate helpdesks, consultation spaces, office spaces, queuing systems, booking systems, incident management systems, on-boarding and training programs, and performance dashboards. Others define ways to share some or all of these aspects. Sometimes co-location can lead to integration later; for instance, sometimes staff members at adjacent service desks cover for each other in ad hoc ways and eventually cross-train themselves. Sometimes student workers providing basic support are a great way to start sharing staff, processes, and technologies.
  5. Embed change management in the planning process: As you facilitate collaboration and partnerships across and within different academic affairs and student affairs units, you can use the process of planning a new space, creating a new program, or adopting new technology to get your people informed, excited, and prepared for change. Think about how your staff can observe and try out what you’re proposing—pilots and prototypes are a great way to do this (read more about that here). Communicate early and often about what’s staying the same, what’s changing, and what the advantages and tradeoffs are. Create shared language and shared experiences among your staff. In the end, your goal is to transform a group that starts as a mere committee into a true community of practice.

Use the planning process to facilitate organizational change instead of having separate processes for deciding what to do and then convincing people to do it.

Making Support Services More Efficient and Effective for Students

Student services staff are among the most passionate people we meet—so many are in it for the students and want to do whatever they can to help students succeed. They recognize the tensions between offering the increasing specialized support students need while making the experience of getting help more seamless for students. They want to make their own work more efficient and effective as well. Often it’s their spaces, systems, and organizational structures that get in the way and lead to disengagement.

Facilitating partnerships on your campus can be about removing these barriers and tapping into the passion and potential of your people. To do this, define your shared goals, determine how you’ll share space, decide what and how much you want to integrate, create the workplace norms for how you’ll work together, and use the planning process to facilitate organizational change instead of having separate processes for deciding what to do and then convincing people to do it. Good luck as you move ahead and get in touch if you’d like advice or support.

Endnote 1 Delta Cost Project
Endnote 2 National Center for Education Statistics

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