The information in the Public Agenda's latest report "Squeeze Play 2010: Continues Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run" should really cause a shiver to run down the collective backbones of college presidents and administrators. That is assuming they have a backbone. A topic for another discussion I am sure.
Squeeze Play makes some very blunt and what should be obvious statements. The first is that higher education is losing the support and trust of the American public. Yes, a college education is important but the colleges themselves, not so much. Here is the statement that opens the report.
Six out of ten Americans now say that colleges today operate more like a business, focused more on the bottom line than on the educational experience of students. Further the number of people who feel this way has increased by five percentage points in the last year alone and is up by eight percentage points since 2007.(p.2)
With the public feeling this way, it is clear that parents of students are part of this public. They too are feeling that colleges do not really care about their children. They believe that colleges are indifferent to the success of their children.
Wonder where they could get that thought? Maybe it's the six years of four-year college programs that costs them those two more years of tuition? Or could it be that only just over 50 percent of all of their children actually graduate from a college in those six years? Or maybe it's the continually increasing rate of tuition inflation that is draining their personal family budgets so colleges can afford to be indifferent to their children's success?
Or maybe it's from the constant requests, doomsaying and demands for more money from college presidents who complain that the college's ability to meet its mission will be impaired by cuts, so they need more money. This while cutting the very things the public believes should be maintained if not expanded. For example, Squeeze Play 2010 found that 60 percent of the public believes that colleges could take a lot more students without lowering quality or raising prices. No wonder that the traditional cry, "We will have to cut back on the number of students we can serve if we don't get more money" falls on uncaring ears nowadays.
Fifty-four percent of the people surveyed said that colleges could and should do more with what they have, and could even cut their costs and still provide a high quality of education. And here's one from the report that should stop any member of the academic community cold.
...one factor in American's concerns about access to higher education is their perception of the escalating cost of tuition and fees at colleges and universities. Today, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) continue to say that higher education prices are rising at a faster rate compared with other things, up scene percentage points from 2007. Indeed, of those who think college prices are going up faster than other things, 74 percent say that they are going up faster than, or at the same rate as health care costs. (p.4)
Having higher education equated with health care generates a quite disparaging situation attitude. Yes, a person who has been cured through the health care system may have a positive view of it but more than likely will not. Especially when he or she received the bill! In much the same way, students and their families are feeling pocked, probed, and cathetered by higher education. Especially when they get the bill!
The attitudes found in the survey and report are also real shudder material for retention in higher education. As part of the closing statement, the report states
A growing number of people seem to be saying something like this to America's colleges and universities: "Now that times are tough, we are getting a better idea of what you really care about, and it isn't the educational experience of your students." (P.9)
Combine this with the belief or feeling colleges "don't care about me" which is the major reason why students leave a college, university, community or career college and it should become easy to see a serious threat to retention. If students and parents believe the college does not care about the student, then it is much easier for the student to drop out. The parents are already prepared for the event since they too do not want their son or daughter at a place where people do not care about him or her. This makes parents more receptive to quitting than in the past when they believed that schools did care about education and their students. If a student quoits a school for the reason that they just don't care about me and my succeeding, it will take very little argument to get parents already probably predisposed to believing the reason for attrition.
Now add in the second most common reason for students to drop out of college "the school is not worth the time and money 'and it become even easier to drop without parents pushing back. In fact, the results of Squeeze Play indicate that there may be receptive parents at home when the student says the place is not worth the money. If the parents are part of the 67 percent who agree strongly that students have to borrow too much to pay for college, they are a sympathetic audience to the argument that it is not worth it.
This is an especially tangible argument against continuing in college at this time since the outcome of the investment may not be there. In a down economy in which jobs are scarce, there seems to be a valid point in putting off college right now. Why take out loans, go to a school that doesn't care and is cutting essential services to and for students? Little things like class sections for example. Remember that song line, "little things mean a lot"?
The answers are all right there in the results of the report. Respond to the issues the parents and the public raise. Colleges need to show first off that they do care about students and their education. Some of the ways to do this are as simple as acting as if students matter.
1. Do not cut essential services that students want and need. Do not reduce the amount of professional tutoring available, for example. Professional tutoring is a statement to students that we do care about their success. Career services are the primary gateway to the actual goal for most people of attending college: landing a job. The offices that provide direct primary services such as the registrar, bursar, financial aid, job placement, housing, counseling, and other direct contact areas of services are fundamentals from which students and parents demand good, quick, and helpful service. Do not cut there either.
2. Do not cut class sections. Nothing says we don't care more than the cutting classes that students want and need. Realize that classes are the institution's way of providing our major services of teaching and learning to its "customers." So if you cut sections, you are reducing the delivery system of the service/product we sell. In turn, we have created demand but cannot or will not deliver to the customer, the students. Cutting sections does not always really save money. In fact, it is an economic loser as well as a real customer disservice.
3. Communicate with students regularly. The president, administrators and faculty need to be open and available to discuss issues with students. The president should hold regular open forum sessions and let the students take control of the discussion. Do not shy away from student issues. Get the complaints and issues so they can be resolved. This is also what needs to be done with faculty and staff. The president should meet regularly with them in informal discussion groups to hear their complaints and concerns. It is important that the president hear from them because if he or she doesn't they will let everyone else hear. This is especially so for some faculty who, too often, use the classroom as a pulpit to excoriate the administration.
Presidents need to have the integrity and courage of Dr. Reginald S. Avery of Coppin State University. During a workshop on customer service and retention he told the faculty that if they had a complaint they should bring it to him. He wanted to hear directly. And if someone had a complaint but didn't come to him and just kept spreading the ill will around, he would "call them out." "I will call you out no matter where we are and who you are," Avery said. "If there is a problem, come to me and have the integrity to tell me what it is. Be a coward and I will call you out!"
4. Emphasize student success. There are many ways to communicate with students about what good things are going on. This is especially so about any graduate who gets a job, promotion or any other work-related good news. Most students are in college to pursue a career, so let them know that it can be done.
5. Survey your students to find out what really upsets them. Then do something to fix their problem. When you do, make it well known to students and others that the issue you resolved was identified from the survey. This gives the process validity and will certainly make students believe someone is listening and cares.
6. Read the "Ten Ways to Increase Retention" and then use at least five of the ways.
7. Get a free digital copy of Customer Service Factors and the Cost of Attrition. Read it and share it with your campus.
8. Read and take to heart the findings of Squeeze Play 2010 discussed above. The results are serious and should concern everyone. Higher education is losing the support of the public and that is a sure route to failure.
Neal Raisman is a leading researcher and consultant on customer service, retention, enrollment, and morale for higher education and business. Contact him at Nealr@GreatServiceMatters.com