• Mustafa Wahid

Intrusive Advising, Student Success, and Mobile Phones in the Digital Age

Can one message keep a college student from dropping out?

It is easy to dismiss this idea. One message? Come on. How is that possible? It oversimplifies the web of circumstances that lead students to drop out of college, you might think.

Isn’t, however, academic advising founded upon that idea that one message (or one conversation) can be pivotal to a student’s success?

High-quality, “intrusive” advising predicts when and how students will struggle, and gives advice at exactly the right time to remove barriers and alleviate — or outright prevent — struggling. This creates a frictionless path to success.

The greatest barrier to your students, however, is one you might never witness: a sense of isolation.

If students continually feel like they do not belong at a university, they are much more likely to drop out before even giving themselves a chance to succeed.

Given the increasing significance of tuition revenue, it is incumbent upon universities to let their students know that they belong to a campus family from day one.

(Watch: Morgan State sophomore president’s advice to peers: “No matter how tired you are…just make sure you love one another”)

Focusing on student connectedness is more crucial than ever.

With the proliferation of (sometimes free!) college alternatives, including coding bootcamps, massively open online courses (MOOCs), and YouTube, alongside rising tuition costs , students are increasingly deciding that a traditional college experience is not right for them.

With a shrinking applicant pool, higher education is becoming more competitive than ever. Every single student and every single day matters more and more to a university’s bottom line — and its survival.

(Read more: Moody’s Rating Agency is already predicting 11 institutions per year to close)

Unfortunately, when it comes to the numbers, there is a disconnect. Traditionally, critical numbers for advising include the amount of time needed to meet with each student at least once, the amount of credits each student needs to complete, and how many of students return each semester.

Instead, however, the numbers that seem to take precedence are:

  • Impressions: how many students your institution reaches via marketing initiatives

  • Applications: how many students apply

  • Yield: how many students enroll

What students experience after they walk through a university’s doors is just as important as what experiences get them through the doors in the first place.

In other words, why spend millions recruiting new students, if they will only leave after a year or two (and take a piece of your institution’s reputation with them) just because they feel they don’t belong?

One key to creating positive student experiences is intrusive advising, which is proven to increase a student’s sense of connectedness to an institution, likelihood of returning semester-to-semester, and likelihood of graduating. When students see their universities reaching out to help them solve their issues, they feel like they matter.

You do not have to rely on studies, however, to figure out how to make students feel at home, because they are telling us.

In the big data era of personalization spearheaded by companies like Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon, students are putting colleges under greater pressure to provide individualized, concierge-like service.

(Read more: When it comes to tech, students want more — but they want that “more” personalized)

Students want personalized advice, delivered to them right when they need it. Even one well-timed message can influence a student’s decisions, including whether or not to drop out.

Engaging your students on their terms is one way you can offer stellar service, which, research shows, is a certain way to retain them.

The universities that will survive increasingly-ferocious competition are the ones that will provide the best, most personalized service to their students.

In years past, this would have been a very tall, and very expensive, order. In the big data era of personalization à la Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon, however, individualized service is very much possible, even on a tight retention budget — through technology!

Shrewd technology spending to improve your university’s service:

  • makes advising more efficient, allowing you to spend more time on high-impact intrusive advising practices,

  • is less expensive than attracting new students, and

  • will attract new students, in and of itself.

Colleges that go above and beyond for their students are known for doing so. It is a key piece of their reputations, which draw student attention and improves rankings. Current and new students, alike, want to be there. Enrollment and retention rates increase, in tandem. Talk about ROI!

In short, fostering a sense of belonging = providing a better experience for your students = hitting your retention AND recruitment numbers with ease.

How do you provide the best experience for your students?

First, your institution might need to adopt a new mindset.

There are four major pitfalls to avoid:

Pitfall #1: “Our app is just an extension of our website.”

New mindset: “How are we crafting the mobile app in the best interest of our students?”

Screen size is not the only thing that changes when a student moves from viewing your website on a laptop to using your app on a phone. Mobile experiences are entirely different, and should be optimized for ease-of-use anywhere and anytime.

School websites, by contrast, tend to be deep and complex. Among the many pages of a website, some resources become difficult to locate. A well-designed app, for example, will curate and deliver resources likely to be of particular interest to a specific student.

Mobile devices also have unique features that set them apart. Take advantage of them! Want to bring in more applications to a scholarship or study abroad program? Instead of sending an email, try sending a push notification. Students must interact with push notifications, even if they choose to dismiss them, and they will see notifications immediately when checking their phones.

Design matters. Proper design and information architecture help students avoid feeling overwhelmed, comprehend the content of a message, and understand what action to take (and how to take it).

Pitfall #2: “It’s just an app.”

New mindset: “It is the way to communicate with students.”

Students are glued to their phones, per the Journal of Behavioral Addiction. In spite of what winding up in the Journal of Behavioral Addiction suggests about our students, the amount of time students spend on their phones presents a huge opportunity.

In general, students are not reading their emails.

What we can expect, though, is that students are checking their phones. A lot. So much so, in fact, that they attracted the attention of the Journal of Behavioral Addiction.

Are you going to pass up the easiest and most certain way to communicate with your students?

Pitfall #3: “An out-of-the-box app is cheaper and faster to implement than a custom solution, and students won’t know the difference!”

New mindset: “A custom-crafted mobile experience is a competitive advantage!”

An app tailored for your university will help you align your institution’s best interests with your students’ best interests.

After all, students are clamoring for a personalized experience.

If you do not build your app to resonate with your students, then it will be “just another app” that sits in a student’s phone, next to all of the other apps that never get used, until he or she deletes it to make space for more Instagram photos.

If your app is easy to use, gives students a customized experience that they cannot get anywhere else, and delivers them key information when they need it, guess what? They will tell their friends, who will tell their friends, until everyone on campus uses it. Your student engagement rates will soar, and it will not even require you to agonize over a new “engagement initiative.”


Pitfall #4: “Great. Now, we have to worry about another piece of software.”

New mindset: “This software will scale our productivity.”

This one is pretty simple: if the software doesn’t “make life easier,” don’t get it.

Harnessing the full potential of the right technology will allow you to do more with much less.

What if personalization were a guarantee, and all you had to do is press one simple button: send?

If you want to see how all of your messaging to students — data-driven individualization included — for the year could be taken care of with a single click, send us a message at hello@transitioningu.com. We will set up a time to discuss your specific needs and begin designing a customized roadmap for your university.

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