What do students want most from their college mobile app?

Insights Article - What do students most want from their college mobile app

Most students entering college today are accustomed to a mobile, app-driven world—one where they manage much of their lives on their phones. That’s why higher education institutions continue to increase their investment in mobile apps and in digital services they believe will create deeper connections with students.

But what services do students say are most important when it comes to their college mobile apps? What features and functionality matter most to improving their experience?

Last summer, Norfolk State University (NSU) in Virginia released an enhanced version of its mobile app, MyNSU, to better serve its 5,500 students. Ellucian spoke with four Norfolk State University students and alumni about their experiences with the MyNSU app and how they hope college apps in general will evolve to better serve students across higher ed.

Here’s what NSU students said:

1. Convenience

“I want to do what I want, when I want.”

Donna Peters, who received a Master’s Degree from NSU in December 2017, says college apps should be about convenience. “Working, going to school, having a busy life—I don’t want to spend my lunch hour running all over campus looking for what I need or standing in long lines,” says Peters. “I want to be able to pay bills, check my grades, and look up courses from my phone in the middle of the night or whenever is most convenient. That’s what makes a centralized tool like MyNSU so valuable.”

2. Ease of use

Anton V. Shimkevitch, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering at NSU, appreciates having anytime, at-a-glance access to his financial status on the MyNSU app. “I did undergraduate studies at a school whose financial application made it really frustrating to figure out what you owed, whether you had a refund coming, or which loans or grants had been dispersed,” says Shimkevitch. “But MyNSU makes it easy to see all of this information whenever you need it, and that’s really important to students trying to manage how they pay for college.”

3. Improved campus experience

“I want to navigate campus quickly and easily.”

The media tends to focus heavily on how technology is transforming the higher ed teaching and learning. However, when asked about how technology is improving their campus experience, the students we interviewed often mentioned basic tools for navigating between classes, administrative offices, and events.

Shimkevitch notes that he is always carrying a heavy load around campus—lab equipment, as well as materials he’s grading for undergrad students along with his own work. “It sounds simple, but the fact that I can just pull my phone out, look up where I need to be next, and see a tailored map is really great. This is a large campus, and it can be easy to get lost, especially for new students.”

Peters agrees that the mobile map is a lifesaver: “Especially when I have evening classes and events, it’s an issue of safety—getting where I need to go quickly and directly.”

4. One-stop shop

“I want a one-stop shop.”

Many of the students we interviewed used the phrase “one-stop shop” to describe the ideal college mobile app. They want a centralized, mobile environment where they can pay bills, check grades, register for courses, access key applications with a single sign-on, look at news and events, and locate campus resources.

While the MyNSU app is on its way to becoming that centralized hub, there are still enhancements to access and integration that need to take place. Fortunately, Lana Ludanova,NSU’s Director of Enterprise Applications, shares her students’ vision and is investing heavily in this area.

“Instead of running around campus looking for different information in different places, students should have a one-stop shop,” says Ludanova. “They want things like registration and billing to be easy and painless. The less time they spend chasing down information and services, the more time they have to focus on their education. That’s why my team is focused on building a more open, integrated, agile environment on the back end, so that students have a seamless, centralized experience on the front end. We involved students in beta testing for the new mobile app, and we heard loud and clear that this is a priority.”

Ludanova says registering for classes via the mobile app will be available starting this summer. Says Shimkevitch: “Mobile registration will be a big deal when it’s released. Not just for convenience, but to improve degree planning. As soon as your advisor suggests a class or it gets approved, you’ll be able to pull out your mobile phone and add it.”

5. Seamless, cross-device integration

“Your phone should become your desktop.”

Alexandria Hood, a recent NSU alumna, says commuter and part time students in particular need access to everything on their phones. “Some students aren’t able to log into a computer every day or get to the campus computer lab before it closes,” says Hood. “But almost everyone has a smartphone. With MyNSU, students can view their accounts, and find out which departments can help them with which issues, right from their phones at any time.” Hood believes that serving non-traditional students means continually increasing access to more tools and information through the mobile app.

Emanuel Perez, a sophomore at NSU, agrees there shouldn’t be a disconnect between what’s available through the MyNSU desktop portal and the mobile app. “For example, I’ve had times where I needed critical information on the app, but the data would not populate. That’s an inconvenience to students on the go.” Ludanova says that students can look forward to more and more resources being directly accessible through the mobile app in the coming year. Her ultimate goal is for the phone to become the desktop. 

6. Secure data

“I need to know my data is safe.”

Shimkevitch notes that protecting personal data has to be a top priority for any college mobile app. “I appreciate that NSU’s mobile app is managed by the same vendor as its student information system, because security is integrated,” he says. “I know some schools use a third party mobile app and information can get shared multiple times, with multiple parties, which makes data more vulnerable.” 

7. Single sign-on

“I only want to sign in once.”

Perez says that a more sophisticated approach to identity management is important for any modern app. “I’d love to see biometric authentication updates such as Touch ID rolling out soon. That would make things much smoother,” he says. Other students commented that once logged in, they would like to be able to access other applications like their learning management system without requiring a separate ID and password.

When it comes to solving the multiple login challenge, NSU is not alone. In a recent survey of students from two- and four-year schools across the U.S., 42% said that—even if they have a centralized college app like MyNSU—they still have to log in to 3-4 additional sites/applications to access campus information. Ludanova says the extra steps are a function of data security, which can’t be solved by one institution or one vendor in a quick fashion. But because providing a more seamless experience is both an NSU and Ellucian priority, she looks forward to continuing to partner on solutions that make students’ lives easier without compromising security.

8. Digital connectedness

“I want to feel more emotionally connected to campus life.”

The survey also found that the majority of students are looking for digital technologies that make them feel more emotionally connected to their college.

And it’s not just traditional four-year college students who are looking to participate in student organizations and campus events through a central app: 100% of students who work full time agreed that they would be more willing to participate if they could do so through a centralized app.

That’s why prioritizing app offerings is critical for institutions that are looking to engage non-traditional students and maintain relationships from recruiting through graduation and beyond.

Peters notes that she belongs to a number of campus organizations and Facebook groups that help her feel emotionally engaged. She’s part of a Golden Key International Honor Society with chapters all over the world, and she’ll continue to use her mobile Facebook app to network with peers even after graduation.

Both Perez and Shimkevitch note that getting more push notifications, especially personalized communications and recommendations, through the mobile app, rather than through email, would get more attention and improve likelihood of participation. Ludanova agrees this is a priority and says the institution is headed in this direction.

Looking to the future

Many institutions are exploring developing a “smart campus,” where students can use their phones to gain entry into buildings or use their personal QR codes to accomplish tasks all over campus.

Says Shimkevitch: “The one thing nobody ever forgets is their phone. So the more we can centralize and enhance our mobile apps, the better the campus experience will be for everyone.”


All four NSU students are excited about the MyNSU app and the improvements rolling out in the coming year. Their focus on the importance of a college mobile app improving convenience and access to information aligns with findings from the survey of students across the U.S.—97% of whom said technology that supports them outside the classroom is just as important as new teaching and learning technologies.

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