Modern one-stop student service centers transform the student experience

Insights Article - Modern one stop student service centers

Key takeaways 

  • One-stop service centers address student frustration issues 
  • They are part of a student-centered approach 
  • The centers can help identify outdated processes and approaches

Ask a college student what most frustrates them about their college experience, and they may respond, “The runaround!”

The “runaround” refers to the often-inefficient processes that go along with conducting the business of being a student. Students’ frustration is often centered around critical administrative tasks such as: bill payment, financial aid reconciliation, course registration, mandatory advising check-ins, and transcript or credential requests. While portions of some of those tasks have shifted to digital services (i.e. IT help desk and course registration), there are still plenty of tasks that require students, at some of the busiest times of the year, to find offices they never knew existed (that can't seem to communicate with each other), bring the right paperwork with the right signatures, and wait in unexpected lines only to have to repeat the process for another task in another building across campus.

Since at least the 1990s, institutions have taken note of this frustration and adopted more student-focused efforts to make some of these processes not only more efficient for students but also more effective on the administration's end. One way to combat the runaround is to implement a central location, be it physical, web-based, or both, where students can take care of institutional administrative tasks more efficiently and effectively. This centralized office is known as a “one stop” student service center, and lately it has evolved into a hive of innovation that can work wonders on student service and institutional processes—saving time and resources, minimizing student frustration, and enabling new opportunities for the institution in technology, service, staff development, and more. 

A further upside of the “one stop” student service approach is that, while dramatically improving the student service experience, it can also mean schools have the opportunity integrate more data, more processes, and more decision makers. This approach can ultimately unleash stronger analytics and much-yearned-for technological efficiencies and capabilities. And schools can knock down a few silos while they’re at it.

A student-centered approach

The emergence of “One Stop” centers, both physical and virtual, are evidence of institutions’ recognizing the changing needs and habits of today’s students. One stop centers allow students to manage all their business tasks in one location, somewhat mirroring the process of managing tasks in industries outside of higher education.

Consider, for example, the process of getting your car repaired. You could take your car to a muffler shop for muffler repair, an air conditioning shop for heating and air repair, and a transmission shop for transmission repair. This process, while inefficient, would allow you to address all of your vehicle’s needs. Or, you can select a general service center or dealership that can address these issues in one place, using cross-trained mechanics. This would be a more efficient way to attend to the necessary maintenance of a vehicle.

One stop centers follow this same concept. Rather than having students visit financial aid to settle their aid, the registrar for their registration and records needs, and the bursar or cashier to pay their bills, a centralized place allows students to talk with a representative who is cross-trained to have expertise in all of these areas.

A one stop center moves services from a process-centered approach to a student-centered approach and reduces the runaround students often experience as they navigate the business (and busyness) of college life.

Virtual one stops

Today’s learner is also an online consumer and, as such, has an expectation that the business functions of their college or university should be made available to them online. For example, a student can use their Amazon mobile app and purchase a pair of shoes, school supplies, or household items at 2:00 a.m.

Thus, they believe they should also be able to log on to their institution’s site and request a transcript or other academic credential in much the same way. Students instinctively turn to the web to find answers to their questions. Providing a centralized virtual space for them to seek assistance allows independence in problem-solving and saves time and resources for both students and institutions.

In the case of the virtual one stop runaround, there’s no running at all.

Cross-trained, capable staff

For many institutions, setting up shop as a one stop would require little to no new staffing. Current staff in the areas identified to be part of the Center could be cross-trained to allow minimal staff to assist with maximum transactions or requests. For example, a registrar staff member who is well-versed in course registration processes and degree requirements could be cross-trained on transcript evaluation and production.

Likewise, a financial aid staff person who, in a centralized financial aid office may have responsibility for only one area, say scholarships, could be cross-trained to also respond to inquiries about grants and loans. This type of cross-training is essential to the success of one-stop shops as it allows a team of knowledgeable staff to respond to a broad array of questions. And this doesn’t mean watered-down expertise, just efficiency where efficiency serves the student.

In addition to cross-knowledge training, it would also be essential to cross-train staff on the technology solutions that support various campus areas. Staff who utilize student information systems have confidence in the screens that are most relevant to their work. In preparing for a broader array of information, there will likely be a need to also train staff on the screens or reports relevant to that area. Additionally, many areas such as admissions and student engagement/advising may use a customer relationship management (CRM) tool and cross-training would be necessary for their expanded role.

Impact on student experience

Providing students with an efficient way to manage their tasks—either through a physical space to conduct business or through an online self-service method—can positively impact students’ perception of institutional effectiveness.

Reducing the runaround can have a positive impact on student retention and student satisfaction. When you eliminate the sometimes crazed, stressful rush that students feel when they are dashing from building to building in order to meet an administrative deadline, students have a more favorable view of the efficiency of the institution and are more confident in their own ability to complete the necessary tasks associated with their enrollment.

After all, how many college graduates have at least one memory involving hastily dropping off a tuition check, belated immunization records, or add/drop forms at buildings in multiple locations across campus just before an office closes and a deadline passes? While our time management skills probably weren’t what they are now, this administrative mania is something schools can help with.

The more confident and comfortable a student feels as part of an institution, the more likely they are to remain enrolled and engaged. Additionally, the set-up of a one stop provides an ideal opportunity to review and examine systems that may be archaic or out of date. For example, are you using paper processes for functions that could be easily automated (i.e. major changes; course drops; scholarship applications)? Could you utilize technology to assist with information sharing (a central location for FAQs) or to prompt independence in your students (web-based agreement to receipt and understanding of the catalog or handbook)?

Setting up a one stop student service center can help identify processes that can be updated to meet the needs and expectations of today’s learners while still allowing for accountability and proper record keeping at the institutional level.

Be sure to check out our follow-up post: How to implement a one stop student service center at your institution. And for more on what today’s students are looking for, in terms of the digital experience they want from higher ed, check out our recent study.

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