Until recently, the argument for meaningful investment in a better student experience has fallen flat to many higher education administrators.  There has certainly been little disagreement with the premise that students who are accustomed to seamless, personalized experiences from the likes of Amazon and Netflix expect the same thing from their college or university. Yet investments in student experience improvement have been seen as a luxury akin to climbing walls and dining hall sushi – at least when compared to many other more “mission-oriented” priorities.

Conversations about student experience have been largely disconnected from the more “en vogue” student success programs – initiatives designed to increase the odds that at-risk students stay on track and complete their program. Student success programs feel very core to the mission of higher education. But they are also costly. Many lack scale. And far too many of these programs approach student success from a deficit framework, the implication being that something is “wrong” with these students. They reinforce the idea that at-risk students need to change themselves in order to belong at the institution, rather than having the institution assume the obligation of effectively serving all types of personas in their student body.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which moved the tipping point for many “at-risk” students, the population of which is concentrated heavily in community colleges. These students – many of whom are disproportionately low income, black and/or Latinx – are more sensitive to friction in the student experience, causing them to historically drop out at rates higher than traditional students at selective institutions. The challenges of the pandemic pushed them over the edge, and double-digit enrollment drops ensued. The status quo for at-risk students was never good, and the pandemic made it downright unacceptable.

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No student enjoys a poor experience. But the reality is that the students who succeed in navigating the friction-filled processes that many universities impose on them are those advantaged students who have the resources at their disposal to do so. At-risk students without these resources disproportionally suffer.

What’s happening now is the growing recognition that improving student experience is not a luxury. It is mission critical. Rather than treating at-risk students as “problems” to be solved, schools are starting to identify the deficits in their own learning models and administrative processes. Ultimately, a better experience would benefit all learners.

In short, a frictionless student experience is a more equitable student experience.

What does it take to create frictionless, equitable experiences? An important step is identifying the diverse learner personas your institution serves and their distinctive needs. This understanding can allow you to rethink when and how you deliver education; redesign processes to be faster, more automated and more intuitive; and reshape virtually every interaction learners have – from the time they inquire about your program until they receive their degree or professional credential.

This summer, Accenture is conducting a study of current students to help identify a core set of learner personas. I look forward to sharing the findings of our research – and helping you further customize the personas for your institution so you can design frictionless, equitable experiences for your students. In the meantime, let’s stay connected via LinkedIn.

Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

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