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Modern Customer Care Comes to Colleges in One-Stop Shops for Student Services

by Student Loan Daddy

In his old position in the records and registration office at Virginia Commonwealth University, Christopher Redd could get students and alumni the transcripts they wanted but was forced to direct them to the cashier’s office several blocks away for payment. In response to the annoyance of such a scenario, the university implemented a “one-stop shop” model for the Student Services Center it opened two years ago, a model that more colleges are adopting and one that is transforming the concept of how institutions serve their students.

More schools are rethinking student services and combining specific offices such as records and registration, student accounts, and financial aid under one roof. The University of Minnesota was an early adopter of the one-stop student services model, and Julie A. Selander, interim director of Minnesota’s student services center, said that other colleges have good reason to implement the format. “The silo way of doing things creates that runaround for students, and students are frustrated,” Selander said.

Michael Flanigan and Delores Taylor, the two administrators behind the creation of VCU’s center, said that combining registration, bursar, and financial aid functions under one roof makes sense to students, even if it makes less sense to staff. But because the point is to serve students, the one-stop model is the best choice.

However, one-stop student services models offer no guarantee of success, according to Kathy Kurz, vice president of the higher-education-consulting firm Scannell & Kurz, who said that the model should be adopted only in cases where an institution has identified a problem and rejected other solutions. One issue pertains to the very heart of the model. Because the model combines multiple services, specialized staff must be comprehensively retrained as broad generalists. Additionally, heavy student traffic and long lines must be managed, as well as an influx of students into one location that both demand immediate gratification and need more guidance than previous generations (“One-Stop Shops for Student Services Aim to Eliminate Hassle,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 11, 2011).

When Do Students Stop Being Students and Become Customers?

Redd agreed that one of the distinct challenges of modern student services is helping students that come from a generation that is far less self-reliant than when he started at VCU 11 years ago. Not only do students today rely on their parents long after they arrive on campus, they also need much more hand-holding, Redd said. At the same time, he added, students are part of a culture that has made them less patient, which makes some of the efficiencies gained through one-stop models barely adequate for some students’ demands. While a goal of VCU’s student services center is to educate students and help them become more self-reliant, it’s not always easily-achieved and sometimes the help is rejected by students who see themselves as customers, a relationship that higher education would prefer to avoid.

In one case, when Redd told a sophomore chemistry major that his transcript request would be fast-tracked — a process that normally takes two to three days — the student said that he expected them on the spot and that, in the information age, his immediate request should be expected. In another case, a woman who came to the center to settle a delinquent tuition bill was told that the center couldn’t help her because the bill had already been sent to the collections office and she would have to go there to settle her account. When she became visibly upset and vocal, the manager offered to call the collections office for her. When that wasn’t good enough, the manager walked the student, who remained unhappy, two blocks to the collections office.

Part of the problem is that as the price of college has increased so have students’ expectations of the service they should receive. In fact, modern students service can often be conflated with customer service. Nonprofit higher education is hesitant to refer to students as customers because that implies that students are always right and that college degrees should be awarded simply in exchange for tuition.

Taylor, who helped create the one-stop student services center at VCU, agreed that students are more than customers to universities. However, she said, the reality is that the university’s students are also its customers, regardless of how the university or higher education in general feels about it.

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