Creating a Support Center for Non-Traditional Students
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Creating a Support Center for Non-Traditional Students

Student support centers can simplify the bureaucratic tasks students must go through in pursuit of a degree, improving the service an institution provides its learners.

The following email Q&A is with Juliette Punchello, director of the Learner Support Center at Thomas Edison State College. Punchello spoke at the recent Sloan-C International Conference on Online Learning about her experience creating and operationalizing the Center in 12 months’ time. In this interview, she discusses the thinking that went into the creation of the center, sheds light on the process she and her colleagues went through to move the project forward and shares some of the lessons she learned from the experience.

1. What is the value of a one-stop service/call center to non-traditional students?

The value of a one-stop service center model to any student (traditional or not) is to respect our students’ time. Students deserve to get their questions addressed at the first point of contact (phone, email or in person), without the need to be transferred to multiple offices. Further, they should be receiving consistent and accurate information with times that fit their needs. The Learner Support Center (LSC) was designed to follow the three-tier customer service model.

The team of student affairs specialists responds to the first tier of issues and is equipped to answer questions regarding course registration, registration dates, incoming and outgoing transcript status, account balances, proctor information and a host of additional information. The team triages all incoming calls and email messages and then takes the next step by asking probing questions to allow us to clearly identify the information or service the student is seeking.

At that point, we are able to answer the vast majority of administrative-related questions from our students at the first point of contact. Effective and ongoing training to new and existing employees is one of the key facets of the success of our team. In order to provide exceptional customer service to our students at the first point of contact, the team needs to be continually updated on new policies, procedures and initiatives, both academic and student-service based.

The goal of the LSC is to provide accurate information to students during their initial interaction and throughout their enrollment in a cheerful, “happy to help” manner — eliminating the need for a transfer — with the ultimate goal of providing the student with a positive experience as they manage administrative functions related to earning a degree with the College.

2. What steps were taken leading up to the creation of the LSC?

The proposal to establish a one-stop model was years in the making. Resources needed to be approved and earmarked, staff and a physical location needed to be identified and technology needed to be acquired. Additionally, the model itself needed to be accepted as a cultural change.

As a starting point, key personnel attended conferences that outlined the steps to establish a one-stop model. At these events, relationships developed that provided Thomas Edison State College with insight from existing centers. Information was shared that allowed the LSC to establish norms and benchmarks and set expectations to be measured against.

3. What was the most significant lesson you and your colleagues learned from this process?

As I look back over the one year that the LSC has been in existence (Nov. 7, 2012 to Nov. 7, 2013), I am amazed at how quickly we grew from a new, single department to transforming ourselves into the nerve center of the College in regards to the academic needs of our students. Our team learned how to operate efficiently in a high-volume, fast-paced work environment, while being responsible for learning and maintaining new information from various departments on a daily basis.

We are the face and voice of the College, and the customer service we provide is a differentiator in the marketplace. I believe setting high expectations for the team has been one of the reasons we have been so successful. We measure our student satisfaction on a daily basis and use the feedback to modify our operations.

Our team is also empowered to, and responsible for, identifying common student challenges and then designing and implementing solutions in an expeditious manner. We never lose sight that everything that we do is to enhance our students’ experiences.

To learn more about Punchello’s presentation at the 2013 Sloan-C international Conference on Online Learning, please click here.

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2 Responses to Creating a Support Center for Non-Traditional Students

  1. Jane Reply

    2013/12/20 at 1:18 pm

    I’m now retired, but I worked for many years in enrollment services and the number-one complaint I heard from adult students — even more than lack of course options — was, “Too many forms!” Institutions tend to make the enrollment process very difficult for students because, I think, that sometimes makes things easier for us. For example, students could never understand why they had to fill out their information multiple times on multiple forms with overlapping questions. I tried to explain that this was because one form would go to the registrar, another to financial aid and still another to the student’s department. But to the student, they were all offices within the same institution, so this duplication did not make sense.

    Something to keep in mind as you’re designing a single-access window is that it’s not just a matter of consolidating forms, but about identifying and eliminating the redundancies in them to streamline the process for students. With computer technology, my guess is that this is easier than ever.

  2. Kylie R Reply

    2013/12/20 at 2:47 pm

    Sounds like a great idea. I’m surprised more institutions haven’t adopted this “one-stop shop” approach. There’s a compelling service incentive, as it greatly simplifies the enrollment process for students. At the same time, there could be a cost benefit to having one unit look after these issues.

    The key is to get buy-in from departments to inform this central unit about their latest developments so the information and assistance the unit provides is always current.

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