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Discovering the “Why”

Release Date: September 22, 2020 • Episode #134

Educational institutions are beholden to a different type of customer: students. Discovering how students experience the education and services they receive from one of the largest community colleges in the nation requires a substantial experience program. Host Steve Walker welcomes guests Matt Ashcraft and Meredith Warner from Maricopa Community Colleges to discuss experience management within an educational institution and the differences between higher education and for-profit organizations.

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Steve:
We've explored various different industries on this podcast: technology, health care, retail. But what about an industry responsible for providing a quality education?

Meredith:
The work that we do, in integrated student support understanding not just how they're feeling, but what we need to pivot, how we need to change in order to accommodate their needs, especially at the community colleges where we have a different demographic of student than you would see at the four year institutions.

Steve:
A look into how customer experience works in higher education. On this episode of The CX Leader Podcast.

Announcer:
The CX Leader Podcast with Steve Walker is produced by Walker, an experience management firm that helps our clients accelerate their XM success. You can find out more at Walkerinfo.com.

Steve:
Hello, everyone. I'm Steve Walker, host of The CX Leader Podcast. And thank you for listening. On The CX Leader Podcast we explore topics and themes to help leaders like you to leverage all the benefits of your customer experience and help your customers and prospects want to do more business with you. According to the US Department of Education, there are over four 4,300 degree granting institutions in the United States, ranging in size from small community colleges to large four year universities. Within those institutions, there are over 19.7 million students enrolled for the fall of 2020. Now you're probably thinking the same question I am: how does one execute an effective CX strategy in higher education institutions? Well my guests today on the podcast are going to help us answer that question. Matt Ashcraft is the associate vice chancellor of Strategy, Research and Effectiveness, and Meredith Warner is district director of Integrated Student Support, both at Maricopa Community Colleges, one of the largest community college districts in the United States, serving nearly 200,000 students in Maricopa County, Arizona, which for those of you who don't know your county's, that is the greater Pheonix area. Matt, Meredith, thank you for being on The CX Leader Podcast.

Matt:
Absolutely. Thank you for having us

Meredith:
Thank you.

Steve:
Yeah. It's a real pleasure to have you on the podcast. Full disclosure that you guys are clients of our company and we've had a great partnership and we just really admire. But I'm so intrigued about how do you apply the CX concepts in higher ed and we're talking offline before it is really the ultimate service business when you think about it, providing an education to people. But maybe for those of us, for our listeners, maybe just a little more background on Maricopa Community Colleges and sort of what your roles are.

Matt:
Sure. As serving as associate vice chancellor for strategy and research and effectivness, really tasked with thinking longer term trends where Maricopa will need to head in the future in order to sustain a competitive advantage. And it may sound strange for a community college, but as you're likely aware and your listeners are likely aware, higher education has become extremely competitive. So now I'm also responsible for understanding what's going on with our students and CX, of course.

Meredith:
Thanks, Matt. I am the district director for Integrated Student Support, which doesn't mean a whole lot to anyone unless they knew what the Guide to Pathways framework was to community colleges. So this is a sort of a new venture for community colleges to really help students focus on their academic pathway from the moment they interact with us until graduation. And the integrated student support model is pulling all of the pieces of the institution together so that we no longer work in silos and so that the work that we're doing helps. I don't want to use the words to handhold students, but it really does help students navigate the entire journey from career educational interests to their actual career in the workforce or their four year university. So we are transforming the work of Maricopa across ten colleges, and I am kind of the glue that are helping the ten colleges manage that new transformation.

Steve:
So if i'm a CX pro in a for profit business, the integrated student support might be the student experience?

Meredith:
Fully the student experience. Yes, the entire student journey. That's correct.

Steve:
And I'm translating this for our more business oriented colleagues because I know there's a lot they can learn here. But but Matt would be sort of the strategic or executive sponsor of the program. And Meredith, you're sort of tasked with driving the student experience on a day to day basis.

Meredith:
That's right.

Steve:
Excellent. I think that'll help me and that'll help our listeners, too. So let's talk about the student experience and really how CX has been applied to higher ed. Who wants to take that one on.

Matt:
Traditionally higher ed honestly hasn't been in the CX business, if you will. I think some of the larger universities that can afford it and who are obviously very forward thinking absolutely have, but generally higher education when we have been in the customer experience business, if you will, the frequency at which we take the pulse of our students and very infrequent, typically once a year, once every three years, using some large, you know, standardized survey instruments that give us information that it's not actionable. It almost never tells us why. And really that's, you know, the biggest reason to get into customer experience for higher education. And that is to really understand why and empathize with our students. That's obviously a big reason to get into customer experience in the first place, so the reasons aren't that different for an organization like Maricopa Community Colleges to want to get into CX. That's compared to any other industry that really wants to care about their customer. In our case, our students, we don't typically refer to our students as customers, even though in some sense they are, but also we have a need to differentiate ourselves.

Meredith:
Yeah, I don't disagree for the work that we do, integrated student support, understanding not just sort of how they're feeling, but what we need to pivot, how we need to change in order to accommodate their needs, especially at the community colleges where we have a different demographic of students than you would see at the four year institutions.

Steve:
Yeah, and I think you said a couple of things that our listeners could relate to, that your business is competitive. I can't think of anything that consumers probably are more particular about than their education, particularly if they're the payer and the consumer. And that it is the way that you differentiate is via the experience. So I think that's something that almost all organizations have in common. And I think you're right, we actually have seen now higher education institutions that are going out of business in some cases because they can't master that value equation in a way that sustains the institution. So we are really at a very dynamic point in this business. And that's one of the reasons why I'm so fascinated in this. Why would a higher education institution want to explore this? Why is it that you guys decided to tackle this? And what was the impetus behind it?

Matt:
For Maricopa, it's really been about, like I mentioned earlier, just really understanding the why. We have a lot of operational data and we can see patterns in the data. And we're always thinking, well, it looks like this could be related to this, whereas hitting at the heart of why. Why our students are making the decisions that they're making, where are they having difficulties in any process that we present to them that they have to get through? And we've never had really, truly actionable, solid data about why that's you all know, that's one of the things to gauge and CX and understand the why.

Steve:
Maybe, Meredith, you could take us through the sort of the nuts and bolts of how you implemented and sort of what your journey's been as you've formalized this process.

Meredith:
So we use customer experience surveying in a variety of ways and Maricopa. But when it came down to the nuts and bolts of it and we were trying to decide what to do, truly recently it was around understanding why students weren't continuing their education amidst the pandemic. So that became kind of an urgent pivot. We were thinking we would survey our students and see if we could say, hey, some of you have enrolled and you haven't paid for classes. But when the pandemic hit, Steve, it was it was such a different moment for us because we started to see plummeting numbers and enrollment. Like the hesitation was there. Our continuing students weren't enrolling. Students who had fully applied, completed all of their documents and all of their residency paperwork, which, by the way, at Maricopa is not a simple process. And so they gone through this entire process, but yet weren't enrolling in classes, weren't registering for programs. And so we really needed to understand that better. And so our process was fortunately to pivot immediately. So it was this process of discovery in the application of questions. And so for our process, it was we had an urgent need because of the pandemic. But then we have regained such rich information that I think will be of value to us forever.

Steve:
Yeah, you've said quite a few things there and I want to unpack just a couple of them. But just related to what Meredith told us about the the pandemic research, Matt, without giving any trade secrets or anything, but can you give an example of how you how you got to the why there maybe in terms of the folks not following through during the pandemic?

Matt:
Oh, absolutely. We just really focused on questions to understand where our students were at right now in their lives. And it's kind of this part of human nature that people want to share their lives, even some things that might be difficult to share. They just, we tend to want to share our lives with people. So that's really what we focused on. And we asked the questions about youve applied with us, but you haven't enrolled. What are your biggest concerns? What are your concerns that aren't related to COVID? The insight was incredible. Some of the biggest reasons that our students told us they were concerned was they didn't they didn't know much about our campus reopening. They didn't know how classes were going to be held. And mind you, we've been communicating these things, but it was it was just great information to say, well, somehow we're still not getting through at least to not every student. So we pivoted like Meredith said and decided, OK, we've got to really focus on communication. And, you know, some of the other concerns not related to COVID that came out were, and this really has to do with the population that we serve, and then Meredith mentioned, you know, having an open response. And this is one of… This is one of the sad kind of facts about some of the population that we serve and that is that's actually why I'm in the Maricopa system, to help students like the homeless. And we literally have students say, well, I don't have a concern related to COVID, but I'm homeless. I'm not even really… I know higher education is the way, is a way out, but I just can't think about going to college.

Steve:
That's powerful. And you're right. You know that that's one of the things I think is so important is it is a building block to building a better life. And yet I think one of the differences in higher ed generally is you've got a very complex system of stakeholders. And then even more so for a community college, there might be even more complicated web of of support and other services that have to be brought alongside of the higher ed. So I think that's a great example. What… Meredith, what other differences do you think are kind of similar to for profit or other businesses? And what really, truly is different about higher ed and maybe even more specifically, what's different about a community college?

Meredith:
Well, I mean, it's hard for me to to say what's different between community colleges and for profit in general. I mean, I can share with you who our students are. These are traditionally not straight out of high school students. So while we have a lot of traditional age students, we have a lot of students who are 30 and 40 and 50 who are coming to career. So it's a big workforce, big workforce bent. So in terms of how we have similarities, there's a workforce bent out of a desire to be an industry. Right. So understanding the intentions of our student population is really critical to us. But we also have to know that our students are traditionally low income. They're often first generation college students. In fact, we found out from a recent survey that we've done on our intake of students that something like 73 percent of our incoming class right now at the two institutions that we're piloting the survey, 73 percent of them have no one in their family who has ever been to college. So that's that's rich information for us. You know, there's also a heavy bent on part time students. So unlike a traditional four year institution, our students come to college and have lots of other competing interests. Family health, finances, work. Now, we have kids at home who are learning while you're trying to navigate work and life. So those are our students. And so the population that we're trying to serve doesn't look like you're traditional for profit business because we are trying to help them get into a better life to achieve a better life. We're not trying to understand why they purchased something necessarily or why their behaviors were a particular way in that industry. We're trying to understand how we could better serve them so that they start with us and they have a desire to finish with us.

Steve:
And Matt, just listening to that, it's also the community college is different than a four year university or what a lot of us would typically think about the four year university experience. Could you just elaborate on that a little bit?

Matt:
Sure. We have a lot of commuter students because we don't have housing unlike four-…

Steve:
Right.

Matt:
… years so wrapping your arms around our student population is a much different experience for us internally to be able to. I know funding has been a concern for across higher ed, but even still, we community colleges, we typically do not have the same funding that universities have.

Steve:
Scholarships.

Matt:
Yeah, scholarships, you name it, and technology obviously to do CX work.

Steve:
Right. You mentioned you have a lot of operating data Matt? Have you been able to link the operating data to the survey responses for both sides of the equation like this is what we thought we saw in our operating data, but the students gave us a different perspective. Or now that you've got the students perspective, has that come in and informed, maybe changes in the operating data that you look at?

Matt:
Absolutely. We've really only been able to scratch the surface in terms of connecting x-data and o-data, but one example is we have all the survey results from the fall enrollment survey, which is the primary one that's Meredith has been speaking too, to help us understand what's going on, why students are enrolling at the rates they have in the past. We've been able to connect that to our student information system and look at demographics. Where are certain demographics being impacted more than other students experience. For example, students of color, which is hugely important for us, thinking about part of the community college mission being equity. I think that would be one example. Meredith, do you have another one?

Meredith:
My mind's more anecdotal, to be honest. I can remember when we started to see enrollment decline, for example, in April and May for our summer and fall terms. We had we had speculated on the why. So I think that's the bigger the bigger piece for us is we have a governing board that has seven members that make big, big decisions for the district, for us in terms of what resources to provide, what our tuition rates are. And our governing board was very, very concerned and I know addressed a number of things with our provost and our chancellor around, I think students just can't afford to come to college. I think that's what we're seeing. So they wanted to reallocate resources from one area to the students so that they could reduce tuition or make it more attractive for a student financially to come to us. And, you know, Matt and his team were very helpful in saying, well, we don't know that that's the reason that they're not enrolling. And so for us, we had all this speculation, anecdotal speculation on why students weren't enrolling, the critical nature of doing that, getting the customer experience as part of this and understanding their why was so that we stopped doing that. Because the truth is, we really didn't know. We knew the pandemic was new. We knew that we had changed their lives in March when we told them all they're all going to be online. And then we just hoped that they were going to come back to us. And then when they weren't returning to us, we just started pulling things like what could be the reason? And then we would look at data, right. We would say, well, we know that X number of students are X percent of our students suffer financially or so many of our students have had or take on campus classes. So if the majority of our students take classes on campus, perhaps they don't have the technology at home. So we we were using what we thought we had as opposed to the real data from the students. And regardless of whether the operational data gave us some rich information, the the ability for us to pivot away from that anecdotal speculative questions and get tangible information that we can hand to the governing board. That was a game changer for us.

Steve:
I actually got the opportunity to be a trustee of a private four year university for eight years, and I think that business people could not imagine the the risk inherent every year in enrollment. It's a big bet. And the number better be right. It's tough. And I imagine that a community college is even tougher to nail that than probably a four year university. But it's almost like launching in a brand new product every single year because you've got to attract that entering class. Right?

Matt:
It has been difficult to understand how long it's going to fluctuate other than what had been for a long time, a fairly constant for many colleges in general across the nation. And that is when there is a recession, our enrollment typically starts going through the roof. Then when the economy starts doing better enrollment settles down and we start to decline, depending on what the unemployment rate, that's that's the number one factor that we've been able to associate with our enrollment. So we thought we'd actually have an opportunity to see enrollment grow as a result of the pandemic. And we never hope for that, clearly, when you see people employed and helping them be able to get the credential to be employed. But we just imagine if if trends held like they have then you start seeing enrollment increase and that could still happen. But it's not happening right now. Not yet. And so really figuring out why, like Meredith mentioned earlier, we just we were trying to scratch our heads and CX was clearly the way to get there.

Steve:
Meredith, you were mentioning that, you know, all the things that you've done, but what kind of impact has it had on the institution and in sort of where do you see this thing going forward?

Meredith:
You know, I really think that there are multiple ways I could answer this question, because, you know, being able to ask students of the moment, like, what are the reasons that they're not coming back to us when we speculate that it's one reason. And then we find out, Matt had said earlier that it really is a communication issue. Right? So we we drill down and realize that students didn't know how to reach us. We realized that students didn't understand how to access the technology that was available to them, the resources that were available to them. So all the reasons that we had speculated they were there, but they were in the smallest of percentiles. So to be able to pivot the conversation from our governing board and our executives to say students just want us right. They want to feel us. So we had an outreach campaign so that students could talk to us directly. I mean, we were looking at almost a 40 percent decline. That was the trend we were on back in May before we implemented the survey. And Matt Ashcraft's team released numbers on Monday. And we're in the 14, 15 percent decline. We have done so much work because of the responses that we got from the survey. And so that was, that's kind of game changer. But that's one aspect of it. The other was we all came together, right, because there was so much speculation when we started to learn what the reason students weren't coming back to us were, we were able to help all 10 colleges pivot the information on their websites, the communication strategies. So we came together as a 10 college district because we wanted to support our students. And I don't think we realized how, how much we needed that information because we kept thinking we were pushing out the right information. But it wasn't in the right location. It wasn't in the right way. And I think that's what this difference was for us. I mean, to see our numbers where they are today, it's it's almost joyful. I mean, we hate saying we're 14 percent down, but to have been trending to be 40 in May and for us to have had this kind of impact on our district has been huge.

Steve:
Matt, any comment from you?

Matt:
That's absolutely correct.

Steve:
I think that's a it's a great story. And I think one that all of our listeners can relate to is that, you know, one of the things we always talk about in CX is you only control about half of the equation and you can control what you do and you control about 50 percent of your relationships. But, you know, there's other factors that can take you off on other things. And the way you respond is really the best part that you can do, and it's why you need these sorts of listening systems in place. All right, my friends and guests, we've reached that point of the show where we ask each of our guests to provide their take home value. And this is your best tip based on your experience and as something that you can share with our listeners in terms of their own CX program. So, Meredith, you want to go first?

Meredith:
I think my best tip related to this, especially for education institutions, because we we don't pivot on a dime. Is that the the best thing I can say is to be willing to have of the moment in surveying and customer experience listening sessions, be willing to have those immediately when you recognize that there's a deficiency somewhere. Don't speculate because the information that you're going to find as a result of having some sense of urgency around it, like our pandemic, for example, take that and seize that moment because you're going to find rich information that's going to provide your particular institution. It's just going to it's the game changer for your students and it's the game changer for your outcomes.

Steve:
Thanks. And Matt, what's your take home value for our listeners?

Matt:
Well, following Meredith is always tough for me. She's so dynamic. And you can hear my voice. I mean, come on. Like, I don't even like hold a candle, but I might have something to offer here in terms of advice, and anyway. It's a totally compliment, Meredith, you know that. So the the saying the phrase you can do this really comes to mind. And what I mean by that is you can start small and, but small doesn't have to mean a small idea. It just means start with the right question. And if you nail the right question to ask your customers, the value proposition for the information you get back can be as meredith use the term several times, just absolutely game changing. And while we have multiple CX projects in the works right now, the game, the truly game changing one has been students. What's going on with you? Help us understand where you're at. You're coming back. How can we help you? What can we know more to understand your situation better? That was a fairly simple question that just yielded a treasure trove of information to help us pivot.

Steve:
Very wise words, and I think all of our listeners can relate to those things. I think just personally, I'm a big fan of staying in the moment, particularly when things are tough and when you're stressed, you know, really like what can I do today? What can I do this week to improve my situation? And then you've got to get started somewhere, right? You know, so take that first leap and in and ask the questions and really try to listen and then relate that back to everything you're doing. So really appreciate you guys coming on the podcast and sharing this story that I think everybody will relate to. If anybody wants to continue the conversation, is there a way where they could connect with you as LinkedIn or the institution's website?

Meredith:
Sure, our directory information is available on maricopa.edu so Matt and I can both be found there by our names. So we're always happy to field any questions that might come in. I know we're also both on LinkedIn, so we're happy to take questions or comments there as well.

Steve:
And you also just recently had a little Forbes article, didn't you, that Forbes featured you guys in terms of your innovative approach so people might just Google that, right?

Meredith:
That's true. You know, as a funny moment, I got an IM from my husband who works downstairs in his office, and he said all it said was "your famous." And I was like, what do you mean? He's like, you've got to come down here and see. So he blasted it on his, you know, large computer as I made my way down to his office. You're famous, so.

Steve:
Matt Ashcraft is the associate vice chancellor for Strategy, Research and Effectiveness. And Meredith Warner is the district director of Integrated Student Support, both at Maricopa County Colleges. Please do check out their website and learn a little more about their history. Thanks again for being on The CX Leader Podcast. Hopefully we'll have you back again someday.

Matt:
That'd be great.

Meredith:
Thank you so much. That was great.

Steve:
And if you want to listen or talk about anything you heard on the podcast, feel free to email me at podcast@walkerinfo.com and be sure to check out our website, cxleaderpodcast.com to subscribe to the show, find all of our previous episodes you can sort by our series and also you can drop us a message there if you'd like. The CX Leader Podcast is a production of Walker, we're an experience management firm that helps companies accelerate their XM success. You can read more about us at Walkerinfo.com. Thanks for listening and we'll see you again next.

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