Changing Higher Ed Podcast 150 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Amrit Ahluwalia – Student Lifecycle Strategies for Enrollment and Retention
College and university leaders who understand and implement the customer lifecycle model into their processes and procedures can boost enrollment numbers at their institutions despite the ongoing trend in higher education.
In his latest podcast, Dr. Drumm McNaughton explores how higher ed leaders can follow the seven steps of this particular business model with Modern Campus’ Senior Director of Strategic Insights Amrit Ahluwalia who also serves as editor-in-chief of The EvoLLLution, an online newspaper focused on nontraditional higher education and transforming the post-secondary marketplace.
Drawing from his experience of working with more than 2,500 leaders at various colleges and universities across the US., Amrit discusses the most effective ways in which schools can engage with students and alumni and how to define specific tactics and priorities that will improve enrollment and retention.
- The six stages of the customer lifecycle are attract, engage, convert, retain, loyalty, and nurture and grow. The “attract” phase makes people aware of your institution. “Engage” provides them with the information they need to make the right buying decision for them. “Convert” gets them from prospect to customer. “Retain” keeps that individual through their buying process. “Loyalty” represents when you build and foster a relationship with that individual. “Nurture and grow” expands the nature of your relationship with that individual beyond what you have today.
- “Attract” is about how the customer is looking for a solution to solve a problem. So, the institution has an opportunity to position itself as a solution provider. This comes down to identifying your communication strategy and rating the effectiveness of your website design, for example, how easy it is to find the right thing at the right time on the website to move forward.
Your SEO strategy has to be dialed in, and the program mix has to be right for the learners you’re trying to serve. This requires understanding who your learners are, what they like about the institution, and what needs to change.
These are the core ways that you can define your target audience. Higher ed has spent too long trying to be Harvard that there’s a fair number of institutions that have lost sight of what makes them unique, interesting, special, and valuable.
- At “engage,” your prospective customers have been on your website and are starting to sift through it to find materials that meet their needs. The majority of students enroll in a post-secondary program because they have specific career outcomes in mind.
How are you communicating those career outcomes from a program page perspective? Provide possible salaries that students can earn in their area and tee up relationships with employers. That kind of messaging and visibility will make a massive impact on the students likely to continue onto the next step, which is “convert.”
- At “convert,” the individual decides they’ll go through the registration process. There are things that this student must do to adequately apply for the program. Have your enrollment management department and applications department go through an exercise to define every single step.
For every single question that you ask these students, ask yourself at every stage, “Is this a piece of information we need? Or is this a piece of information we already have?”
If you’re coming from the noncredit or continuing ed world, simplify. How simple can or should you make it? How easy are you making it for that individual to provide exactly the information they need to share and no more? How easy are you making it for them to pay? Are you accepting multiple payment types? Are you legally allowed to take credit card payments?
- At “retention,” you assume that the individual has completed the credential that they enrolled for. The involvement of faculty in the enrollment and retention process is critical.
Most of the time when alumni think back about their college experience, they remember the relationship that they had with a professor or multiple professors. But higher ed has unfortunately created an environment that does not necessarily reward faculty for their capacity to develop and maintain relationships with students.
Some schools have, like Arizona State with its vertical research track, vertical teaching track, and continuing education lifelong learning track. Create a situation where faculty members who are oriented to teaching and want that to be their profession can do that and can be rewarded for it.
- “Loyalty” is executed on the back of retention. Loyalty is the exemplification of the relationship you’ve developed with the individual by their tendency to make another purchase.
In higher ed, the metrics for this are whether the individual returned for a post-baccalaureate certificate, enrolled in a professional certification workshop, came back for some form of upskilling rescaling program, and meaningfully reengaged with the institution.
“Loyalty” should not be based on fundraising. The higher ed fundraising model is broken since it essentially involves asking graduates to donate because they graduated. Higher ed needs to treat students like consumers and base their relationship with them on teaching and learning. Facilitate greater access to ongoing learning for alumni in the execution of that enrollment.
- To “nurture” and “grow,” higher ed needs to address the complexity of their back ends. Everyone has their own systems running, and it’s very difficult for information to pass from system to system.
Alumni who want to reenroll at their alma mater for ongoing education should not have to go through another 30-step registration process. Start by creating tighter relationships between continuing education, the main campus, and alumni relations.
Create consistent and high-quality credentialing frameworks that clearly define what a badge is, what a competency is, what a micro-credential is, and what a certificate is. Then make the information that transfers between all these various systems seamless to create a more streamlined experience for students.
About Our Podcast Guest
Amrit Ahluwalia is the Editor in Chief of The EvoLLLution, the online newspaper developed by Modern Campus to create a conversation hub focused on non-traditional higher education and the transforming postsecondary marketplace. Ahluwalia was part of the team that conceived of and launched The EvoLLLution.
The EvoLLLution, which launched in January 2012, serves over 2,000 contributors and attracts approximately 60,000 monthly visitors. The site publishes articles and interviews by some of the industry’s leading thinkers at every level—from presidents and provosts to deans and directors to educators and students to employers and government officials and everyone in between—from across the United States and around the world.
Ahluwalia works personally with every contributor at The EvoLLLution to produce the content that has supported the site’s rise to becoming the top resource for non-traditional higher education. He also serves as Senior Director for Content at Modern Campus, ensuring thought leadership assets align with industry trends. He regularly speaks on topics related to the changing higher education environment at conferences across Canada and the United States, and advises college and university leaders to help frame the strategic visions for their institutions.
Ahluwalia earned his BA (Honors) in Political Studies from Queen’s University and his MA in International Politics from McMaster University. He lives in London, Ontario.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton is the founder and CEO of The Change Leader higher education consulting firm.
Read the Transcript Online
Changing Higher Ed Podcast 150 with Host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Guest Amrit Ahluwalia – Student Lifecycle Strategies for Enrollment and Retention
Welcome to Changing Higher Ed, a podcast dedicated to helping higher education leaders improve their institutions, with your host, Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of The Change Leader, a consultancy that helps higher ed leaders holistically transform their institutions. Learn more at changinghighered.com. And now, here’s your host, Drumm McNaughton.
Drumm McNaughton 00:31
Thank you, David.
Today we celebrate our 150th episode in over four years of Changing Higher Ed. It’s been an incredible ride. I’m pleased to have a special guest for this episode. Amrit Ahluwalia is senior director of Strategic Insights at Modern Campus and editor-in-chief of The EvoLLLution, an online newspaper focused on nontraditional higher education and transforming the post-secondary marketplace.
Amrit works personally with every contributor to produce content that has supported the site’s rise to becoming one of the top resources for non-traditional higher education. Through that, he’s gained some great insights into higher education and what institutions must do in this changing marketplace. Amrit joins us today to discuss what’s going on in higher ed and how the customer lifecycle model can help higher ed institutions explain and solve their issues around enrollment. Amrit, welcome to the show.
Amrit Ahluwalia 01:31
Hi, Drumm. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Drumm McNaughton 01:33
My pleasure. This is a monumental occasion, at least for me. You are my 150th guest. I can’t believe I’ve done so many episodes and had many great guests over the past four years. So, thank you.
Amrit Ahluwalia 01:48
My pleasure. I appreciate being invited. And thank you for bringing me on for an episode like this. It’s exciting.
Drumm McNaughton 01:55
It is for me as well. We’re going to have a great conversation. But before we get into it, please share with our guests a little bit of your background. You’re the editor-in-chief of The EvoLLLution, but you have many other interesting things in your background.
Amrit Ahluwalia 02:12
Absolutely. As you mentioned, I’m the editor-in-chief of the publication The EvoLLLution. That’s three Ls. We’re an online publication that’s focused on innovative and transformative models in higher ed. We were launched by a company called Modern Campus in 2011 because there was a lot of innovation and creativity in the non-traditional side of the post-secondary space that wasn’t getting much attention from some of the more established publications in the higher ed space. So, we wanted to create an environment where leaders could come together and share some of those perspectives, like a backhaul conversation at a conference, to talk about what they were doing, what we saw, and where they wanted to go.
Honestly, none of us felt we’d been around for a decade. But in that time, we’ve worked with 2,500 leaders or more at colleges and universities across the US. We’re also starting to see some international interest in what we’re doing. So it’s been a fascinating experience.
Drumm McNaughton 03:14
I can well imagine, by having spoken to 150 folks and you 2,500, you see some great perspectives out there. What’s going on pre- and post-pandemic? Where are we right now?
Amrit Ahluwalia 03:31
No, absolutely. Higher ed space is in a fascinating spot. There’s a lot of change that is characterizing the higher ed space today. We have many leaders looking at changes in terms of student demand for flexibility, a desire for more personalized pathways to learning, and even learners behaving like consumers and thinking of themselves in that context.
For many leaders on the more traditional side of higher ed, these all seem like new things that happened during the pandemic. But for those of us who’ve been focused on the broader post-secondary space, we’re seeing many trends that we were observing 10 or 15 years before 2020 get accelerated in those two years. For example, year after year, there has been a consistent increase in the number of students taking at least one online program. Then everyone got exposed to it during the pandemic. Now that number has skyrocketed because people recognize the need for flexibility as they realize their opportunity to find flexibility in their learning product.
Students also recognize that they should have flexibility in what they learn, where, and how they learn. As the post-secondary funding model has evolved, we have less and less funding coming from state and government bodies and more and more funding coming out of learners’ pockets, whether it’s through loans or just paying down tuition and fees. But ultimately, the individual is starting to act more and more like a consumer. At the heart of it, many of them are consumers and are making the biggest purchasing decision of their lives when they choose a college or university and then enroll in that program.
It’s fascinating because part of this broad shift has also been on the part of institutions to redefine what they think success looks like. We used to think about success in the higher ed space as being butts in seats. It is about enrollment numbers, and that’s how we defined access. We defined access by looking at enrollment numbers and the diversity of the populations that were enrolling and saying, “We’re an accessible institution or not.” But now we’re starting to recognize that getting people in the door is a marketing technique. Getting people in the doors gauges your sales team’s success. But the institution’s success has to lie in the student’s success. So for the institution to succeed, we’re increasingly recognizing that we must be oriented toward student success at every phase of their engagement with the institution. That’s one of the fascinating things about where we are as an industry today. It’s in that recalibration of what we’re prioritizing.
Drumm McNaughton 06:17
I am taking away two things from your last comments. One is that the pandemic didn’t create crises. It just uncovered those crises. It accelerated all the changes that were going on. And, two, what I’m seeing, and what I gathered from your remarks, you agree, is that many business concepts are being imported into higher ed.
Amrit Ahluwalia 06:45
Drumm McNaughton 06:47
That’s one of the things that distinguishes my firm. We’ve also worked outside of higher ed and bring these concepts in. When we were talking the other day, you discussed the seven steps in the customer lifecycle. That resonated with me, especially from the enrollment perspective. Tell us about that in case folks don’t know the customer lifecycle.
Amrit Ahluwalia 07:14
Absolutely. Every higher ed leader should familiarize themselves with the customer lifecycle. It’s a concept, model, and way of thinking about your organization. It’s in its engagement with the customer base. In this case, learners can help define specific tactics and priorities that may not have been recognizable before thinking about it.
So, there are seven stages of the customer lifecycle. There’s attract, engage, convert, retain, loyalty, nurture, and grow. The “attract” phase makes people aware of your institution. “Engage” gives them the information they need to make the right buying decision. “Convert,” as the name suggests, gets them from prospect to customer. “Retain” keeps that individual through their buying process. In this case, it’d be through the length of their program. “Loyalty” represents when you retain them, where you build and foster a relationship with that individual, which you then nurture into something greater. Finally, “nurture and grow” expands your relationship with that individual beyond what you have today.
As we think about that in the post-secondary context, what are we doing to help prospective learners see themselves at our institutions? What are we doing to make it easy for them to find the relevant programming and career outcomes that our institution can provide? If we talk about “convert,” our buying processes can be atrocious in the post-secondary space, and we can make it very difficult for people to enroll.
Drumm McNaughton 08:49
Really? You’re kidding!
Amrit Ahluwalia 08:53
Believe it or not. When we talk about “retain,” “loyalty,” and “nurture,” it comes down to this scenario. After enrolling at their post-secondary institution, everyone listening to your podcast went into that auditorium during orientation, and everyone was excited. Everyone was buzzing. Then you had a very distinguished individual with a very distinguished jacket with very distinguished elbow patches stand up on stage and say, “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you will be here at graduation.” That’s not the inspiring rallying cry that we necessarily want to hang our hat on as an industry. It’s embarrassing when you think about it because we’re basically saying, “We, the institution, don’t care that 33% of you won’t feel nurtured by this institution.”
Drumm McNaughton 09:40
We had the same thing at the Naval Academy when we got there. My class of 1978—yes, I’m old. I’m sorry. Just them—was the largest incoming class. It was over 1,500 people. We had that same thing on induction day. “Look left. Look right. One of you three will not be here.” Our attrition rate was well over 33%. We ended up graduating 970 out of 1,525 or something like that. It isn’t a good message to say when you get people there for the first time.
Amrit Ahluwalia 10:31
What kind of business holds itself up on not serving its customer? Regarding the Naval Academy, there’s a different set of unique success metrics. But broadly speaking, especially as a public post-secondary institution, that’s an unacceptable way for us to carry ourselves. What bugs me the most is that we’re implying that the student has failed if they don’t succeed academically at the institution. But the reality of it is that the institution made a bet on that student. They said, “This individual is likely to succeed here. We’re going to grant them access.” And then they failed the learner.
That’s where it becomes important to recalibrate around this idea of what success looks like for a post-secondary institution. It’s about providing learners the tools and the support they need to persist through the program. Ideally, it’s also to create a relationship that will foster a lifelong learning engagement with that individual. So when they inevitably need access to upscaling, rescaling, skill development, and new competencies as the labor market changes, their first thought is, “Well, I have a pretty good relationship with a post-secondary institution.” Hopefully, they will want to return to where they graduated from. It’s about responsibility.
Drumm McNaughton 11:54
Let’s not lose that thought because we want to come back to that. I’m hearing you describe a systemic perspective of the talent supply chain coming through your incoming class. Whether it be undergraduate, graduate, or whatever, you have to look at it from a systemic perspective. For example, how do you attract people? How do you get them to sign on the dotted line? How do you keep them engaged and enrolled? How do you graduate? How do you provide them with the right skills? It’s not about passing them from department to department to department. It’s about who’s in charge of ensuring the students succeed all the way through the program. Does that make sense?
Amrit Ahluwalia 12:43
That’s it. That’s exactly it. If you’re going to adopt a customer lifecycle mentality, you must adopt a customer service mentality. And let me head off this next comment at the pass: the customer is not always right. If you ask anyone who’s ever worked a frontline customer service role, they will also tell you that the customer is not always right. So anytime we talk about this concept of customer service in higher education, inevitably, that’s the first comment that comes back.
Are you telling me the customer is always right? Do I have to just stamp a degree and send it to them? No. But what you do have to do is treat them with respect and empathy. This is something that, especially in the traditional education space, we’ve struggled with for a very long time. It’s the idea of treating students like adults and not like children. This is where adopting that customer lifecycle mentality necessitates adopting a customer service mentality designed to simplify every aspect of their life outside the classroom. That way, they can focus the limited time and energy that they have dedicated to higher ed on their learning and not on bureaucracy.
Drumm McNaughton 13:52
That makes so much sense, especially when we start talking about minority-, first-gen-serving institutions and trying to develop that sense of belonging within each student so they can think, “Yes, I can do this.” I remember going through my dissertation when I went back to graduate school. It had been 20 years since I’d been in school. I was a physics major, and here I was in what we used to call a bull subject. You’d have the technical, and then you’d have the bull subjects. Here I was doing management and organization behavior, that type of thing. It wasn’t until I went and saw somebody defend their dissertation that I went, “Wow, I can do this.” That’s the sense of belonging. You have to build that into the system to ensure people are retained and can succeed.
Amrit Ahluwalia 14:52
Absolutely. At its core, it’s just a question of really orienting around purpose. If the institution’s purpose is to support student success, then the structure of student services and student communications, for example, must adapt to being about student success.
It’s something as simple as the website. Your average higher education website is approximately 70,000 pages or more. When you start to break it down, every faculty has a page that’s broken down into, let’s say, eight program areas. Now, every program area has a page for each of its disciplines. Each discipline then has a page that’s broken down further. You can see how it would start to spin out of control.
Now, the question is if it is the prospective student’s responsibility to find the correct webpage to get the information they want about the program they wish to enroll in. Or is it the university’s responsibility to make it easy for them to find the right thing right now? It’s a foundational question that is, in some instances, operational. Do you have the technology in place to make your website navigable?
But then the prioritization of that comes down to a philosophical question. Do you care? Is that a priority? That’s where you start to see these things flesh out, from “We have in our mission statement that we’re student-centric” to “We are actually student-centric.” When you’re communicating with students, are you sending emails to them? I’ll tell you that your average student isn’t reading their email. Are you sending them a text when you’re planning a campus event? Is it a meaningful campus event? Is it designed to help them get better acquainted with the institution? Or is it a pizza party because the student affairs department doesn’t have the budget?
It’s these kinds of things that you start to see the rubber hit the road in terms of the institution’s role in creating that fluid customer lifecycle. It’s one that builds that sense of loyalty, nurtures a relationship, and inspires persistence and retention. If the institution expects that it’s up to the student, then, at a certain point, it’s failing as an organization.
I have one last thought on this. It’s a quote that’s resonated with me for years. I was presenting with a fellow named Jim Broomall at a conference. At the time, Jim was the executive director for continuing ed at the University of Delaware. We were talking about this vision for the new higher ed institution, the DNA of continuing ed, and the student-centricity that’s implicit within it. He commented, “There are two industries on Earth that define themselves by exclusivity, country clubs, and higher ed institutions.”
It’s a spectacular thought once you start to dive into it because it’s true. If you think about the U.S. News & World Report‘s Rankings, the rejection rate on applications is a factor that the more students you reject, the better your institution comes off in the rankings. That’s absurd, as you know. So when push comes to shove, as an industry, there’s a reckoning that we need to go through, and that is our role in serving our communities and facilitating socio-economic mobility in creating some impact on the people that we are designed to serve.
Much of it comes back to this idea of every institution looking at the stages in the customer lifecycle and how they apply to our students and us. What you’ll find in many cases is that you’ll have many leaders recognizing that there’s a gap between the experience they try to deliver and the experience they are delivering.
Drumm McNaughton 18:33
I saw that in spades with a project we recently did for a flagship university. A new president came on board and wanted us to do a listening session to discover what was happening at that university. The perception that the administration had versus what the people working there had was night and day.
I don’t doubt it.
Applying holistic or systemic thinking to institutions requires thinking about your customers and their experiences.
Amrit Ahluwalia 19:09
Without that visibility, how do you know whom you’re serving? And how do you know what they want?
Drumm McNaughton 19:14
Exactly. So, let’s briefly go through each of those steps in that customer lifecycle and give a few sentences on how that interacts with each one. Then we’ll get to how we can bring it all together.
Amrit Ahluwalia 19:33
Absolutely. I’ll start with “attract,” as we usually would. It’s about how the customer is looking for a solution. They’re looking for a way to solve a problem that they have. So, the institution has an opportunity to position itself as a solution provider. But then that comes down to, “What’s the communication strategy? How’s the website design? How easy is it to find the right thing at the right time on the website to move forward?”
Drumm McNaughton 19:59
This is also dependent on market research, is it not? First, you have to know whom you want to attract.
Amrit Ahluwalia 20:05
Yes, absolutely. Your SEO strategy has to be dialed in. The program mix has to be right for the learners you’re trying to serve. But, again, going back to your example, a lot of that comes down to the listening tour, really understanding who your learners are and what they like about the institution. What needs to change? These are the core ways that you can define your target audience.
As an industry, we’ve spent so long trying to be Harvard that a fair number of institutions have lost sight of what makes them unique, interesting, special, and valuable. The closer we can get to positioning higher ed institutions into really recognizing that they’re part of this diverse tapestry of options instead of trying to replicate one model that works for a very specific segment of students, the better.
Drumm McNaughton 20:55
Great. Thank you. Next step.
Amrit Ahluwalia 20:56
Next step. So that’s where you have “engage.” At this stage, your prospective customers have been on your website. They’re starting to sift through it to find materials that meet their needs. They’re starting to dive into it. So, the question becomes, “We know that most students enroll in a post-secondary program because they have specific career outcomes. How are you communicating those career outcomes from a program page perspective?” Are you giving them visibility into possible salaries they can earn in job openings in their area? Are you teeing up relationships with employers?
I promise you, for those of you who are even listening from a four-year institution, that kind of messaging and visibility will make a massive impact on the students likely to continue onto the next step, “convert.” At this point, that individual decides to make a buying decision and go through the registration process. If you’re enrolling in a degree program, there are some pieces of information that you must ask for. There are things that this student must do to apply for the program adequately. But we’ve worked with several leaders whose enrollment management and applications departments go through an exercise to define every step. For every question they ask an individual to answer on route to enrolling at that institution, they ask themselves at every stage, “Is this a piece of information we need? Or is this a piece of information we already have?” So, a lot of wheat can be separated from the chaff.
As far as that process goes? I’d say if you’re listening to this interview and you’re coming from the noncredit or continuing ed world, simplify. How simple can or should you make it? How easy are you making it for that individual to provide exactly the information they need to provide and no more? How easy are you making it for them to pay? Are you accepting multiple payment types? Are you legally allowed to take credit card payments? For example, we’ve worked with some schools that take credit card payments over the phone, which is a big no-no. Are you reliant on people faxing checks?
These are areas where that modernization process has to happen. If you’re expecting customers to jump through hoops to then spend upwards of tens of 1,000s of dollars with you, they’re simply not going to. If it’s easier for them to buy a pen than it is for them to register for your program, you need to take a step back and look at what you’re asking them to do. In some cases, yeah, it’s going to be more challenging. But, realistically, the more someone spends on something, the better the experience they expect on the back end. Unfortunately, people are getting used to seamless and straightforward consumer experiences outside of higher ed. We need to step up to match those experiences.
Drumm McNaughton 23:43
One thing that I will toss in there is faculty involvement in the enrollment and retention process, which we’ll be getting to next. When people think back to their college experiences, most of the time, it’s their relationship with a professor or multiple professors. How do you suggest that you get the faculty involved in this process?
Amrit Ahluwalia 24:12
This is a challenging spot. At every institution, there are faculty members who are so passionate and so committed to their learners that this is not a problem. However, at scale, it becomes very difficult. For example, I have a friend who’s a tenure-track professor at the University of Ottawa. Phil, if you’re listening to this, I’m shouting you out. His commitment to his students is spectacular. It’s unbelievable. He is so passionate about the people who come through his classes. He does his best to get everyone on track, and he’s a prolific researcher, but he’s a prolific researcher because that’s how you must do things to progress.
As faculty members, we’ve unfortunately created an environment that does not necessarily reward faculty for their capacity to develop and maintain relationships with students that are essential to those students’ success. So, again, we’re talking about a culture shift. We’re talking about a mentality shift. We’re talking about a philosophy shift. Some of that has to be executed in the way that we’ve designed the profession of higher education instruction. We call it higher education instruction. But we don’t reward people for being instructors in higher ed.
Now, some schools are starting to take steps to address this. Arizona State is one example of a school that’s established a vertical research track, a vertical teaching track, and then a continuing education lifelong learning track. The goal is to say that we’re not unbundling the institutional environment. Still, we’re creating a situation where faculty members who are oriented to teaching and want that to be their profession can do that and be rewarded for it. Likewise, those who want to be oriented towards research and be rewarded for that work can be. So, it’s more about making sure that there’s an opportunity for everyone to do the thing that they’re passionate about and successful at.
Drumm McNaughton 26:13
I’ve even heard that some institutions are now granting tenure to teaching faculty. The typical model is 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service. Some institutions are moving away from strict research.
Amrit Ahluwalia 26:29
That’s so exciting to hear. It goes hand in hand with every faculty member having to go through a research ethics course to conduct their work as a faculty member. How often are we providing professional development around teaching best practices?
Drumm McNaughton 26:48
Good point. It needs to be done.
Amrit Ahluwalia 26:50
Yup. To your point about faculty relationship development, it’s so critical to involve faculty meaningfully in students’ experiences outside of the classroom. It’s interesting. Coming back to the original point we were talking about, which is whether trends came out of the blue or accelerated during the pandemic. We all shifted to this sort of remote teaching environment. People hated it. They took lectures and did them on Zoom and thought it was terrible. But what was awful about it wasn’t necessarily that it was on Zoom or the distance. What was awful about it was that it made us realize that our entire teaching model is someone talking at a roomful of people that aren’t engaged. We just happened to be doing it on the computer. Suddenly it clicked. There’s no interaction here.
Now, really strong online learning is qualified that way. It facilitates peer-to-peer and peer-to-faculty interaction. There are symbiotic interactions between those stakeholders. That’s just good teaching and learning. That’s just good pedagogy. So, yes, it’s interesting. We talk about these things that accelerated during the pandemic over those two years. But these things aren’t new to the continuing ed and online ed world. This is something that they’ve been pursuing and working towards for decades. But it became evident during that two-year period that our teaching and learning approach was outdated. So you can make a case for greater faculty involvement in that retention effort.
Drumm McNaughton 28:24
So, the retention piece is also part of the customer lifecycle. You get them out the door. There are two or three more important steps in the lifecycle that many institutions are just waking up to.
Amrit Ahluwalia 28:40
Absolutely, yes. So, at “retention,” you assume that the individual has completed the credential they enrolled for. Now we get to “loyalty.” “Loyalty” is executed on the back of retention. Loyalty exemplifies your relationship with the individual by their tendency to make another purchase. For Amazon, it’s you bought a bunch of pens. Now you’ve bought a bunch of paper. That’s their metric for loyalty. For us in higher ed, it’s not quite that simple. But we can look at things like, did that individual return for a post-baccalaureate certificate? Did that individual enroll in a professional certification workshop? Did that individual come back for some upskilling rescaling program? Did the individual meaningfully reengage with the institution in a way designed around the institution’s core purpose, which is teaching and learning?
Drumm McNaughton 29:33
Yeah, beyond the fundraising piece of it, that’s it.
Amrit Ahluwalia 29:37
That’s it. We’ve looked at loyalty very myopically through the lens of fundraising, but that’s insane when you stop and think about it. So, again, if we think about this as a business model and go back to the Amazon example, Amazon just sold you a bunch of pens. Their next step is to send you an email, maybe a week or two later, saying, “Hey, you liked those pens, right? Throw us a cool five bucks just as a thank you for the pens that you got already and that you already bought and paid for”. Then, of course, you’d unsubscribe immediately from that email and say these guys are crazy. But that’s generally our fundraising model in higher education. “Hey, you bought and paid for a product three, five, or ten years ago.”
When I was an alumnus six months after my convocation and before I even had a job, I received an immediate email saying, “Hey, you just graduated. Do you want to donate?” Absolutely not. I just paid you. But this is the kind of thing that we do. This is what we do. This is our business model. Students graduate, and we ask them to donate because they graduated. “Yes, we had fun at that football game 20 years ago, but I’m not going to pay you again for a thing I already paid you for.”
If we’re shifting to this model where higher education is a fungible product, and students behave like consumers, we must treat them that way. The relationship we have with students is based on teaching and learning. We are teaching and learning organizations. If that’s the case and our business is learner-relationship management, what are we doing to continue fostering that learning relationship with that individual? We’re in an environment that requires continuous education. We need to facilitate greater access to ongoing learning for alumni in the execution of that enrollment. That’s how I look at loyalty.
Drumm McNaughton 31:19
That’s the exact right way to look at it. But it also requires building programs that your graduates want. You mentioned Arizona State a little while ago. They’re doing a fabulous job of creating lifelong learners. For people to return, you must have good credential systems. Micro-credential out or however you do it. You have to be able to tap into the markets that your graduates need. If they’re going to change jobs, give them the skills and the knowledge that they need to be successful in that new career or that new job.
Amrit Ahluwalia 32:01
Absolutely. What’s interesting is that this is where the disconnect between the complexity of higher ed bureaucracy and the desire for a continuous relationship for the learner bumps into each other. We know the back end of a post-secondary institution is unbelievably complicated. Everyone has their systems running. There are multiple different lists that all cover the same students but with slightly different information, and it’s tough for information to pass from system to system to system.
From the institution’s perspective, we recognize that this is very complicated. We try to adapt to that reality on a regular basis. For example, suppose I’m an alumnus and get an opportunity to reenroll at my alma mater for ongoing education. In that case, my expectation is not that I have to go through another 30-step registration process. I was already a student there. The student numbers should be there. My contact information should be there. Why do I have to put it all in again? It’s just standard practice.
We’re starting to see tighter relationships forming between continuing education, the main campus, and alumni relations, and to simplify that a little bit. In continuing education, we’re also starting to see more work being done to create consistent and high-quality credentialing frameworks that create a clearer taxonomy of what a badge is, what a competency is, what a micro-credential is, and what a certificate is that applies across the institution. These are all essential steps. But the next step is to make the information transfer between all these various systems seamless to create a more streamlined experience for that student.
Drumm McNaughton 33:37
Oh my gosh. You’re talking about a higher ed institution having a management center. That’s awesome. Yeah. Amazing. I knew this was going to happen. We’re already well into this. We could keep talking for another hour easily.
Amrit Ahluwalia 33:55
Oh, yeah. I don’t have anything going on, but your listeners might.
Drumm McNaughton 34:01
So, we will do this again in the very near future. But as always, what are three takeaways for higher ed presidents and boards?
Amrit Ahluwalia 34:09
First things first. Can I do four?
You can do five if you want.
The first one is to subscribe to The EvoLLLution. It’s evolllution.com with three Ls. The Ls stands for lifelong learning. It’s a little inside trivia.
Oh, okay. Thank you.
But, again, we publish this kind of stuff every single day from your colleagues, industrywide. So the second thing to do is to learn about the customer lifecycle and its application to higher education. We have a white paper on that topic if you want to know about it from us. If you want to learn about it from somewhere else, there is widely available information about the customer lifecycle, and it’s worth understanding it.
The third thing is to look at your processes and systems. And I mean, take a good look at your processes and systems institution-wide because everything you do should be oriented towards serving your learners’ success in some way. When folks start to do a deep dive into their processes, we find that those processes are mostly designed around things that made sense 10, 15, or 20 years ago and then got digitized. But it’s not necessarily because that process or that step that that learner has to take is useful. It’s just the way things have always been done.
Finally, prioritize and resource continuing education. We have run a state of continuing education study every year for the last four years. One consistent finding is that the institution’s senior leadership prioritizes continuing ed. It’s something that the institution says it prioritizes, but every single year, those divisions need to be more resourced, still responsive, and increasingly responsible for institutional revenue and enrollment growth. So, if you want continuing education to drive business for your institution, it has to be resourced appropriately. It has to have a system designed explicitly so that it can attract and engage students in a way that makes sense. It also has to have the flexibility and freedom to operate in a way that requires that very different approach to business management. So, those are my three takeaways.
Yeah, well, there are four.
One is just a good thing, and the other three takeaways are necessary.
Drumm McNaughton 36:20
So, the rub of this is if you can engage your students in this lifecycle, you will have lifelong learners, lifelong donors, and lifelong supporters, which will continue to feed your enrollment and everything else that you need as an institution.
Amrit Ahluwalia 36:43
Absolutely. If I could make one final point on that. If you think about higher education through the lens of a business—and you said your business is designed to serve individuals for exactly two or four years—and then never really serve them, again, it’s a failing business model. Every business looks very closely at every customer’s lifetime value and how to expand and build upon that existing lifetime value to create tighter and more lasting bonds with those individuals. As we all know, it’s more expensive to find a new customer than it is to retain your existing ones. So, from a good business sense perspective, finding ways to engage your learners for life is a way to build a sustainable business model that doesn’t have the same dips and valleys as relying on the traditional short-term lifecycle with that learner. We need to think about the lifecycle in terms of customers, not students.
Drumm McNaughton 37:39
You can take that one to the bank, folks. All right, what’s next for you? What’s next for The EvoLLLution?
Amrit Ahluwalia 37:45
We’re currently looking at this question of flexibility in transforming higher education. We’re looking at the intersection of the registrar in this broader role. Registrars are often relied upon to drive institutional innovation but also have to balance the restrictions and challenges of academic program management and the systems used on campus. So for our 2023 State of Continuing Education report, we’re recording in mid-March, and it will come out at the end of March. So, our report with AACRAO is also in partnership with UPCEA. We will be looking at the distinct perspectives of enrollment managers, registrars, and continuing education leaders as it relates to micro-credentials. So where are the shared opportunities, and where are the unique challenges? From The EvoLLLution perspective, that’s what we’re focused on this year.
Super. When will this report come out?
That should be available in late June or early July.
Drumm McNaughton 38:40
Very good. We’ll have you back to talk about it at that point.
Amrit Ahluwalia 38:44
Drumm McNaughton 38:46
Amrit, this has been wonderful. Thank you, sir.
All the best.
Drumm McNaughton 38:52
Thanks for listening today. I want to give a special thank you to Amrit Ahluwalia, senior director of strategic insights at Modern Campus and editor-in-chief of The Evolllution, for sharing how he applies the customer lifecycle model to higher ed to make sense of what’s going on in today’s marketplace and how we can help solve today’s enrollment problems. This is our 150th episode, and I’d like to give a special shoutout to a few people.
First, I’d like to thank the many guests we’ve had in the four years of Changing Higher Ed. I truly have been blessed to have made the acquaintance of so many higher education luminaries. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, insights, and, most importantly, yourself on the program. I also want to thank our team, which makes this all possible. Tamara Taylor of Show Up Strong® Online, who takes care of the digital marketing, website, and SEO; David White of David White Voice, my sound engineer who makes my guests and me sound smart. And lastly, Dorian Martin and Steve Blackburn, who take care of the writing. Without all of you, I wouldn’t have been able to bring Changing Higher Ed to all we touch. Thank you. Lastly, and most importantly, I want to thank my listeners. We’re up to over 2,000 daily downloads of the podcast. It’s an amazing number. And it’s all because of your loyalty and interest that we’ve kept going. Thank you.
Tune in next week for my conversation with Dr. Kent Ingle, president of Southeastern University. Under Ken’s leadership over the last 11 years, Southeastern has doubled its endowment, doubled the student body, and added more than $80 million in new facilities. For this and many other things, they’ve been recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the fastest growing private nonprofit Baccalaureate institutions in the country. Until next week, I look forward to seeing you then.
Changing Higher Ed is a production of the Change Leader, a consultancy committed to transforming higher ed institutions. Find more information about this topic and show notes on this episode at changinghighered.com. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe to the show. We would also value your honest rating and review. Email any questions, comments, or recommendations for topics or guests to firstname.lastname@example.org. Changing Higher Ed is produced and hosted by Dr. Drumm McNaughton. Post-production is by David L. White.