in UX

What does customer experience mean to higher ed?

It seems fitting, 40 years after the birth of formal “enrollment management” in higher ed, that we start to reflect on what the future will be. The challenges that existed then are still problems now. The questions that proliferate continue to vex teams at colleges and universities both large and small.


When we talk about design, we normally restrict the conversation to thinking about the way websites & print materials look. Occasionally, this conversation can extend beyond that to focus on user experience design and how we design pages to look for different devices and tools.

But that’s it.Android phone screen

We are living in a data moment. A survey released last year by CERR & Dell indicated that 57% of mid-market businesses are deploying big data to adapt faster responses to opportunities and threats. Those same respondents reported spending an average of $2-5 million on budgets for big data.

The more I meet with institutions to discuss their digital capabilities, the conversations end up revolving around similar


  • Adopt a new platform that promises to solve everything.
  • Train everyone on said platform, with fuzzy statements about improving operations and capitalizing on the amorphous “moment”.
  • Hire staff to manage the new infrastructure.

The problem with this framework, is that it ignores the organizational architecture necessary to create agile, rapidly responsive units that can respond to challenges that crop up in a digital world. I read a lot of strategy – not just digital – and Air Force strategist Tyrell Mayfield speaks eloquently about good strategy vs. bad strategy.

“Good strategy explains why we do what we do…Bad strategy muddles these things into a slurry that lacks sufficient consistency to be of use to anyone. The pieces can’t be seen for the whole. Adding more ingredients and blending more doesn’t make it better, neither does renaming it.”

…”Redefining the objective once you’ve begun suggests you were never ready to begin in the first place.”

While he’s talking about national power, the lessons still apply. How many times have you been in a long series of meetings about a project — usually for the web, but not always — that gets redefined, configured and adapted? How often do we move the goalposts in sight of trying to count what we’re doing as a win, rather than taking a step back and understanding the core premise of our objective?

We can do better.

Austin Kleon's Moneyball Movie Mindmap



Long before there was ever talk about fantasy sports, Moneyball or sabermetrics, a guy by the name of Pete Palmer wrote a book called “The Hidden Game of Baseball” which was essentially a tome explaining the different ways you could evaluate baseball players across eras, generations, stadiums and statistics to determine who were the best across time. This would really only appeal to you if you’re a massive data nerd who also happens to love baseball, but as a teenager this was a revelatory work. So bear with me.

The underlying premise of “Moneyball” is finding market inefficiencies to gain an advantage over other teams, despite limited resources. So if you’re a team that can only spend $30 million and your competitors can spend $100-200 million, it would seem a fool’s errand to attempt to compete with them for the same players.

Yet, we send admissions counselors to slaughter on a fairly regular basis attempting to get them to do just that. In a world with better data, we could capitalize on the proliferation of tools to create our own analytics to identify how the things we use to evaluate and identify students: high school grades + test scores + extracurriculars + bonus points for desirable things could be used to make smart admissions decisions.

But what about before someone applies? I spent a semester in admissions and while I’m going to type and profess to be a savant, there were absolutely things I noticed we needed to be doing to help front-line staff be more efficient.

Right now, many colleges and universities are still heavily reliant on college fairs and relationships with individual institutions to generate good leads. While this is great if you’re [insert elite institution of your choice here], the rest of the world needs to recruit students too. When you’re Directional State Private Liberal Arts College That Used To Be Religious And Is Now Co-Ed University (imagine the shirts) it’s very difficult to draw from an increasingly small pool. You can employ bold tactics or put a spin on existing marketing, but none of this really reaches the core of the work being done by people on the front lines. They’re just having to answer basic questions they’re not equipped to answer, because the problems are bigger than their roles.

Innovation needs to be part of your culture. Customers are transforming faster than we are, and if we don’t catch up, we’re in trouble.”  – Ian Schafer


We need to envision new organizational structures for integrating digital practice into higher ed marketing. The paradigm that brought enrollment management to life no longer exists in a world where applicants want to access to data and information when they want it, in multiple platforms rapidly. Collaboration where possible. Universities where the web is currently decentralized should embrace a new structure and vision of shared governance. This goes beyond the website, but focused on a unified content strategy that gives audiences a better idea of what the school is about.

Students on the road will always ask admissions counselors web questions because that’s the only person they’re going to meet until they show up to your campus or call. As you can guess, far fewer people will do that than will show up to a fair. We’re not giving our counselors the right tools on the road to get the job done. Paper still rules the day. Boilerplate messaging about why an institution is best rules the roost. How can we expect families to differentiate from 50 or 60 different schools as a college fair when they don’t really know where their kid ranks, what they can really afford, when our messaging is really about trying to get them to sign on the dotted line?

Many of the problems we’re facing are directly related to how we conduct our business. It is possible to develop and innovate without breaking the bank. It just requires a kind of flexibility, creativity and innovation many of our institutions have never tried.

Maybe it’s time we started.