We tend to think of our colleges as “open enrollment” institutions, accessible to serve anyone with a high school diploma or GED (and in the case of some workforce programs, even those hurdles are removed.) But the reality is not so simple.
Despite the fact that all VCCS Colleges currently use the same student application, federal financial aid form, and student information system, there are enormous variations in the onboarding and registration experience for most students from college to college across the state. Many of the steps required by individual colleges were created for the convenience or efficiency of colleges, and the cumulative impact on students of adding complex requirements to an already challenging onboarding experience has led to a stunning and dismaying result: analysis of new student applications from fall 2019 showed that nearly two-thirds of potential applicants failed to enroll after a three-month period.
“This cannot and must not continue,” said VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois. “We have to face the fact that the system of onboarding students at our colleges is so intimidating, it’s broken. The status quo represents a significant barrier to first-generation students and students from underserved populations. I know what I’m talking about here; I was the first in my family to go to college.”
“Fixing this problem won’t be easy, but it’s imperative that we do this work,” DuBois added. “And it’s also an important component in advancing our new Strategic Plan, Opportunity 2027, which commits us to achieve equity in access, learning outcomes, and success for students from every race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic group.”
“The current onboarding process includes many pain points that often cause prospective students to withdraw from the application process before ever taking their first class,” said Towuanna Porter Brannon, president of Thomas Nelson (soon to be Virginia Peninsula) Community College.
Dr. Brannon is part of a sixty-member work group including college registrars, admissions officers, advisors, financial aid directors, business finance officers, IT staff, institutional research officers, workforce administrators, and academic administrators that has been meeting since February to understand the problems posed by our current student onboarding processes and recommend improvements.
A new process guide developed by the work group provides uniform step-by-step procedures to help navigators and others who assist in the student onboarding process, and the guide is expected to be presented to academic governance groups and VCCS presidents in the coming weeks. Navigators will play a crucial role helping prospective students resolve their questions and issues as they seek to enroll.
“The onboarding process being proposed attempts to eliminate many of the pain points that VCCS prospects experience and reduce the wide range of stressful situations typically encountered during the first few interactions with a college,” said Dr. Brannon.
“The most important change from a student standpoint is the transition from two distinct college divisions to one ‘single door’ for all students to enter,” said work group member Cheri Maea, registrar and director of enrollment services at Germanna Community College. “The navigator’s primary role will be to serve as a conduit for all necessary steps for onboarding from the student to the department working with the student.”
“When you consider that many of our students are enrolled in more than one of our community colleges, it’s also vital that the onboarding process be more predictable and understandable across all our colleges,” said work group member and Rappahannock Community College President Shannon Kennedy. “And if we want our institutions to thrive and grow, we must ensure our onboarding process makes it easier for students to enroll in productive and successful pathways.”
“We recognize that redesigning our onboarding and enrollment processes is a highly complex challenge, with multiple interrelated problems that must be resolved in funding, budgeting, training and staffing, information technology services, college website designs, presentation of career pathways, and changes to system policy, to name a few,” said Student Onboarding Redesign Committee co-chair John Downey, president of Blue Ridge Community College. “The new enrollment process design is an important start.”
“Our goal is that someone who expresses a desire to attend a Virginia community college can be enrolled within 48 hours after first contact,” said Redesign Committee co-chair Janet Gullickson, president at Germanna Community College. “People in the real world – the folks we’re dedicated to serve – don’t have weeks or months to wait when they seek help to get the training they need.”
Read more about the onboarding and enrollment redesign project.