Virginia’s Community Colleges have begun to redesign student enrollment processes statewide to benefit students who frequently are stymied by current onboarding practices, and to ensure long term institutional success.
“Historically, our colleges have emphasized the personal responsibility of students to complete a multi-step enrollment process,” said Dr. Sharon Morrissey, VCCS Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic and Workforce programs. “Due to the poor use or design of our onboarding tools, we often repeatedly ask our students the same questions at different points of the process, or across different offices. Applicants frequently are frustrated by different steps of the application, financial aid, advising or registration process, resulting in countless lost enrollments to other institutions that are easier to navigate.”
Analysis of several thousand VCCS new student applications for the fall 2019 semester showed that it took 17 percent of students three weeks to enroll. After three months, fewer than 35 percent of applicants had secured enrollment.
“That essentially means two-thirds of applicants at our open-enrollment colleges didn’t actually make it into our programs,” said Morrissey. “That’s not a recipe for success, for our students, or for our colleges.”
Virginia’s Community Colleges do not exist in a vacuum. While our enrollment numbers have been in decline, applications at for-profit colleges have been on the rise.
According to data from the National Student Clearinghouse published in October of 2020, enrollments in for-profit institutions rose three percent during the pandemic, while public community college enrollment declined nine percent. Further analysis by the Brown Center at the Brookings Institute showed that enrollment of first-time college students, aged 21-24, grew by 13% at for-profit institutions and declined by more than 20% at public community colleges.
In addition to aggressive recruitment strategies, the for-profit sector walks each student through their application and registration procedures, in contrast to the student-directed enrollment process at the VCCS.
Onboarding Redesign Begins:
Last year, VCCS Chancellor Glenn DuBois appointed a Strategic Planning Task Force, made up of presidents and leaders from colleges across the state, plus experts from the System Office. The system’s new equity-focused Strategic Plan, titled Opportunity 2027, identified onboarding as a barrier and made several recommendations:
- Conduct process mapping of the student onboarding process to identify specific policy and process barriers that lead to equity disparities and develop new enrollment processes to reduce equity gaps
- Guide every student to choose the right educational pathway to achieve his or her career goals
- Develop the framework for a student financial services ecosystem at each college that is a “one stop” destination where students’ financial needs are addressed in a holistic, integrated manner.
Those recommendations led to the formation of a president-led workgroup that is spearheading a multi-phase effort that aims to simplify and improve the application and enrollment process for students who enter our institutions, starting in the fall of 2022.
The overriding goal of onboarding redesign is ambitious: Every student who begins a day with the desire to enroll in a Virginia Community College will be enrolled in classes within the same business day.
“We know there is much work to be done,” said Dr. Janet Gullickson, president at Germanna Community College and co-chair of the onboarding redesign workgroup. “But it is essential that we do this work to help the Virginians we were designed to serve, and to ensure that our institutions thrive in a competitive environment.”
Dr. John Downey, president at Blue Ridge Community College, co-chairs the redesign workgroup.
“Despite the fact that all VCCS colleges currently employ 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 across the commonwealth,” said Downey. “Over time, additional steps and requirements have been created at some colleges, but not all, resulting in added complexity in an already challenging onboarding experience.”
“If the onboarding experience is to be improved and be more competitive with other post-secondary options, a more student-centric onboarding process needs to be established that is simpler for students,” said Gullickson.
“College Owns the Momentum”
In a presentation to the VCCS State Board on May 20, Drs. Gullickson and Downey said the VCCS onboarding process will move toward a “single door” approach for both workforce and credit students. And colleges, not students, will bear primary responsibility for providing an intentional, guided and quick enrollment process for applicants.
Instead of a lengthy application, a potential student would fill out a brief interest form.
“And what we’re asking our colleges to do is to take that interest form — that contact information — and then reach out to the student and take them through the next steps of what it means to be a student,” said Gullickson. “So the college is the one who engaged the student, not the student engaging the college.”
The onboarding redesign workgroup now includes more than 60 members who represent different stakeholder groups across the VCCS, including registrars, admissions officers, advisors, financial aid directors, business finance officers, IT staff, institutional research officers, workforce administrators, and academic administrators. The workgroups are divided into four subgroups that are tackling different stages of the onboarding process, from the initial contact form to the payment process.
Web assets are being developed that will include an FAQ to share information and progress reports for each work group. Meanwhile, if you have questions, you can send an email to studentOnboarding@email.vccs.edu