Student Success Today: Why It’s Important to “Sweat the Small Stuff”

Julie BryantVice President for Student SuccessOctober 19, 2016

Some of you may remember Richard Carlson’s late 1990’s advice, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.” A copy of this motivational book is on my bookshelf. It reminds me not to let the minutiae of life get in the way of the big picture.

However, when it comes to the college experience of today’s students, you may want to reconsider this advice and start paying attention to the little aggravations and annoyances that your students are experiencing, because we have seen that these can indeed make an impact on students’ larger perceptions of your institution. Sometimes, small details truly do matter.

First, let’s look at the big picture.

Over the past 20-plus years, we have studied our National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Reports and consistently seen that a high priority area for improvement for students at four-year private and public institutions is: “Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment.”

How four-year college students rate the statement,
“Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment”

Students attending four-year private institutionsStudents attending four-year public institutions
Importance to me88%86%
My satisfaction level45%52%
Performance gap43%34%

Source: 2015-2016 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report, www.RuffaloNL.com/SatisfactionBenchmarks

The chart above reflects the percentage of students who indicate that this statement is important or very important to them as well as the percentage that say they are satisfied or very satisfied, as measured on our Student Satisfaction Inventory (SSI). The performance gap is the difference between these two numbers. For your reference, in the range of scores at four-year privates, the tuition-is-worth-it statement is eighth in rank order of importance (out of 73 items), but with satisfaction scores that can get as high as 72 percent in the national data, you can see that there is definitely room for improvement here. Similarly, at four-year publics, this statement is again eighth in rank order of importance, and satisfaction scores can range up to 69 percent, so again, improvements can be made at four-year publics as well. (As a side note: Students at two-year community colleges, where tuition amounts are often much lower, score this item higher, with importance at 90 percent and satisfaction at 69 percent.)

So what can colleges and universities do to improve perceptions of student tuition being worthwhile?

When consulting with colleges about their satisfaction scores, I used to recommend that institutions respond to this issue by working to improve students’ perceptions of the value of their education. This included suggestions such as telling students more about job placement rates and other outcomes after graduation, like the success of college alumni. I still believe these are important messages, especially while you are recruiting new students. It is also a good idea to continue to emphasize these messages with enrolled students. But sometimes, if an individual student doesn’t inherently value what you have to offer, it can be difficult to truly change their perception in this area.

That’s why a smaller level of response is worth considering, too.

What students are saying

What we arehearing from campuses today as they conduct focus group discussions with students following an administration of the SSI is that, when students think about tuition being worthwhile, they are focused more on the day-to-day annoyances that become more pronounced when they believe they are paying a lot in tuition. With the cost of college rising, simple and minor grievances are now more easily connected in students’ minds to the tuition they are paying, raising their expectations for the quality of service they expect in return.

Here are some examples of the kinds of grievances students are now expressing, culled from the open-ended comments students provide on the SSI:

  • “I’ve tripped on the sidewalks a lot and it would be nice if the cracks would get fixed.”
  • “We pay enough for tuition and books and we can’t afford to spend extra money on things that should be free and included as a part of tuition, like parking.”
  • “I would like to receive an update at the end of each semester after I complete another course that will inform me how much closer I am to earning my degree.”
  • “Great school, but you should listen to student concerns about cleaning up trash on the campus because it looks tacky.”

Don’t you love that last comment? Do you have room in your budget for better toilet paper?

And here is one more from my daughter Kylie, who is currently attending a private liberal arts college in the Midwest:

  • “I pay $47,000 in tuition every year and the Wi-Fi doesn’t even work everywhere on campus.”

First of all, Kylie’s tuition is not actually $47,000 because of her scholarships and financial aid, but that is the ticket price that she has in her head. Secondly, SHE is not the one actually paying her tuition (her family is), but she still has a sense of ownership in that tuition amount. But think about the grievance here: the availability of Wi-Fi everywhere on campus, which we know is the lifeblood of college students (and all of us these days). Is that something that could potentially be improved on campus without a huge investment?

What “small stuff” should you be sweating?

Are there some smaller issues on your campus that should be addressed? Do you know how satisfied your students are with the tuition they are paying at your institution? Have you asked your students which services they expect to receive for their tuition dollars? If not, you may want to consider conducting a student satisfaction assessment on your campus during this academic year and then talk with the students about the findings.

Of course, there may be “big things” that your institution should be doing as well as a means of increasing student success. Campus discussions should range both narrow and wide to improve the student experience, as today’s research clearly shows that raising student satisfaction is correlated with higher student retention, higher institutional graduation rates, higher institutional alumni giving, and lower loan default rates.

Want to discuss your strategy for student success and student satisfaction?

Contact me at 800.876.1117 or via email for assistance as you consider surveying student satisfaction and as you look for efficient and effective ways to improve the student experience on your campus. I can share what’s working today to help students succeed and complete their programs.

About the Author

Julie Bryant of RNL

Julie L. Bryant, vice president for student success at RNL, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Julie is responsible for client service to more than 2,700 institutions...

Read more about Julie's experience and expertise

Reach Julie by e-mail at Julie.Bryant@RuffaloNL.com.

Read More Blogs By: Julie Bryant