To Improve Student Success, a University Confronts the Email Deluge
By Beckie Supiano October 20, 2016
Fabrizio Costantini for The Chronicle
An effort by Michigan State U. to improve communications with students has brought together leaders from a variety of departments, including (from left) Terrence Frazier from student affairs, Nicole Rovig from enrollment services, and Amy Martin from student-success operations.
In the spring of 2015, two dozen administrators from across Michigan State University gathered in the MSU Union to face what they knew was a significant challenge. Representatives from admissions, student affairs, and other departments were armed with sticky notes — a different color for each office. Their task: Write down every mass communication that their departments send to students between when the students make their enrollment deposits and when they’re accepted into their academic colleges, usually at the end of freshman year.
The group came up with 403 emails — and those were just the ones that high-level administrators knew about.
The assembled staff had known that Michigan State sends students lots of emails. Still, the exercise emphasized the sheer volume of messages, says Nicole Rovig, assistant provost for enrollment services and university registrar.
“All the walls in the room were full of sticky notes,” she recalls. The task revealed the level of duplication across departments, and the way that emails piled up at certain points in the year. And wading through all of that email, the staff knew, had real implications for student success. They worried especially about first-year students, who are not yet familiar with the ins and outs of how the university works.
Email is not exactly the communication platform of choice for today’s students. But on top of that, with so many messages coming from msu.edu addresses, it could be difficult for students to pick out those that were truly urgent. Miss an email from the rec center, and you’ll probably be all right. But overlooking a key message about financial aid or class registration could have major consequences.
“If you don’t get a few basic things done, you can’t even get to come play,” says Kristen A. Renn, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education who was serving as associate dean of undergraduate education at the time.
Determining which messages are most important, university leaders realized, might be particularly challenging for first-generation students. And serving such students — who can be at a disadvantage since their parents have less familiarity with college — is important to a land-grant institution created to educate all state residents.
Vying for Students’ Attention
Counting up emails is one thing. Cutting down on them is a larger challenge. The sticky-note exercise was just a first step in a broader communication project. But that hasn’t stopped administrators from finding and fixing lots of smaller problems with how MSU relates to students along the way.
Administrators from Michigan State used sticky notes in a “process mapping” exercise to figure out how many emails students receive from all university sources combined.
The challenge of streamlining communication with students is not unique to Michigan State. “We get feedback from students along the lines of: We get too many emails from the university,” says Joseph Pettibon, associate vice president for academic services at Texas A&M University at College Station. Getting emails under control is an issue at all large institutions — and probably at small ones, too, he says. Texas A&M has not undertaken a universitywide project like Michigan State’s, Mr. Pettibon says, but the enrollment-management division that reports to him has taken steps to improve its communication with students. Among them: running every message meant for students and their parents through a program that measures the reading level required to understand it, a way to make sure it’s not too complex. The office of academic affairs, Mr. Pettibon adds, has centralized its communication staff, making messages from its various components more consistent.
A group at Pennsylvania State University at University Park went through an exercise similar to Michigan State’s several years ago as part of a strategic plan focused on the transition to college, says Dan Murphy, director for student orientation and transition programs. That group, he says, paid particular attention to which medium made the most sense for various messages. The university does send some messages as paper letters — and sometimes, that works best.
Universities must continually re-examine how they communicate with students, Mr. Murphy says, because both the students and the messages keep changing. But at least one challenge is evergreen: Everyone at the university wants to “capture” new students’ attention, he says, “before their energy is drawn in so many directions once they get to campus.” If colleges aren’t careful, incoming students can be inundated.
Experiments in Process Mapping
The inspiration for Michigan State’s communication project came from a meeting that half a dozen of its administrators attended through the University Innovation Alliance, a coalition of public research universities working to spread novel approaches for furthering student success.
At the meeting, attendees learned about how the host university, Georgia State, had improved its student advising. While that effort is well known for its use of predictive analytics, another key piece was laying out the whole advising experience from students’ point of view, using the sticky-note technique, which is known as process mapping. Not every higher-ed problem requires hiring a consultant or buying a new technology, says Bridget Burns, executive director of the alliance. “It turns out you don’t have to spend a lot of money,” she says, “to save a lot of students.”
Quick Fixes to Improve the Student Experience
Michigan State is just midway through its big effort to improve communication with students, and leaders don’t expect to make final recommendations on what to change until the end of the academic year. Still, “you never wait to make improvements along the way,” says David Wile, a program manager in information technology.
Here are some examples of those improvements:
Standardizing emails: The group led by the registrar, Nicole Rovig, realized that emails from the university were very inconsistent in terms of what was listed in the “from” field and how the sender’s signature was presented, Mr. Wile says. Michigan State is looking to standardize those two spots, he says, to make it more clear that important messages are coming from the university and to present a more coherent brand identity.
Rethinking holds: Michigan State has developed a new web-based tool that allows select staff members in academic units to see which students have not signed up for classes and whether they have holds, which prevent students from changing their current schedule or registering for future classes and which are often imposed for financial reasons. That way staff members can reach out to students who may be struggling. And the university is also reviewing its policies around holds, Ms. Rovig says, to see if they help or hinder student success.
Centralizing scholarships: Student affairs administers some endowed scholarships. Its practice had been to notify students of specialized scholarship opportunities via email lists focused on particular groups, says Terrence L. Frazier, assistant vice president for student affairs and services. But those same students, Mr. Frazier realized, might qualify for other student-affairs scholarships, too. So the office has begun directing all students to a website where most of its scholarships are listed. Student affairs has seen an increase in scholarship applications, Mr. Frazier says, which the office attributes in part to this change.
For Georgia State, the exercise was revealing, says Tim Renick, vice president for enrollment management and student success. “What we were doing,” he says, “was completely inadequate and really embarrassing.” That realization, while unpleasant, allowed the university to make a lot of improvements. The team from Michigan State was struck by the idea of seeing things from students’ vantage point, and started talking about how to apply it back on their own campus. They kept up the conversation, Ms. Renn says, while waiting at the Atlanta airport for their delayed flight back to Michigan.
Back on campus, a larger group decided to apply the technique to the university’s communication with students, says Amy B. Martin, assistant dean for student-success operations, who also serves as Michigan State’s fellow for the University Innovation Alliance. “We wanted a topic that really brought people together from across the campus,” she says, and communication involves everyone.
While most of the administrators who gathered last April to map out their communication with students at least knew of one another, they had not had this kind of group discussion before. That alone allowed them to notice problems they had never thought of before and find new ways to collaborate.
As the sticky notes piled up, Terrence L. Frazier, assistant vice president for student affairs and services, was struck by the volume of messages sent just by his own division. “This is a lot coming at a first-year student,” Mr. Frazier says, “and in particular I cringed even more thinking about a first-generation student.” Some students have told Mr. Frazier that they get so many emails from the university that they don’t even open all of them, he says.
Seeing how many emails Michigan State was sending raised some key questions, Ms. Renn says. Is all of the information we’re sharing that important? And if it is, how are we making sure that students actually see it?
If Not Email, Then What?
After the meeting, Ms. Rovig, the registrar, and colleagues in three other offices looked at their whole flow of communication with all students over a six-month period. They also examined individual messages, she says, with an eye toward overlap, tone, length, clarity, and consistency.
They came up with a list of recommendations, like avoiding acronyms and “esoteric” language, and creating guidelines for the use of emoticons. The group is now evaluating communications over the whole year while being shadowed by colleagues from two more offices.
When Ms. Rovig’s group is done, it will share best practices with other units on the campus.
In the meantime, students are finding their own ways to handle the rush of emails. Rob Hughley learned to filter his. As an incoming freshman, says Mr. Hughley, a first-generation student from Detroit, “I received a lot of emails. I still receive a lot of emails.” In a summer bridge program and during academic orientation, Mr. Hughley, now a sophomore majoring in criminal justice, got some advice: Weed out the important emails from the not-so-important ones. Now, he says, that’s what he does — if a message doesn’t seem essential, he deletes it right away.
If Michigan State decides to stop sending so many emails, what could it do instead? There’s no obvious answer, Ms. Renn says. If students check their virtual inboxes sporadically, they check their physical ones rarely. And while students are using new platforms, they may not always be suited to university business. “I can’t imagine the Snapchat of, ‘Hey, you need to see an adviser because you failed,’” she says.
One thing MSU is considering is starting a central portal, a kind of clearinghouse holding all of students’ important to-dos. That’s something Georgia State developed after its process-mapping exercise, Mr. Renick says.
It’s too early to say if moving toward a portal makes the most sense for MSU, says David Wile, a program manager in information technology. Before making a final decision, Michigan State plans to organize focus groups with students. Whether they find its new approach easy to use will be the big indicator of whether the university is on the right track.
After all, Ms. Renn says, “it shouldn’t take a Ph.D. in higher education to make your way through a public university.”
Beckie Supiano writes about college affordability, the job market for new graduates, and professional schools, among other things. Follow her on Twitter beckie.supiano