Want student-first admissions processes? Look to your student services peers

“When we hewed closely to student needs and perceptions… the international student and scholar community flourished”

Ryan Fleming is a client director with IDP Connect. In this blog, he discusses the importance of institutions paying attention to students’ needs and perceptions when considering new policies or processes.

About nine years ago, I embarked on my international education career by joining the international student and scholar services (ISSS) team at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Though I didn’t realise it at the time, my years in Kent would prove formative for the way I approached a subsequent career lane change into the private sector.

At Kent, my role was equal parts strategic and operational: build the systems that would support and nurture students while simultaneously counselling them personally within the framework of that system. For my teammates and me, international orientation involved equal parts planning and delivery: figuring out what students needed to know, when and how they needed to know it, and then being the ones to tell them ourselves.

If we ever overreached or set up a process that, in retrospect, seemed clunky or ill-fitting, a return to the drawing board invariably yielded the same insight: we had failed, somewhere in our lofty plan, to put students first. Internally focused on our own novel ideas or perceived efficiencies, somewhere along the way we stopped considering how the students we were there to serve actually thought and behaved.

Conversely, when we hewed closely to student needs and perceptions, built-in feedback opportunities and put our energy toward improving student experiences, rather than our own, the international student and scholar community flourished.

For instance, when enrollment from Muslim-majority countries surged, rather than introduce draconian solutions to suppress advising wait times or appointment volumes for ourselves, we worked to secure halal food options and dedicated prayer space in the Student Center. In this way, we were able to scale up the breadth and quality of our services and programming even as our international population nearly doubled between 2011 and 2015.

“Institutions can pursue internal policies or processes while losing sight of the prospective students they seek to attract in the process”

I am now employed in the private sector, working with university clients to support their marketing and enrollment strategy. Still, the lessons of a life in student services are with me: institutions can pursue internal policies or processes while losing sight of the prospective students they seek to attract in the process.

These pitfalls span a range of circumstances, from requiring a particular kind of credential evaluation in the application process to asking students whether they are working with a third party on their application. In each example, the aim makes sense. Who is against verifying credentials or ensuring transparency with agent relationships? Nevertheless, flip the script and a different narrative emerges.

Students applying for multiple institutions, each with their own application fees and competing requirements, may be deterred from yet another upfront cost. These students have proficiency tests to take and SEVIS fees to pay, as well.

What about checking if local agents are qualified to vet and certify credentials from students in-country? Similarly, students may perceive that their application will be disadvantaged by indicating application by proxy, leading them to mark “No” even if they are actually working with a counsellor. Are there other ways to verify an agent relationship that doesn’t summon student anxiety and second-guessing?

Each institution is free to set its own policies and processes, and this process is best done with an eye to both internal and external needs of all stakeholders. My years in Kent serve me well in these discussions to remember that if we are to truly put students first, we would do well to remember back to when we were in their shoes.

About the author: Ryan Fleming is a client director with IDP Connect based in Buffalo, New York. Ryan has been working in international education since 2011.