Each year the Chronicle of Higher Education conducts an annual survey of Great Colleges to Work For. The survey covers employee (higher education, academic and professional) satisfaction with colleges as places to work. It’s not much different than the employer surveys of large corporations that appear in business magazines.
A recurring theme on EducatedQuest.com is that colleges sell, manage and deliver services performed by people, much like any other business that college students, college-bound students and their families interact with on a daily basis. Whether they are taking a campus tour, meeting with an admissions or financial aid officer, or grabbing a bite to eat in the student center students and parents alike will consider how they were treated. Its commonly accepted in business that happy employees who directly serve customers perform better customer service. This is why I was curious about the Great Colleges to Work For.
The Chronicle’s employee survey of Great Colleges to Work For asks employees to rate their satisfaction based on 12 categories. Those of greatest importance to customer service to students and their families would be Collaborative Governance, Confidence in Senior Leadership, Career and Professional Development, Job Satisfaction, Respect and Appreciation, and Teaching Environment.
Why these six categories among the 12?
- Employees are more likely to be satisfied with their workplace when they can trust their management and when their management shows interest in their professional development. This shows that an employer, whether it is a college or a more conventional business, is interested in retaining their employees as well as building a more flexible workplace.
- Employees are more likely to be effective “ambassadors” for their school when they are satisfied. Colleges, like cars and real estate, are sold based in part on curb appeal. Whenever you visit model homes for a home builder the homes are nicely decorated, the grounds well maintained, the sales people dressed in a corporate polo shirt and kakhis or business suits. Sloppiness and sloth are banished. The same is true at a college where the work force takes pride in the place.
- Employees are more likely to satisfied when they believe that management listens to them. Colleges are more democratic organizations than most. Depending on the school the faculty has authority over the academic program. The more collaborative the faculty is among each other as well as among other offices such as career services and academic advising, the faster change happens. Also, depending on the school, there are means for students to have a voice in student life and programs.
- Teachers teach better when they know that they have latitude over how they teach their courses. However, they are also sensitive to student evaluations when they point to practices that are either too lenient or overly demanding. Grade inflation has been a complaint among academics since time immemorial. On the other hand, so has the bell curve in the large math or science class.
I tried to find colleges that excelled in all six of these categories..
- Among larger schools, Duke and Baylor were the only two on the Chronicle Honor Roll that did.
- Among mid-sized colleges (less than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students), Texas Christian University (TCU), Eastern Connecticut State University and the University of the Incarnate Word (TX) were the “six-star” customer service providers on the Chronicle Honor Roll.
- Among small colleges (less than 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students), Mississippi University for Women earned all six stars.
Duke, Baylor and Texas Christian are all considered to be research universities. While I have never been and will never be a fan of Duke basketball, I obviously agree that Duke’s academics and support services are top notch. However, Duke is also a very expensive school as well as a super-selective school. Parents and students who cross-shop Duke against other schools, even its main sports rival the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, expect excellence from a college.
Baylor retained 89 percent of the freshmen who arrived in 2013, according to its 2014-15 Common Data Set, and graduated 55 percent within four years, slightly better than the University of Texas’ flagship campus in Austin. TCU did even better. That school retained 90 percent of the freshmen who entered in 2013, and graduated 59 percent of the undergraduates who entered in 2008 within four years, according to its 2014-15 Common Data Set. These numbers are excellent, considering that the competition these schools face within Texas. Neither school is super-selective. TCU offered admission to 48 percent of the students who sought to join last year’s freshman class. Baylor admitted just over 55 percent.
With respect to the other schools that were similar honored, the numbers are less impressive when I checked their Common Data Sets or Fact Books (for Mississippi University for Women) :
- Eastern Connecticut State University: 77 percent freshman retention (2013), 39 percent four-year graduation rate (class entering in 2008).
- University of the Incarnate Word: 74 percent freshman retention (2013), 19 percent four-year graduation rate (class entering in 2008).
- Mississippi University for Women: 69 percent freshman retention (2014), 26 percent four-year graduation rate (class that entered in 2010)
I’m impressed that the employees of these three schools collectively helped to place their college on the Chronicle Honor Roll of Great Colleges to Work For. It says a lot about these colleges as employers. They treat their colleagues, and hopefully their students and alumni, as valued customers. The “customer service ethos” is knocked in corners of higher education and among the education press. However, customer service becomes more important as college costs continue to rise along with parent’s expectations of the schools that they send their children.
I liken higher education to the auto industry in terms of customer service. Before the advent of JD Power and the glowing reliability reports for Japanese-built cars beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, American car buyers bought American cars. Those cars carried much shorter warrantees. They were also far less reliable than the cars you can buy in 2015. The warrantees, the build quality of the vehicle, reliability and resale value are part of the marketing message for new cars. Roll the clock back four decades and you would see that the messages were about “the brand.” As the costs of purchasing and maintaining new cars rose, and their complexity went beyond the skills of the mechanics at the service station, the car dealer’s service and parts departments became an extension of the sales process and the marketing. After that it was a matter of time before customer service information about brands and dealerships became available to the public. The spread of useful customer information about new cars on the Internet coincides with the spread of useful customer information about colleges.
I will concede that I have not visited the three schools that posted the less impressive numbers, nor have I spent time to learn their missions. Colleges have inherent characteristics that impact freshman retention and graduation rates. Many have campus cultures that “hit or miss” with their students. All-female colleges deal with this. So do colleges that base their curriculum on a theme or have it strongly aligned to a religious doctrine. Either the experience is an extremely rewarding one, or the students know quickly that it will not work out. Other schools serve commuter or non-traditional populations as much, if not more, than they do traditional (18-22 year old, full-time) college students. Just under a fifth of Eastern Connecticut’s undergraduate students go part time as do the vast majority of their graduate students. It is also not unusual for students to shift between full-time and part-time status at a regional public university such as Eastern.
However, I have repeatedly said that The Good College should retain as much of its full-time freshman class as possible as well as graduate no less than half of that class within four years.
True, too many public colleges cannot do this, and it is not totally their fault. However, their mission as well as their achievements and misses are being increasing scrutinized by politicians who are either looking to save money or looking to throw too much money at the wrong problems. So they need what business leadership expert Jim Collins calls a “big, hairy audacious goal.” Improving retention and degree completion is part of that.
Private colleges should be able to do both with a full-time freshman class. Their admissions offices send a marketing message that students who choose a private college will get a “better” or “more personal” educational experience than they would receive at a public school. When a private college fails to live up to that expectation parents become angrier. Worse for the school students leave. Yes, they have alumni that they can claim, even though they did not stick around to earn a degree. But it’s not like they were satisfied customers who will be evangelists for the mission.