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Why Higher Ed Requires a Startup Mentality

Let me be honest for a second.

The most motivating aspect of being the CEO for a startup isn’t the privilege of working with some of the smartest people I know. It isn’t the desire for a quick exit (although that would be nice). It certainly isn’t “the grind,” as some people like to call it.

It’s the competition. I’m a competitive person by nature, and nothing motivates me more each morning than setting out to develop the best chatbot in higher education. I love it when our sales team comes back to me with stories about how our newest client initially worked with a competitor, only to be disappointed before deciding to contact us.

I can’t help but smile every time a new client speaks at an event and talks about how we made their job that much easier. I thrive on winning.

I expect every department, whether it’s the bot building team, customer success or marketing to constantly optimize how they do their jobs each and every day.

Yet when I look at higher education as a whole, I don’t often meet educators who share that same competitive drive as me. Sure, everyone wants to attract students to their institution and make them happy, but institutions rarely look at how they differentiate themselves. Rather, it’s a lot of information that doesn’t say a whole lot.

For example, institutions tend to be information-heavy on their website. That information often doesn’t get to the heart of what the student is asking, and leaves them frustrated by how difficult it is to find answers to their questions. Other times, the information is simply out of date, leaving students to believe one thing only to find out that the policy has changed.

However as institutions are strapped with challenges like the enrollment cliff, decreased state funding and COVID-19, it’s time for that thinking to change. Institutions need to start thinking like startups, or they’ll struggle to survive. We’ve seen this happen already as a number of smaller institutions are merging with online programs of expanding their offerings to MOOCs to attract a larger student pool.

Below, I’ve laid out some of the reasons institutions must embrace the startup mentality. In part two of this series, I’ll explain what it will take to get there.

Students struggle to find the value of higher education

When my kids ask me if they’ll ever have to apply what they’re learning in school towards the real world, I tell them that learning job-related skills isn’t critical at their age. But college students have every right to ask that question when they (or their parents) are saddled with over $100,000 in debt.

Many college graduates are disappointed when they leave school and find that nothing they learned from their major remotely prepared them for their job. In some cases, their major might even make it difficult for them to find a job in the first place.

Institutions don’t typically focus on the ROI they provide students, but they need to. Without clear alignment between what goes on in the classroom and relevant skills that the student will need for a successful career, that student will likely transfer or drop out altogether.

Education is more accessible today than ever before. A high school student could become a full-stack developer in less than six months or make six figures as a BDR by learning basic sales skills. Yet, I don’t believe that higher education is a dying industry – rather it’s one that must transform itself.

Another common problem is that institutions don’t look at their marketing as being responsible for delivering a value proposition to their students or show a clear comparison to other institutions. Startups as a whole use a more sophisticated and disciplined approach to delivering content. They test, research and optimize to find the messaging that resonates most with their audience.

That doesn’t exist in higher education. Much of the focus comes from a desire to recruit students. However, what students really want is a website that can directly answer their questions. Most websites only share information at a high level, leaving the student with a lack of clarity in their decision-making process.

Complacency is no longer good enough in customer service

When looking at the age of a typical four-year college student, the vast majority of students attending an institution today were born after Y2K. That means they grew up in an age with iPods, camera phones and an internet that didn’t require a dial-up connection. As a result, they expect customer service to be lightning quick.

But fast isn’t typically a feature of customer service within higher education. The average call center rep works a 9 – 5 and gets through as many student inquiries as they can before going home. There’s no mechanism for 24/7 service and there’s no real incentive to resolve issues in a timely manner. This causes questions to slip through the cracks and remain unsolved for as many as 48 hours.

As the CEO of a startup, customer service is an issue that keeps me up at night. If something goes wrong, I want our team to be on top of it and resolve the issue quickly. If we don’t, I know that our clients can simply move on to a competitor or just go back to the old way of doing things.

That threat doesn’t exist within higher education. Yet as more institutions start embracing technology like artificial intelligence to solve their customer service challenges, the gap between those that apply a startup mindset to customer service and those that don’t will only grow. Students will eventually place quick and convenient customer service as a prerequisite for attending an institution.

Those that refuse to adapt will ultimately lose out on students who are more likely to feel cared for and have their needs met at other institutions.

Websites are too difficult to navigate

As a startup founder, I know how important it is to have a well-optimized website for lead generation. In fact, just last month I greenlit a sizable investment to conduct a website re-design for our own company. It was one of the biggest marketing expenses we’ve ever incurred, but it had to be done.

Our website served its purpose to get where we are today. It told our story in a way that was compelling and got visitors interested in working with us. But to get to where we need it to go, I knew it required a massive upgrade. We weren’t in line with UX best practices, causing Google to bury us in search results and our messaging was dramatically different from what’s on our website. We hired consultants to help us reach the goals we are aggressively setting for ourselves next year.

I say this, not to pat myself on the back. Every startup founder knows that prospects won’t take them seriously if their website is difficult to navigate or isn’t organized well. However, websites within higher education aren’t built with best-in-class strategies.

They tend to have information buried underneath sub-menus or have websites that are difficult to navigate from a mobile device.

Another problem within higher education is that websites aren’t usually built with various funnels in mind. Institutions don’t have the infrastructure to figure out if a student is simply developing a shortlist of schools or looking to make a final decision, and treats both cases like one and the same when he or she converts.

This can at times make recruiters feel pushy or aggressive when students aren’t necessarily ready to talk to an admissions counselor. Institutions need to be far more thoughtful about how they present information on their website in order to keep students engaged. The only way this effort can truly succeed is through testing, gathering more data and making constant improvements to the website.

Today’s academic environment forces institutions to re-think how they serve students moving forward. Institutions have the potential for a bright future ahead, but it will require embracing the same scrappy, data-driven thinking that working at any startup requires.

Stay tuned for part two of this series, where I will share a few key opportunities for institutions to embrace the startup mindset that will increase student satisfaction and solve many of the problems plaguing the world of higher ed.

Read part two of Mark’s series: Embracing the Startup Mentality in Higher Education.