Why Convenience Boosts Student Campus Life

May 06, 2020

In an earlier column, I predicted that convenience will rule higher ed; today, inconvenience has overtaken it.

Raised on quick responses from smartphones, social media, instant messaging and immediate-access entertainment sites, today’s students live in an on-demand world.

Just try calling your college’s general number to see what happens. Good luck! Your first encounter may be: “No one is here right now to take your call, but if you leave your name and number someone will get back to you shortly”—a sign of dysfunctional inconvenience caused by school bureaucracy, with each unit’s requirements coming first, before student convenience. A fairly common occurrence at many of the nation’s colleges and universities.

On the opposite end of the inconvenience spectrum are companies who have honed their customer service through thousands of interactions to create enterprise level support. Some weeks ago, I had trouble figuring out how to open an account at a nearby company, so I went online and clicked the firm’s number I found on its homepage. “I’d like to open an account,” I said, explaining to a recorded message what I had in mind. Soon afterward, I was on my way with the information I needed.

My call to this company did not go to a telephone receptionist working for, say, human resources or information technology, but to a voice-activated program representing all the company’s departments—a customer-centric service equipped to respond to any question. That’s why my query was handled quickly, accurately and conveniently—unlike the type of support you may find at a college call center.

“Higher education has not yet figured it out,” Peggy McCready, Associate Vice President for IT Services and Support at Northwestern University, recently told me. “Service and support at universities are not up to the level of personalization we’ve grown accustomed to at the drugstore, where your prescription is refilled automatically and you’re reminded when you haven't picked it up.” One reason for this is that colleges and universities are often radically decentralized, making the standard of service different across campus departments and sectors.

“Siloed university units are dinosaurs that are fast becoming extinct,” predicts Ryan Craig in Forbes. “By getting rid of organizational silos and focusing on how to best serve students—from applicants’ first interactions through decades as alumni—students and universities win.”

Students are often baffled by the dizzying academic options confronting them in the school catalog, puzzled as to what program or course to choose. But figuring out how to navigate non-academic departments and services can be equally bewildering.

That’s why nearly two years ago, Arizona State University launched a mobile app, an online one-stop-shop, helping students maneuver on-campus services and decisively providing robust student engagement. I logged on and was dazzled by how simple and easy it was to locate nearly everything students might need.

With just one click, students can access the school's academic calendar, library or any one of dozens of other sites. Students can view campus maps showing bus routes, stops and schedules, as well as shuttle services. They can even click on entertainment options available right on the app. Troubled students can even call ASU’s Counseling Services to speak directly to a counselor—without an appointment. Convenience and compassion on a mobile phone.

Many colleges, aware of the changing needs of the student population today, are installing collaborative maker spaces, student-run print shops, convenience stores, and in a science-fiction departure at UC Berkeley, robot-run food delivery to busy students.

A food delivering KiwiBot at UC Berkeley. (Photo Credit: Sydney Johnson)
...colleges that recognize that convenience also has a heart, showing kindness and respect for students, may partly stall an expected enrollment slide this fall.

Raised on quick responses from smartphones, social media, instant messaging and immediate-access entertainment sites, today’s students live in an on-demand world. Click on anything and get it immediately. It’s a world in which no one needs to wait in line anymore, or even go somewhere to shop. A world in which Amazon will send you any product you're looking for from the largest virtual mall ever imagined.

The doorman in my apartment building no longer sits amiably at his station, pleasantly greeting residents and visitors; he’s now a shipping clerk, barricaded by giant stacks of pale brown cardboard boxes, many printed with a long black curve of a smile. With the massive amount of deliveries being made, every day is Christmas in my building.

When they return to campus, to pick-up their packages, students at many schools can hop over to a spot where the college has installed Intelligent Lockers, found in some school cafeterias, dorms or at student centers. These lockers are safe, contactless and accessible 24/7—an especially helpful convenience for busy students and professors. Recipients are automatically notified when packages are ready and gaining access is as easy as punching in a code or scanning a phone.

A lobby with a bank of Intelligent Lockers (Photo credit: Pitney Bowes)

Some think convenience is just another mean-spirited scam to get consumers to spend money faster on foolish things, but colleges that recognize that convenience also has a heart, showing kindness and respect for students, may partly stall an expected enrollment slide this fall.

Noted Columbia University legal scholar, Tim Wu, has called convenience, "the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today” and “perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies.”


To learn more about self-service pickup and how it can help deliver on-demand student services visit Pitney Bowes and download The New Parcel Management eBook: Higher Ed Edition


Robert Ubell is vice dean emeritus of online learning at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. A collection of his essays on virtual education, Going Online, is published by Routledge. He can be reached at bobubell@gmail.com.


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