Students First: What It Means to Be a Student-centered Institution

Priscila Zigunovas
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Quick Take: Being student-centered is no longer a choice for institutions, but a pressing necessity. How to do that? Think like a student.

Personalized teaching, services and marketing: How student-focused institutions are continuously thinking about the student first.

Declining enrollment rates, performance-based funding and intense competition are challenging many higher education institutions, particularly in the United States, to think about ways to recover and grow. 

One possible solution to this challenge is doing something all organizations should do: focus on their target audience — the student. Asking questions such as “What do students expect?”, “Are we offering them the best services and support possible?” and “Is our marketing messaging relevant?” can be a good starting point. In the end, student success results in institutional success. 

Becoming a student-focused institution requires an integrated approach, ultimately providing students with a satisfying education experience and a return on their investment. There may be many challenges along the way, but the results are certainly rewarding. 

Enrollment Shrinkage 

In December 2016, a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit education organization, showed that both undergraduate and graduate fall-term enrollment declined by 1.4% in United States universities, compared to the same period in the previous year.1 

That represents a 1.59 million student decrease, from 20.6 million in 2011, when enrollment peaked, to 19.01 million in 2016, the fifth consecutive year in decline. The drop is significantly higher among four-year for-profit educational institutions, and was mostly weighed down by students over the age of 24.2

These numbers can be interpreted in different ways, but recent studies can help us enumerate a few possible reasons for the decline: Tuition is increasingly more expensive and students cannot afford it; Institutions are not as focused on career outcomes as students are, therefore students don’t see a positive return on the big investment of paying for a degree; Mature students may be giving up university for jobs instead.3 

Addressing those issues and understanding student needs and expectations have thus become a necessity. 

Photo Brook Bock, Blackboard’s vice president for Mobile & Student Success.
Brook Bock, Blackboard’s vice president for Mobile & Student Success.

What Does Student Success Mean? 

While traditionally institutions measure student success by data points such as number of students retained and graduated, student success becomes much more personal when you examine the concept at the individual level.  

“What student success means to each individual is going to differ greatly based on some pretty significant factors, such as the specific outcomes that the student wants to achieve,” says Christina Fleming, Blackboard’s vice president for Marketing & Enrollment. “For example, are they looking for a credential that will help them move up the ladder in their job? Are they looking to completely switch industries? Or are they seeking something more personal, like a lifelong goal to achieve their graduate degree or to learn about a new area of interest?”  Technology is helping transform how institutions can better help students meet their educational and career goals. 

Blackboard has been a pioneer in driving teaching and learning advances for two decades. Student success, however, is dependent on many factors both inside and outside of the classroom. To meet the holistic student success needs of institutions, we created a data-informed connected ecosystem of support. This allows instructors and advisors to better understand and satisfy student needs with contextualized, personalized and timely help,” says Brook Bock, Blackboard’s vice president for Mobile & Student Success. 

Delivering this timely help is especially important as more and more students balance school and work. “We know that four out of five students in the United States work as they go to school. Between managing studies and other life obligations, students do not have time to hunt down which resources are available to them,” adds Bock. 

Technology now allows students to stay informed of critical deadlines and makes accessing course information and resources more convenient. 

Challenges for Institutions 

Keeping up with student expectations and also understanding the changing perspectives of the students they serve is a big challenge for educational institutions that want to become more student-centered, according to Fleming. 

“Institutions are going to have different types of students with different expectations coming through, just by the nature of the changes happening throughout society and throughout the world. They need to stay in touch with those changes and talk to students, get their perspective, listen, and not do things the way that they were always done,” she affirms. 

Working in collaboration with employers, making big investment decisions and doing more with less are other main challenges. 

“Schools are trying to do a lot at once. They need to stay in touch with those important factors while also trying to take care of the needs of an institution. That includes making sure that the programs they are designing are current, their communications are targeted, and the way they are extending their student support is relevant and timely based on what students need,” says Fleming. 

Photo Christina Fleming, Blackboard’s vice president for Marketing & Enrollment
Christina Fleming, Blackboard’s vice president for Marketing & Enrollment.

What’s Trending on Student-centered Learning 

The future of education is increasingly more personalized, convenient and contextually relevant. 

A trend that cannot be ignored is the use of mobile technology in education. On average, Americans now spend five hours a day on mobile devices, according to recent data, and the numbers are rising year after year.4 

Blackboard has invested heavily in mobile technology since 2011. Today, tailored experiences are available for students and instructors in their own individual apps (the Blackboard app and the Blackboard Instructor app, respectively). 

“With mobile technology, we allow students to engage in their education when it’s most convenient for them, and we empower advisors and instructors with predictive insights on their students alongside descriptive analytics and student sentiment,” says Bock. 

This enables advisors and instructors to have richer, more targeted levels of engagement with their students. “We often hear that students are frustrated with their advisors because they have little context about their educational journey. With access to this data, conversations become more meaningful and students feel more connected to their support system. Predictive insights also allow the appropriate support to be provided even earlier instead of when a student has already fallen off of their trajectory.” 

Communications Should Also Be Tailored 

The need for personalization also applies to an institution’s communications and services tactics, and that includes student-centered marketing. 

“Any of the communication that is shared with a student, even before they actually become involved in the enrollment process, or any of the exchanges that are happening, whether it’s on a website, on a specific ad, or in the different social media channels that are available — all of that has to be geared around different student needs that are personal to them,” says Fleming. 

According to her, prospective students must feel like the institution is in touch with their needs. “Each generation that comes through looks for even more customization and more personalized outreach, and they really tune out everything that is generic. Personalization is ultimately a key component to student success as well as the long-term institution success, because if the student is successful, the institution is going to grow and see returns on that, and will be able to reinvest in what is working.” 

She recommends that, instead of having a “one size fits all” mindset, institutions should create messages and experiences that are tailored, and the best way to do that is understanding student audiences and the needs, preferences and behaviors of the different groups of students the institution is serving. 

One way of personalizing marketing is focusing on the outcome that the student is looking to achieve. For example, talk about their return on investment and their ultimate goals, and use communications and outreach to speak to them specifically about those goals. 

“It’s one thing to talk about what a program includes or what a curriculum looks like, but it’s much better to offer students a glimpse of what they’ll achieve from receiving that credential or degree from an outcomes perspective. So, when we are thinking about student-centered marketing, we are thinking long-term regarding the student’s goals and how they are going to achieve them through the institution.” 

Learn now how to ensure student success

Institutional Values 

One last step that is essential to becoming more student-focused is uncovering and defining what are their unique institutional values. 

“Specific institutional values provide an important foundation for realizing the ideal student experience,” says Fleming. “For example, taking some time to think about what it means to be a part of that institution: whether the institution is inclusive, trusted, flexible, and how students are provided with access to learning. Most universities have done some element of that, but before they can define the best student experience they need to reflect on those values again and note them, define them, and then use them as an anchor point as they craft the best student experience and go forward.” 


Cristina Fleming, Blackboard’s vice president for Marketing & Enrollment 

Brook Bock, Blackboard’s vice president for Mobile & Student Success 


AFP Kena Betancur 


1Farber, M. (2016, December 19). College Enrollment Declines for Fifth Straight Year. Retrieved October 17, 2017, from 

2National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2016, December). Current Term Enrollment Estimates – Fall 2016. Retrieved October 17, 2017, from 

3Korn, M. (2016, December 19). College Enrollment Drops 1.4% as Adults Head Back to Work. Retrieved October 19, 2017, from 

4Perez, S. (2017, March 03). U.S. consumers now spend 5 hours per day on mobile devices. Retrieved October 19, 2017, from 


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