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GW wants to give students a better experience, but experts say it won’t be easy

Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor
At a Faculty Senate meeting this month, University President Thomas LeBlanc gave an update on the progress of his priorities.

Top officials and student leaders have taken up a new line over the past six months to explain University decisions and set long-term goals – “the student experience.”

Since University President Thomas LeBlanc arrived on campus, officials have created a new Board of Trustees task force, merged the student affairs and enrollment offices into one department and changed the widely criticized student dining plan – decisions officials said have all been geared toward improving the student experience.

But experts said changing how students interact with the University won’t happen overnight, and officials need to prioritize affordability and student feedback to make a dent in the way GW is perceived by students. With GW’s sticker price approaching $70,000 a year, those experts said students often expect first-rate support services and question their ties to the University when officials don’t deliver.

Top officials have said everything from student health to housing, academics, athletics and Greek life will be evaluated as part of the focus on campus life, an effort designed to address broad student sentiment that their interactions with the University often leave them feeling frustrated and unsupported.

In an interview earlier this month, LeBlanc said officials will use metrics like freshman retention rates, six-year graduation rates and student surveys to measure student satisfaction as he tackles some of the most widely criticized aspects of GW.

“There are a lot of areas which you gather data and you start to get a clear picture, but you don’t want to simply make decisions to pretend you’re making progress if you’re not really making progress,” LeBlanc said.

[gwh_image id=”1049462″ credit=”Sam Hardgrove | Assistant Photo Editor” align=”none” size=”embedded-img”]Prospective students tour campus Monday. Officials are focusing on everything from admissions to Greek life as part of an effort to improve student life at GW.[/gwh_image]

GW’s six-year graduation rate has long lagged behind several peer schools – which administrators have sought to tackle through a focus on affordability and academics. Freshman retention rates have consistently hovered above 90 percent – on par with most peers.

LeBlanc said improving the student experience can start with something small – like the decision this month to nix a long-disliked opt-out library fee – but can also include bigger changes, like a boost in dining dollars to help address food insecurity on campus.

But LeBlanc said improving student satisfaction will need to stem from a constant re-evaluation of University policies and priorities. After officials implement a decision – like revamping the dining program – they will garner student feedback to decide if a change is actually working, he said.

LeBlanc added that the creation of the new Office of Enrollment and the Student Experience – which will be rolled out this summer – will create a space where staff are specifically thinking about the student experience including topics like housing, dining, programming and student organizations.

“One of the things I heard from students when I got here was decisions are made in isolation, in different pockets of the University, and there’s no one responsible for actually measuring the impact on the student experience,” LeBlanc said. “Well now there is. Now there’s an office that says, ‘I own this.’”

The effort could come into clearer focus in May when a Board task force focused on the student experience, which has been investigating these issues since the fall, is expected to produce a set of “guiding principles” that will lead to specific recommendations.

Student Association Executive Vice President Sydney Nelson, who serves on the task force, said the new student experience office will force administrators to be mindful of “how GW can do better as an institution to support students.”

“You come to GW to spend, as an undergraduate, probably four years of your life learning and growing as an individual, and I think it’s important that now the University is beginning to recognize that as an emphasis of importance rather than the previous model of very business-esque focused and transactionally natured,” Nelson said.

Nelson Carbonell, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, said the effort to improve student life could lead to changes in the University’s budget in the coming years as resources are shifted to projects that directly impact a student’s time on campus.

“We may be spending money in areas that aren’t really having the impact on the student experience that we think it’s having or that the students – it really doesn’t do anything for them that we’re spending money,” Carbonell said.

Improving student satisfaction would also help the University-wide effort to improve fundraising and alumni engagement because students who enjoy their time on campus will be more likely to stay involved and donate after graduation, he added.

Experts said the steps the University has taken to improve the student experience indicate progress, but that actually creating meaningful change will likely take years.

Matthew Clifford, the associate dean of students for student conduct at Wake Forest University, said the student experience can generally be split into inside-the-classroom experiences – like the types of courses offered and the style of teaching – and outside-the-classroom topics like residential engagement, student organizations, student spaces on campus and civic engagement.

All these experiences affect how much students enjoy their time on campus, he said.

Clifford said that for any university to address student satisfaction, students need to be involved in the decision-making processes.

“There might be a strategy to change something around the student experience, but if the student culture is not on board with that, and the students haven’t been a part of the process, then I think sometimes those strategies are not as effective as if the administrators and the faculty really partner with students on the change process,” he said.

Students have been invited to a series of listening sessions this year on campus life as the Board task force aims to pin down top GW issues. Both Nelson and SA President Peak Sen Chua serve on that task force.

Subir Sahu, the vice president and dean of student life at Drexel University, said GW’s changes to the dining program and the creation of a new enrollment and student experience office are steps to help improve the student experience overall. But he said universities should still focus on big-picture issues – like the affordability and cost of a college education and the quality of academic services – to make long-term revisions.

“From the perspective of value – I hear a lot more from students, ‘are they being offered something that allows them to leave an institution better than when they started?’” he said.

Adam Cebulski, the director of assessment and strategic initiatives at Southern Methodist University, said any improvement to address the student experience will take at least four years to yield real results because “you’ll need to transition all of the students out who were used to it one way until you get to the point where everyone is used to that enhancement.”

He said officials may focus on “finding multiple smaller, but still meaningful, items to work on first.” The “natural” time to make big changes to student affairs – like those that affect institutional traditions or cultures – is when there are openings in administrative positions, Cebulski said.

Four officials left the Division of Student Affairs last fall, including Peter Konwerski, the dean of student affairs.

“Depending on what aspect of the culture that’s trying to be changed, there are a myriad of factors to examine, including institutional history, social and political contexts, external stakeholders,” he said in an email. “While none of these are a reason to not move forward with institutional change if it is warranted, they are things that must be addressed in the processes.”

Andrew Goudsward, Kelly Hooper, Rebecca Leppert, Leah Potter and Sarah Roach contributed reporting.

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