Making higher ed mobile: Catering to student demands for ease, speed and access

As colleges and universities look for ways to woo students with compelling experiences, higher ed leaders need to look no further than the devices students are never without: their smartphones.

From making payments to opening doors, ordering meals and reserving equipment, students increasingly expect their college experience to mirror the ease, speed and personalization they enjoy from retailers and media platforms. In response, forward-thinking institutions are catering to those expectations.

Driving engagement with fingertip access, instant gratification

Those rock-climbing walls that were all the rage a decade ago don’t impress Gen Z students, industry observers say. Think services instead. While students still want to socialize and build community in person, they largely favor virtual delivery in situations where convenience and privacy are a priority, such as for administrative support interactions, Accenture reports.

To that end, streamlined processes and anytime/anywhere access are important components in meeting the needs of students accustomed to the immediacy of a tech-enabled world. Smartphones are a no-brainer starting point. “Higher ed institutions must use mobile technology,” argues Matthew Alex, founder of Beyond Academics, a firm that advises higher ed leaders on transformation strategies and student lifecycle optimization. “You have to become more flexible,” he adds, “and you can’t be time-boxed.”

Mobile use cases grow, on and off campus

In March 2022, TouchNet and Industry Dive surveyed 150 higher education leaders on how they’re using a familiar campus technology — ID management — to spawn a rich menu of mobile capabilities. Uses that are currently active or being implemented at surveyed institutions include the following:

  • Mobile access to student/staff IDs (83%) with self-serve ID setup or updates (68%)

  • Virtual class attendance/check-ins (80%), grades and class communication (71%)

  • Tracking vaccination status (77%) and COVID-19 testing (75%)

  • Administrator access to trending behaviors and individual-level data (75%) and campuswide financial data (69%)

  • Tracking equipment use, check-ins/outs (71%) and checking resource availability (64%)

  • Surveys, polls, capturing reviews/feedback (70%)

  • Accessing account balance and payments (69%), automated refunds and account reconciliation (65%)

  • Remote administrator access to ID management controls (69%)

  • Contactless dining (68%), order-ahead (66%) and virtual queueing (65%)

  • Event ticket sales (63%) and merchandise sales (59%)

  • Disseminating sponsor messages/offers/rewards (61%)

Not surprisingly, 52% of survey respondents said such enhancements can be compelling advantages in driving enrollment and only 29% feel their institutions can remain competitive in the next three years without upgrading ID management technologies.

“The pandemic forced higher education to embrace contactless technologies that have been around for quite a long time. We’re not going back,” says Adam McDonald, president of TouchNet, a provider of integrated commerce and credential technology for colleges and universities. “We’ve seen the value of remote access and automation and students now expect them,” he adds.

Adding new capabilities

Regardless of budget, enhancing mobile experiences starts with making the most of existing resources. As survey feedback indicates, many institutions have found ID management technology to be a flexible and budget-friendly way to score quick wins in mobile access. With that in mind, McDonald advises institutions to start integrating technologies they own today and to add new capabilities as resources allow and needs evolve.

Schools heeding that advice include Redeemer University in Ancaster, Ontario. When an organization-wide analysis determined that outdated tech, cumbersome processes and limited e-commerce capabilities were hampering student life, leaders at Redeemer looked for ways to improve functional access for all stakeholders and elevate perceptions of the university, without straining their nonprofit budget. IT leaders then partnered with TouchNet to integrate ID management functions so payments, meals and a slew of services are accessible with a tap or two on a mobile app.

Leaders at the University of Alberta share a similar experience, using student ID functionality to enable remote facility access, order-ahead meals and credentials for online students via mobile. Just as valuable, the technology provides hourly and daily reports of students who plan to eat at particular dining halls so staff can prepare enough food without being wasteful.

“Some schools still see ID management technology as just an ID, but it’s so much more,” McDonald explains. “With capabilities like dining, access, payments, check-ins, printing and more, the ID can be a mobile hub for the student experience.”

Digital innovation evolves to basic expectations

The expansion of mobile conveniences in higher education isn’t new, though a sense of urgency is growing as competition accelerates for a shrinking pool of students. A year ago, industry researchers urged colleges and universities to integrate virtual interactions across the student lifecycle, deeming it critical for competing in a crowded marketplace. Looking ahead, virtual experiences must shift from being “short-term disjointed experiments” to become part of the institution’s long-term strategy, Gartner reports.

Educause, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance higher education through technology, echoes that advice, noting that virtual access helps to support the whole student, increase accessibility for students with disabilities and help advance equity goals.

Any way you slice it, digital experiences that were considered ahead of the curve not long ago are now baseline student expectations. For colleges and universities looking to boost enrollment, retention and profits, they’re also essential investments.

What’s possible at your institution? Learn how your peers are using ID management technology to enhance student experiences when you access the TouchNet Survey Report.

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