Mapping the student journey begins with one step — in your student’s shoes

Get ready to collaborate — it’s time to improve the student experience!

Think back to when you were starting college. What was the toughest part of the process between applying and enrolling?

According to Erin Swenson, a success coach at InsideTrack, your answer could be the first step to improving student outcomes at your institution. She likes to ask that question at the start of each Student Journey Mapping session because “it helps everyone put themselves in the student’s shoes.” And walking a mile — or at least the steps between acceptance and enrollment — in those shoes can help you spot challenges and barriers to success much more quickly than analyzing student records ever could.

For many schools, Student Journey Mapping is a common starting point for diagnostics that precede other professional services or trainings. Tools like this allow all stakeholders to fully understand the current state of their institution and create actionable recommendations toward an ideal state that better supports all students.

Understanding the student journey — and where it goes off-course

Higher education leaders spend their lives immersed in the institutional culture. Acronyms and academic lingo are shorthand for the systems and structures meant to guide students toward their degree. Though the goal is student success, the outcome is often student confusion and distress.

Student Journey Mapping helps institutions pinpoint the exact stages or phases in the journey where students may go off-track. For instance, if summer melt continues to be a problem, mapping the prospective student journey could provide insight. If students who pass their first-term courses are not registering for the second, some part of the enrollment process may need to be addressed.

For the process to truly work, you have to put yourself in the shoes of every kind of student: the ones who don’t speak the language, the ones who don’t understand school policies, the ones who are also juggling jobs and families, and the ones who may be looking for a reason why this isn’t going to work for them. Understanding the process and pitfalls for all students can lead to important adjustments.

Map your way out of organizational silos

For SUNY Onondaga Community College, student journey mapping provided the opportunity to enhance student engagement — by first providing faculty and student-facing staff the opportunity to engage with each other.

“Staff needed something to connect themselves and make better connections with the student,” explained Wendy Tarby, Onondaga Community College’s former associate vice president for institutional planning, assessment and research, who partnered closely with InsideTrack throughout the Student Journey Mapping process. Building cross-functional awareness is one of the most valuable aspects of the student journey experience.

A major “a-ha” of their journey mapping process was realizing that if faculty and staff don’t know how different departments engage with students, students won’t likely know, either.

“Employees walked away by saying, ‘If we couldn’t walk ourselves through this process, how are our students supposed to walk through it?’ Especially given the make-up of our students — many are first-generation, or have been detached from the college lifestyle for a while,” said Russ Corbin, director of business development and community engagement at Onondaga Community College.

Use your feelings

Once the introductions are made, the real work begins. Though the journey mapping process used to unfold during sit-down sessions with flip charts, markers, post-its and whiteboards, Covid-19 forced the sessions online in spring 2020. But whether it’s working in-room or over Zoom, everyone involved is expected to roll up their sleeves and participate.

The process guides institutions in thinking through the steps students have to accomplish to reach a certain milestone, as well as the departments or functions in charge of those tasks. But there’s a “more holistic” element too, Swenson explained. “You’re not only identifying each step, you’re also looking at what the student is feeling, and what are the student’s challenges.”

Empathy for the student is the foundation of our journey mapping approach. InsideTrack’s student support methodology focuses on developing students’ knowledge, skills and beliefs. When institutions partner with us for journey mapping, these same noncognitive abilities are applied to each stage in the process. We remind them that every interaction with a student is a teaching and learning moment – you’re teaching/they’re learning how to interact with the school and their own education. In other words, you’re putting the student at the center of a process that can sometimes feel more driven by systems.

The map is just the beginning

Tarby said that prior to partnering with InsideTrack, they “had defaulted to a transactional environment. Our staff was used to checklists, and making sure that students were checking the boxes.” Although different aspects of the institution were engaging with students in their own way, “we didn’t have a universal, campus-wide connection.” But now they have started on an organizational change model.

“InsideTrack’s ‘guided hand,’” Corbin said, “provided awareness in the group that there was a flaw in the way we were identifying with students, whether it was being too focused on the employee point-of-view, or not adapting to generational needs, or not understanding what was going on from the student perspective.”

The student journey mapping process helped identify specific changes that could be made, like adjusting the timing and wording of student-facing communications. Something as simple as figuring out “what to say and when,” as Tarby described it, can add up to a major shift in the campus culture.

“The college is going through a collective inward look in order to create a more student-focused environment,” Tarby said. “It’s an exciting time.”


When a Chicago-area community college receives a substantial Title V grant to expand their capacity to serve Latinx students and adult learners, where do they start? With InsideTrack Student Journey Mapping. Learn more about this mission-driven partnership with Waubonsee Community College.

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