Colleges and universities across the U.S. continue to see stagnation or decline, but Maryville University in Missouri is thriving. In fact, Maryville has seen more than 80-percent growth within the last five years. How have we bucked the trend in a challenging environment?

As Maryville’s president since 2007, I attribute our success first to great, outcome-focused academic programs and second to a tremendous emphasis on the student experience. We never lose sight of the fact that students aren’t just learning while they’re with us, they’re living. Our approach considers the full spectrum of their needs, extending from recruitment to employment—and beyond.

Opening the door with access and opportunity

Providing accessible, attainable opportunities to earn a degree should be table stakes in higher education. At Maryville, we’ve taken tangible steps to not only open the door for students, but to help them stay and succeed.

To help keep costs in check for our students, we froze tuition for undergraduate and most graduate programs in the 2018-2019 academic year and for four of the last five years. We also have greatly expanded our online programs, creating more flexible options for students with varying schedules, responsibilities, and interests.

In the fall of 2019, we will offer 12 additional programs, two master’s degrees, and 10 bachelor’s degrees. These degrees range from long-standing areas of study, such as a Bachelor of Arts in English, Sociology, or History, to newer disciplines in high demand, such as a Bachelor of Science in Data Science, Sport Business Management, or Senior Living Management.

Related: How my university is disrupting higher education

Maryville also provides each student with a life coach who acts as a resource, knowledgeable academic adviser, and mentor. These life coaches help ease each student’s personal transition into our community and guide students through academic and career-planning decisions. Each student brings a different set of knowledge and experiences to their time at Maryville, and our coaches help level the playing field and navigate their educational journey. We attribute this extra layer of support as a key factor in our 94-percent retention rate.

Creating a customer service-oriented culture

There’s an unacceptable attitude in higher ed that tends to dismiss the quality of the student experience outside of the classroom, particularly regarding administrative tasks and needs. Students enter college with one perception of what customer service should be, based on interactions with brands that have mastered customer service, like Apple and Amazon. Then, at many institutions, they find themselves waiting for hours to get their student ID or making four different calls to four different offices just for an answer to a basic question. This is not acceptable. Our job as educators is to make sure everything inside the classroom is challenging, pushing students to do their best. But—and this is the key—everything else should be as easy and seamless as possible.

At Maryville, we make a point to address the priorities that fuel students’ lives. That’s why you’ll find excellent wi-fi connectivity throughout campus. We also strive to meet students where they are, delivering a level of customer service that aligns more with customer expectations and prioritizes ease and convenience.

One of our more recent innovations is the mobile “Solution Squad.” This team of customer-first staffers assist students on the spot with a variety of tasks and questions, primarily in the areas of financial aid, student accounts, and registrar services. Squad members are available in the dining hall, at the campus Starbucks, in academic building lobbies, and the library, as well as other popular, high-traffic locations. It saves students time and hassle, and it makes it easier to serve those who do need or want to meet in the office.

Delivering education and job placement for the emerging digital transformation

Higher ed may be centuries old, but our methods cannot be. The ways we approach teaching, learning, and career preparation must prime students to enter the workforce and contribute immediately—and far into the future. Among other things, we need to acknowledge that students today have access to a previously unfathomable amount of knowledge, long before they enter our doors.

It’s not sufficient to provide a one-way delivery of content via lectures.

Educators must move from being oracles of knowledge to facilitators of a student’s individualized learning journey. Through our Digital World program, all traditional, full-time undergraduate students receive a free iPad loaded with over 150 learning apps, equipping them to engage in the learning process based on their individual learning style. Dedicated faculty members serve as their guides.

Related: How to run a successful 1:1 program in higher ed

In this digital transformation age, we have a wide breadth of technology and tools to support these journeys, but we’re aiming beyond just digital literacy. Instead, we’re helping students work toward digital fluency, or a deep understanding of the growing digitization of our personal and professional lives and how one can use these tools to shape their lives and their communities for the better.

We also partner with corporations and professional organizations to co-develop curricula laser-focused on industry needs and student outcomes. In addition, corporate partnerships allow us to facilitate hands-on working experiences while students are pursuing their degrees. As a result, employers tell us that our graduates enter the workforce ready to make meaningful contributions. The numbers bear this out, as we maintain a 97-percent job placement rate, delivering on the promise we make students at the outset of their journey.

Maryville continues to grow in this era of change because we have created an environment that welcomes students into our community, delivers the forward-looking education they seek, and provides the multifaceted support they need to live and thrive as they learn. I hope to see an industry-wide embrace of the opportunity in front of us to improve and modernize the student experience.

About the Author:

Mark Lombardi, PhD, has served as president of Maryville University since 2007. In that time, Maryville has achieved unprecedented growth and earned national distinction for leading an exciting revolution in higher education.


Add your opinion to the discussion.