Chapter 6


Student Services:  Innovative Systems from Acceptance to Graduation


Sharon Drury, Ph.D, Tom Griffin, DBA, and Audrey Hahn, M.S.


The systems that support adult students are different from those that traditional-aged students need, thus it requires innovative departments to meet this challenge. Admissions and registration units typically deal with issues involving customer service, student records, academic policy, computer hardware and software, privacy and security, and public relations. In adult programs, the student service departments provide these services, while listening to both external and internal customers (through student and faculty feedback), using effective customer service principles that adults have come to expect in the workplace, and encouraging productivity among the hourly staff by being a fun place to work. Leaders of these departments continually remind the staff of the unique mission of providing a second chance for adults to earn a degree. The guiding principle for adapting services for adults is to not just make the students happy, but to give them the tools they need to succeed and graduate as lifelong learners. 

The following sections cover the variety of systems at Indiana Wesleyan University which provide for serving adults in higher education.


1.  The Cohort Model Works

The cohort model forms the basis for an extremely important concept in the College of Adult and Professional Studies at IWU. Whenever 15 students in a particular region are ready to start an academic program, a cohort group is formed. This not only provides economies of scale that traditional programs can seldom reach, but also enables us to spend our resources on providing convenient services for busy adult students.  For example, students do not need to wait in line to register for classes—and sometimes find them already filled.  They do not have to find their own textbooks, nor attempt to find their faculty advisor in his/her office before registering for their next class.  Instead, they know the complete price of their degree program up front, books are delivered directly to them, students can focus on one subject at a time in the lock-step core, they have the support of the same students in each class, and each adult can anticipate when to plan a week or two of vacation the following year.

For the administration, the cohort model provides an opportunity to register students efficiently and budget effectively.  When students call and identify their cohort group number, it enables the staff to serve the students with a host of information readily available, e.g., what faculty member they have currently, where they meet for classes, and how close they are to graduation.  With that in mind, it becomes much easier to provide effective service for adult students.


2. Admissions Procedures

While enrollment management is covered in another chapter, the actions and goals there are intimately connected with the systems in a Student Services department.  Since one of the key concepts in most adult admissions processes is to “strike while the iron is hot,” turn-around time from the application process to starting class is best when it is shortest—ideally 60 days. For an adult to return to school, a strong individual commitment is required--without the advantage of group pressure that high school or even residential traditional campuses provide. Therefore, once an adult makes the big decision to return to school, it is extremely important to provide the most efficient route possible for them to get enrolled.  The average adult has so much going on in his/her life, that if they don’t start classes soon after they decide where to attend, something is likely to happen in their workplace or homes to interrupt their good intentions. Admission requirements and pre-requisites must be clearly and simply stated in all materials associated with a particular degree program. 

While a quick start is desired by most adult students, the faculty often want a process that admits only “college material” into their classrooms. To meet this need, some programs are finding ways to help with remediation in the form of self-tutoring software in the early courses of the degree program, or as pre-requisites for specific courses later in the program.


3. Academic Advising & Mentoring

Full-time professional Advisors seem two work best with adults, versus asking the faculty to advise students on their program requirements. Scheduling appointments—either face-to-face or virtual interaction—fits better with the working adult, because they do not reside on or maybe even near the campus. Instead, adult focused institutions automatically assign the adult student to an Advisor according to their class location when a student is officially accepted. Masters-prepared Advisors are hired with the expectation of traveling 1-2 days per week to cover their various locations across the state. Students in undergraduate degrees (program with elective options) are required to meet with their Advisor before entering the program, or within the first several courses so they can be advised on their options for degree completion requirements. If transfer credit is an option for a graduate-level program, it is limited to a few courses and these must be  approved by faculty in the academic department. Online students are individually advised as well, via phone, email, and through a student services website. 

Advisors also serve as the primary "customer service" contact person for students enrolled in the University.  Advisors make themselves available via phone and email, and in person to talk about individual concerns, or will help the student get in contact with the appropriate person for other issues.  After the initial appointment, Advisors also visit the various class sites in their caseload area for general contacts.  Advisors are an advocate for the student and an advocate for the University, which requires a delicate but necessary balancing act.  However, adult students, more than traditional aged students, will recognize the efforts Advisors put forth to help them work out a plan for degree completion.  Here is a sample quote received by a full-time academic advisor at IWU: “Each person I have dealt with has been nothing but encouraging and helpful.  My advisor has gone the extra mile to not only answer my questions, but to foresee some other questions and have the answers ready.”


4.  Registration Systems

Core Programs

To provide a quick turn-around for the adult student who decides to return to school, Student Services works with the marketing offices to prepare the information needed for new class starts.  A modification of the registrations system software was required to handle non-term based registrations, instead of the traditional Fall and Spring class starts.  New cohorts begin as soon as there are enough to start a cohort group for a particular degree program.  The marketing office gives a final list to the Enrollment Specialist no later than 4 pm the day before a new group starts.  No additions are to be made after this point.  Admission Specialists approve each person, making sure the student is accepted, and that there are not financial holds.  Class rosters are distributed the day of the cohort start to all offices needing this information.  In some cases, rosters may be needed early in the day for materials to be delivered to more distant locations or to make Blackboard preparations (for online cohorts).

Registration for the entire core program (major) is conducted at the beginning of the first class workshop. This procedure lasts for about 30 minutes, when students review and sign payment agreements (including a financial aid orientation), the registrations forms, and complete entrance surveys. A start packet and the books for the course are distributed to each student. A power point presentation about the University is also a part of this first evening workshop. Books are delivered during each course for the upcoming course in a lock-step core program.  For stand-alone electives, books are mailed to the student’s home address.

Follow-up procedures are done the day after a cohort start.  This insures that all information is accurate.  Students are registered for all core courses after matriculation.  During the first class session, the students will have signed a registration form that covers all the classes in the lock-step program.   This happens along with an orientation to the program and the University.  The student's signature on this one form enables the staff to batch register the entire cohort group for the whole degree program.  After this automatic registration process, an official roster is then distributed.  An important piece to success in registration processes is the ability to automate the student information system to batch as many processes as possible (e.g., registration, section creation, etc).

Individual Classes

A more labor-intensive registration process takes place in order to register students for individual courses, i.e., electives, or for any changes in registration (see paragraph below).  However, even for students wanting online education delivery of courses, the process can have them enrolled and starting class in two weeks or less.  Elective registrations must be financially cleared before being processed for registration in Student Services.  Student Services is responsible to verify that the student is eligible to take the course, and the system automatically checks for repeats of courses either taken previously or brought in through transfer.

Both undergraduate and graduate electives courses are offered for students to assist them in meeting degree requirements.  Electives are delivered in both onsite and online format, but the registration process is the same.  Undergraduate electives are offered to assist students in completing their General Education and elective requirements.  However, many adult students transfer these courses in, or earn some of these credits via assessed credit (Prior Learning Portfolio or CLEP/DANTES). 


5.  Changes in Registration: Withdrawals, Re-entries, and Retention Efforts

                 When the complexities of job/family/school/health collide, the adult students needs to know there is a degree of flexibility in the system to accommodate this. Adult education programs need to continually offer options for students to “stop out” or “change programs.” Ideally, adult programs design a way for calling them back into the program as well.  Some adult programs use a Call Center approach, which have staff who call students in their first two courses just to check to see how things are going. If they raise a concern, that staffer leaves a message with the appropriate department (Financial Aid, Student Services, etc.) about it and a return call is expected within 24-48 hours. Studies have shown that this call center approach reduced attrition by 20%. 

                 IWU has full-time withdrawal/re-entry specialists who help students when they need to initiate any change in registration, whether it is a temporary or permanent withdrawal, temporarily entering another cohort to make up a class, transferring to another cohort for a better time or location, or re-entering a program after being out awhile.  Whenever a student is unsure of what type of action to take, all options are explained and explored.  Financial Aid recipients are told that any change in registration may affect their aid, and staff are ready to assist in recalculating their awards if needed.  Those students who will be out of enrollment more than twenty-nine (29) days must request an official “leave of absence” from the University.  A daily report of all registration changes are sent to all offices that need to make proper adjustments for the student.

                 Occasionally after hearing a tragic story from a student who needs to withdraw, the withdrawal/re-entry specialists will ask the student for permission to tell others in the department who are concerned for them. They also inform the appropriate Advisor to follow-up on certain situations or if there are questions concerning particular degree requirements. In all cases, a reason for withdrawal is asked and recorded. 


6.  Assessment of Experiential Learning

Since the average age of the students in adult programs is 35-40 years old, they often are eager to pursue the opportunity to earn credit for experiential learning.  Most schools with adult programs provide assistance with prior learning assessment, and someone dedicated for consultation about work experience or any number of formal or informal sources which may qualify for assessment of prior learning, and provides training for how to submit such a portfolio. Strict adherence to Council on Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and American Council on Education (ACE) standards is required.  The Coordinator will also arrange for pre-certification of other training courses and initiates corporate articulation agreements when appropriate.


7.  Career Coaching

Serving the need for job transition in a changing economy needs to be part of an adult education program.  IWU has a very popular elective course on Career Development, offered both onsite and online, where students assess their strengths/weaknesses and explore options for future career paths.  Some online life coaching is being done with adults via the Life Calling and Leadership Center at IWU. Many students, however, enroll in an adult education program because of the financial support/reimbursement of their employers (tuition assistance programs), therefore, it may be a conflict of interest for the institution to encourage career coaching for everyone in the program. Thus, we recommend career coaching be a fee for service initiative.


8.  Grades & Attendance

In order to serve a largely adjunct faculty across the nation (and sometimes overseas), grading and attendance reporting is done through the IWU Web Advisor Portal. Faculty may access course rosters through the Portal 24/7, which indicates any changes in student registrations for classes. The system for reporting absences within 48 hours of the class meeting is managed by one full-time staff person.  Appropriate effort is made to contact the student who misses more than the allowed absences to determine if the student wants to withdraw, and avoid receiving an F for the course. Grades are not process until all attendance has been recorded. 

Grades are due in the Student Services Department no later than seven days after completion of the course.  Grade reports with current and cumulative GPA are then sent to students via US mail.  Student Services personnel also track any incompletes, grade changes, probation placement and removal, and suspensions.  Strict adherence to Family Education Reporting Privacy Act (FERPA) laws is always a priority.  No grades are given over the phone and a signature is required for releasing transcripts.


9.  Graduation:  Certifying and Ceremonies

             Celebrating the completion of degree requirements with an adult student is a uniquely special time. For many families and friends, they are more than happy to travel to the University that gave their loved one a second chance to complete a degree. For others, it is a celebration with career advancement opportunities on the horizon.      

             Indiana Wesleyan University holds three commencement days per year, in April, August, and December.  Several systems are in place to assure an accurate certifying of requirements met as well as an appropriate celebration experience.  Commencement dates are set by the University several years in advance.  Students whose cohort groups ends prior to a deadline date are given that planned graduation date.  Because of the cohort model, we can anticipate the numbers at graduations ceremonies relatively well.   

                 Academic advisors provide degree audits to students throughout their course of study to ensure the student is on the right track for graduation.  Three months before their planned graduation date, students are sent an application for graduation and a degree completion evaluation form, which must be returned with their plan to earn any elective credit still outstanding. At this time, students are also sent information regarding accessing their academic attire order form and detailed information concerning the ceremonies.

                 Students are eligible to graduate if all requirements for graduation have been met one week prior to graduation.  Led by the Director of Records/Registration for CAPS , the Student Services certification process for approximately 1200 students per graduation is an intense time for this department… but the celebration day is worth it.  Most of our employees work on these commencement Saturdays, and enjoy meeting the students they may have only had contact with via phone or email.  Honor cords (for Bachelor graduates only) are presented before the ceremony. Though we experience a 20-30% absentia rate, many students and their families drive hundreds of miles to attend and celebrate with the graduate.


10.  Electronic Portfolios

        A trend in adult learning is the use of electronic portfolio technology to collect, organize, and archive student submissions. The Graduate Education Portfolio, as an example, is a validation of competencies in core expectations based on standards. Portfolio systems management is greatly enhanced by software that assists in the development of the portfolio process. It has significant economic advantage also as the internet becomes the media of exchange of documents.  Student’s can also use the archived electronic portfolio documents in post graduation presentation to current or prospective employers.          


11.  Internet-based Instruction

Internet-based learning is growing at an increasingly fast pace. Allyn Beekman, Assistant Vice President of the Adult & Graduate Division at IWU, contributed this section and expects the online education student population to exceed ground delivery of education in the near future.  The concept of any-time any-place delivery of education has market potential that cannot be ignored. Management learning systems such as Blackboard, as well as open source systems like Moodle, are being used to manage on-line courses. Based on IWU’s 10 years of experience in offering online degree programs, consider the following factors when building a quality Internet-based degree program:

  • Internet support team who provide technical and emotional support for users of internet based courses. This support team is capable of responding either by phone or electronic media 7 days a week, and currently16 hours a day.
  • An infrastructure investment that allows for virtually uninterrupted service with the security of “mirrored” internet sites that eliminate the possibility of catastrophic loss of information. The creation of a “disaster” respond plan and team is a necessity.
  • The use of an Instructional design team that assist in development and proper recommendation for techniques that are proven most effective for online learning.
  • Keep requirements for technology required by the student on the lower-end of technology development for both the computer and connection capability required.
  • Internet based orientation of all online faculty is required; evaluation of faculty by program administrators is ongoing.
  • Availability of academic support (such as an Academic Program Manager) and subsequent support systems that allow for a relatively rapid and seamless response and solution of student issues via human voice or electronic exchange – depending on student preference.
  • The availability of online support service using internet links from the course web site (e.g., library databases and other services, Chaplain services, etc).
  • Retention rates are lower for online students when there are qualified and experience facilitators, especially in the initial experience with students in online cohorts.


12.  Library Service to Distance Education Students

Web-based library service is a competitive advantage for adult students, regardless of where they attend class across the state or online. Providing adequate library services is also mandated from accrediting bodies, both regionally and discipline-specific entities that accredit programs, e.g., NCATE for education and CCNE for nursing.

To avoid disparities between on-campus students and distance education students, significant investment in electronic resources is necessary to serve the demands of students to acquire their education 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Many full-text journal articles can now be retrieved. Jule Kind, Director of Off Campus Library Services since 1994, reports that these databases are commercial products held by the University under licensing agreements with content providers, rather than databases freely available to the general public like web pages found through an Internet search engine.  

Online librarians and onsite regional library staff are typically available to support students either in live chats or face-to-face during posted office hours. In addition, students have an 800 toll free number to call or they can use online request forms for email document delivery in a 48 hour turnaround throughout the week. 


13.  Book Distribution

        Most adult students appreciate the convenience of having the books already provided for each course, versus the inconvenience of waiting in line at a campus bookstore or ordering them online. A few adult institutions lease textbooks to the student, but most schools sell the books and include their cost in a periodic tuition payment plan. Adult programs with cohorts running in various locations across the state can deliver the course materials to the classroom. The bookroom, which is located on the main campus location, or a resources department coordinates and distributes a master schedule for book deliveries to the staff at all locations. Some universities that use conference centers or other sites locations tend to mail books to minimize cost.


14.  Statistical Reports – Helping Internal Customers

In order for the leadership of this College plus other department heads to see trends and make decisions, Student Services departments produce a variety of standard reports, plus other statistical data as requested.  For example, a one-page statistical summary of students enrolled by program—compared to the previous year—is posted electronically once a month, and all of the adult College personnel can access.  Included are the number of cohort groups in each degree program, the number of students in each degree program, the number of students in undergraduate or graduate electives, the number of cites and sites where we hold classes, and the number of Associate, Baccalaureate, and Graduate degrees awarded. Other statistical information is gathered monthly for use in decision-making by administrators of the adult education programs.


15.  Chaplaincy Program

Adult students are often at serious change points in their lives, and are open to spiritual support and counsel.  The Director for Chaplaincy Program leads the training and development of the SpiritCare program.  The regional campuses have an assigned Chaplain who visits classes and is available at these building sites during the evenings.  For the more remote sites, pastors from the city where the cohort meets for classes are assigned as Chaplain for particular cohort groups. About 20 ministers are currently involved with one or more cohort groups in the state.  Devotional literature and counseling references are available for the adult students as well.  A web site with easy email connection is a convenient place where students connect with the SpiritCare Director. 


16.  Physical Site Issues

An often overlooked but significant success factor for adult learner focused institutions are the facilities surrounding an optimum learning environment. Shawn Matter, Operations Director for over 5 years, provided the advice in this section, and it is based on having evening classes from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M, Monday through Thursday evenings. The regional sites are properties built by the University. An additional 20% of adult learners attend sites such as rented conferences rooms or corporate training facilities.

  • The location of major regional centers is determined by marketing studies and includes factors that determine the maximum market exposure—typically in business parks or corporate campus type appearance and at an interstate exit that permits quick and easy access to the facility by students after work. A key issue is acquiring rights to signage for the facility as a source of inexpensive but very effective advertising of the building itself. Adults want restaurant and copy services nearby.
  • Adequate parking is crucial. The student learning centers are people intensive and are significantly higher in population density as compared to a typical office complex. A rough algorithm is 10 spaces per 1000 square foot of building. Since classes typically are held after hours of other businesses, the establishment of working relationships with the other business is usually viable. The parking area must be well lit and give the student a sense of safety as they leave classes late at night.
  • Vending operations normally serve the students’ needs at classes. Contracts allow profits to be retrieved and offset some operational expenses.
  • Study rooms are provided for Project Team meetings and student study rooms.
  • Indiana Wesleyan University has a Chapel at each site that provides the student with a quiet area to worship and pray.
  • A small library is located at each facility and is staffed by a professional IWU librarian that assists the students during the hours the building is occupied.
  • A computer lab is part of each major facility.
  • The entire site should have wireless internet access.
  • Since the building is normally used at night, the marketing of the site room for “rent’ during the day can be a profitable activity.  A Conference Services Coordinator position is typically included in the initial hires at a new location.
  • Janitorial service needs to be contracted after classes at 10 PM so that the building is in service for use for potential conferences early the next morning. Temperature and climate controls need to be accessible. Winter snow removal needs to be contracted in such a manner that the parking areas are cleared for evening classes. Rest rooms need to be well-maintained and present a corporate-type service for the adult student.  The lobby entrance area should be well-appointed for initial impression with prospective students.


17.  Connecting Students with the Home University

The Class Representative system is our best channel for connecting with cohort groups around the state.  Elected by their peers in the cohort, the “Class Rep” is a position of responsibility and respect.  They develop a phone tree for emergency notifications from the College (e.g., during a snow emergency if classes are postponed) and disseminate material sent to them for the rest of their classmates.  If central administration receives a letter from the Class Rep, it carries more weight than a solo complaint.  Class Rep Breakfasts as well as special gifts of appreciation are provided for these outstanding students leaders.   A student panel was recently held at a Program Directors’ Retreat and they asked as well as fielded many questions from the Directors.  These adults represented their cohorts well, and felt honored to take a few hours out of their day to come.  

Adults must have a Toll-Free number and online Portal to contact the Institution.  When students contact us to update addresses, phone, email, or employer info, the web site is quickly becoming the contact method of choice, this is always entered in a centralized database so that all offices have access to the most accurate, up-to-date information.  Most forms (transcript request forms, CLEP/DANTES registration forms, and email links to change addresses) are also available via a link on the Student Services website.  The marketing offices have a separate number from the rest of the College.

Class visits are always encouraged and desired by the students.  Advisors have a caseload area they cover, and often drop in before class or during one of their breaks to touch base with their advisees.  At IWU, Chaplains are required to visit five times during the program, but are also asked to help with special situations, even weddings, grief counseling, and pinning ceremonies during the closing class of the nursing program.  The IWU Alumni Magazine, called the Triangle, dedicates about 4-6 pages for articles, reports, and news from the adult students. 




The areas of academic policy and customer service are the guiding principles by which we operate each day.  Annual assessment of our goals are a part of continuous improvement in Student Services as well as in all departments at colleges and Universities.  The support received from leadership, and the dedication of support staff, are what makes it possible to keep on the cutting edge of adult education and to further the mission of higher education in America.