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7 Questions with Qualtrics Head of Education Lee Perlis

What constitutes student success? Traditional measurements such as enrollment, retention, and graduation rates fail to paint the larger picture of the student experience. Here's how institutions can rethink the metrics that define successful outcomes on campus.

Too often, higher education institutions and their students view "success" through a very different lens. A college or university might focus primarily on graduation rates, for example, while a student takes a more holistic view across both academic and social experiences. Ultimately, that gap in perception can hold institutions back from adapting to students' evolving needs and goals. To explore the metrics that can help higher education better understand the student experience, we spoke with Lee Perlis, head of education at experience management provider Qualtrics. Perlis has worked in the tech space for nearly two decades, starting his career at Internet2 and later working for Blackboard's public sector team and at Salesforce, where he was involved in launching the Salesforce Education Cloud. At Qualtrics, he leads the company's strategy and solutions supporting the student experience in the K–12 and higher education markets.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  

7 questions with Lee Perlis

Campus Technology: "Student experience" is a term we hear a lot lately. How would you define what that means, and why is it important in higher ed?

Lee Perlis: There are different interpretations of what a student experience might mean for different universities. But the way that I look at it is about how we make education more human. We partner with institutions to deliver frictionless experiences at the front lines, from admissions and enrollment through student success — and to make sure that what we're doing is tied back to some of the key metrics that institutions are looking to track, whether that be admissions and enrollment numbers, student retention numbers, or student satisfaction.

If you think about when a student enters college, they have a lot of expectations. And some of that comes from their consumer lives. I can go on Amazon and order something with one click, and it can be in my house in a matter of hours. When we think about student experiences on a campus, how can we remove a lot of those barriers for students when they are interacting with their institution? We want to make sure that whether they're dealing with financial aid departments, with advising, with the registrar's office, we just take all those kinds of red tape out of it, and make sure that they can get what they need in a very timely manner.

CT: Last year, Qualtrics came out with a report on the State of College Student Experience, and only 65% of the students surveyed said that their institution understands what matters to them. Why is there such a gap in understanding between university and student?

Perlis: Leaders really need to listen more critically to their students, understanding what's important, what matters, and then apply that feedback to the overall education experience. I think of that report in four buckets. One is, as you mentioned, really understanding what matters to the students, and sometimes there's a misalignment that might happen there. The second is about fostering social experiences: Some of the biggest gaps in student and administrator perspective are around that social experience, compared to other experiences that go beyond the classroom. And these social experiences have a large impact on students' level of satisfaction. This could be anything from, "Hey, I was in the dining hall and they didn't have the type of food I was expecting," to, "I got into an argument with a classmate," to, "I couldn't join that sorority that I was looking for." Third is creating inclusive environments. One of the data points from the report was that one out of three students has experienced discrimination at their institution, and students who work full-time and African American students actually experienced discrimination at a higher rate than other types of students. And then fourth, prioritizing mental health. Thirty-nine percent of students said that their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic, and almost a third of students didn't know that they have access to mental health resources on campus. And among those who were aware, 63% identified a problem with what is available. Whether you're doing really well at an Ivy League school, or you are at a smaller, liberal arts type of college, mental health is just such a concern that so many university administrators are dealing with these days — making sure that students know where to go and that administrators are able to understand where the gaps are in what they're offering versus what students are taking advantage of.

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