Our recent survey of students at more 300 colleges and universities about campus mobile apps revealed a strong interest in schools improving student communications. In fact, students ranked different communications tools as second, third and fourth in importance in a campus app. (See here for more on student priorities.)

We found this surprising. Schools primarily communicate with students via email, and email can be accessed and read anywhere, on mobile devices and laptops.

So we looked into the state of campus communications, starting with the IT professionals at the 150+ colleges and universities that have partnered with us.

They confirmed that the channel that is used most frequently for student communications is email. They also told us it’s no longer working very well.

The deepening problem with email.

Looking further, we learned that the email problem is pervasive in higher education. In one recent study reported in Inside Higher Ed, researchers at Bowling Green State University found:

  • 54% of students don’t always read emails from their university, including academic departments;
  • 39% don’t always read emails from their academic advisors!

Email is no longer the reliable channel it once was. What’s going wrong? First, schools send a lot of it. At Michigan State, for example, administrators discovered that 12 of the school’s divisions each sent more than 400 emails to students – more than 4,800 in total – in a single school year. That kind of volume is undoubtedly common at many schools, and can quickly become overwhelming.

student communications

Even more fundamentally, though, today’s students are simply less interested in and attentive to email than their predecessors, regardless of its source. As one history professor recently lamented in a blog post:

“Getting students to check their Gmail or other private email accounts for important class information is difficult enough. Getting most students to even activate their university-sponsored email addresses can be next to impossible nowadays.”

Real consequences for higher ed.

For colleges and universities working to increase student engagement, improve retention and support student success, the consequences of the deepening failure of email communication are real. If a school can’t reliably communicate with students, engagement will suffer – and it is:

  • 77% of students feel disconnected
  • 76% of student attrition is due to poor academic customer service

What’s more, the declining interest in email among students is likely to continue and worsen. It’s widespread and generational – as Forbes makes clear in a short piece about Generation Z, who comprise today’s students:

“They find email an outdated communications method, and are 3x likelier to open a chat message received through a push notification.”

This finding confirms the seriousness of the email challenge – and also makes clear the motivation behind the interest we found in our survey regarding student communications in a campus app.

Students aren’t interested in making access to email more convenient on their mobile devices. They want to shift away from email, which doesn’t work for them, and move their important school communications to the mobile channel that they use regularly, and rely on constantly.

Rx for better engagement: better student communications.

For schools, it may be somewhat reassuring to learn that emails are being neglected simply because they’re emails, and not because students are uninterested in the important academic, financial and other information they convey.

Moreover, while email is unquestionably losing its effectiveness as a student communication channel, it will remain workable for some time to come. Students will still see most emails, at least in the near term.

Still, like the canary in the coal mine, these findings are a warning that universities should start looking at new channels to ensure they can continue to reach students reliably and effectively.

Students  themselves have suggested where to look: toward personalized notifications delivered through your campus mobile app for outbound messages, and to mobile-based response options like chat  that provide two-way communications.

Now is the time to start investigating your options. By implementing a way to leverage the mobile channel for student communications, schools can assure that students are receiving vital information, which will improve student engagement and ultimately retention.



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