West Virginia University On Transitioning New Student Onboarding To An Online Future

Onboarding new U.S. university students is taking on a whole new level of complexity in the pandemic era, as once in-person activities like finalizing financial aid or housing have transitioned online, says Corey Farris, dean of students at West Virginia University. In the latest Digital Consumer Onboarding Tracker®, Farris explains how tapping digital ID verification tools can help.

Universities across the U.S. got off to a shaky start as students began arriving for the beginning of the fall semester. Faculty and staff members are attempting to control COVID-19’s spread to keep everyone safe and maintain smooth operations while also managing higher online portal volumes and other troubles related to education environments’ new realities.

The pandemic has created challenges in terms of how universities can onboard new students and prepare them for the upcoming year. Large-scale orientation events meant to establish bonds among students are naturally out of the question, and universities are also having to adjust the ways they identify students or finalize their housing or student aid to suit online channels, according to Corey Farris, dean of students for West Virginia University. Much of new student onboarding, such as hosting open houses to acclimate students or having meetings to nail down financial arrangements or class schedules, typically takes place on campus.

“We had to stop [all our open houses], but we did them virtually, so we had a number of programs online to support that,” Farris said in a recent PYMNTS interview. “Then the next transition from an onboarding point comes at student orientation, and normally that is a month of daylong orientation sessions in June where students are meeting with academic advisers, they are taking placement tests, they are learning about campus resources. … We had to transition all of that new student orientation programming online.”

Moving onboarding to the digital realm means that the university has to be prepared to answer questions through these online channels as well. This is a transition that has been building for several years, Farris noted, as younger generations are often more tech-savvy than older faculty or staff. Responding to the push to take onboarding remote is therefore doubly important for universities as they attempt to get new
students settled and satisfy other members of the student body who are looking for increased digital support.

Tackling Digital Onboarding From The Top 

Onboarding an entire class of new students is no easy feat, even when conditions are normal. This is especially true for a university the size of WVU, which has an annual average of approximately 5,000 incoming freshmen. The pandemic has added a new layer of friction to what was already a complicated process, with universities shifting the onboarding process online in just a few months to ensure different programs and tools could be rolled out securely. Take housing, for example: Students are normally moved into dorms or other housing units within a two-day period, Farris said, but the university had to pace the move-in period to reduce the risk of infection. It used an online scheduling system to accommodate smaller groups of students as well as family members or individuals helping them move in.

“We had to adjust this year to not just have a two-day move-in window, but, quite frankly, a two-week move-in window,” Farris said. “It is a different type of onboarding that has been much more scheduled and regimented to make sure we are keeping our students and the family members that are coming with them safe.”

This approach permeated the rest of the student onboarding experience, with the university expanding its use of existing digital tools to provide swift aid and keep its students connected throughout the process. Another detail WVU needed to coordinate onlinewas the pickup and verification of student identification badges, for example. This is typically managed in a physical office by matching students in person to details the school has already collected. WVU tapped electronic tools to ease the friction points around doing this during the pandemic, Farris said.

“We have also asked [our students] to submit a government-issued ID [online],” he explained. “We will compare what was submitted online with the real-life ID to give them their student ID. We use some electronic tools to verify addresses and things like that.”

Many parts of the onboarding process have been conducted online for years, but the pandemic is simply accelerating their usage, Farris said. This is especially the case as digital natives such as Generation Z begin to make up a majority of the student population at many U.S. universities.

Following Gen Z’s Technology Lead 

The way students or other individuals pay is another aspect that has steadily moved online recently, Farris said. WVU has offered electronic payments for housing and other amenities for years now, though students can still choose to pay for upcoming costs on campus with paper checks. Farris said most students elect to pay digitally, however — a preference that he anticipates will become more popular as the pandemic continues.

“It is the way of the world: More of us are going cashless, checkless and things like that,” he said. “We certainly find that many of our students these days do not even have checking accounts because they have cards that are able to pay for what they need.”

Younger students’ familiarity with digital channels extends to other online tools, such as video chat systems and virtual forums that the school is harnessing to connect and onboard its students. Students are often more familiar with these tools than university staff, Farris said.

“Quite frankly, some of the biggest adjustments to online interaction have been [on our side],” he said. “The … 18- to 19-year-olds, they have been interacting on their phones through FaceTime and other apps already, and so the transition to some of these online [portals] is much more native to them than it is to me, who had to adapt and change.”

The COVID-19 pandemic did not create the need for digital education solutions, but it has fast-forwarded their uptake and use as never previously imagined. Universities must work swiftly to ensure they can keep up with both the needs and the growing expectations of a new, digital generation of students.