The Next Generation of One-Stop Student Service Centers: Part 1

May 16, 2019
  • AACRAO Publications
  • one-stop shops

By Francisco Maldonado Altieri


Almost without our realizing it, the 21st century has already reached adulthood—and, along with it, ideas and concepts—such as the one-stop shop—that once seemed innovative. But is the one-stop shop concept still valid when Millennials and Generation Z are our students? This two-part article presents the origins of the one-stop shop at the first university in Mexico to implement one, its evolution, what we learned along the way, and what we must do to meet the needs of these newest generations of students.

A one-stop shop, one-stop store, or one-stop source is a business or office where multiple services are offered—i.e., customers can get all they need in just  "one stop." The term originated in the United States in the late 1920s or early 1930s to describe a business model offering customers the convenience of having multiple needs met in one location instead of having to drive “all over town" to attain related services at different stores. The phrase, now slang, describes any circumstance where people can find most of what they need in one place.

But how, when, and why did the “one-stop shop” model come to apply to colleges and universities? Just ask college students what frustrates them most about their college experience; they’ll likely respond “the run-around!”

“The run-around” refers to the often inefficient processes by which students transact their business. Students’ frustration is often centered around critical administrative tasks such as bill payment, financial aid reconciliation, course registration, mandatory advising check-ins, and transcript or credential requests. While portions of some of those tasks have shifted to digital services, plenty of tasks still require students—at some of the busiest times of the year—to find offices they never knew existed (and that can't seem to communicate with each other), to submit the right paperwork with the right signatures, and to wait in line only to have to repeat the process in order to complete yet another task in yet another building across campus.

Since at least the 1990s, institutions have adopted more student-focused efforts to make some of these processes not only more efficient for students but also more effective for administration. One way to combat “the run-around” is to implement a central location—physical, Web-based, or both—where students can accomplish administrative tasks more efficiently and effectively. This centralized office is known as a “one-stop” student service center; it has evolved into a hive of innovation that can improve student service and institutional processes, saving time and resources, minimizing student frustration, and enabling new institutional opportunities relative to technology, service, staff development, and more.

A further benefit of the “one-stop” student service approach is that while dramatically improving students’ experience, it can also enable schools to integrate more data, more processes, and more decision makers. This can ultimately unleash more informative analytics and the realization of technological efficiencies and capabilities. A few institutional silos may even fall.

“One-stop” centers are evidence of institutions’ recognition of students’ changing needs and habits. The centers enable students to manage all of their business in one location (mirroring somewhat the process of managing tasks in industries outside of higher education). A one-stop center moves services from a process-centered approach to a student-centered approach and reduces the run-around students often experience as they navigate the business (and busyness) of college life (< student-experience>).


How to Design and Maintain an Efficient, Satisfactory Service in a One-Stop Student Service Center

We speak here of our experience. What you now read is not taken from any book or manual; it is what we have learned along the way.

We designed our one-stop shop from 1999 to 2000 and went live in 2001. During the one-stop shop’s first decade, we made several adjustments relating to matters we had not considered or foreseen. In 2010 we were finally able to offer a comprehensive service, IT driven and student satisfaction oriented.

In part one of this article, we focus on fifteen "musts" that should be considered when planning to implement and maintain an efficient and satisfactory one-stop student service center.

  • Are you already sure of it? We had to be sure that this was what we wanted and what our students needed. Once we raised expectations among students and staff, there would be no going back. Implementing almost any service—especially a one-stop shop for students—is a point of no  return. Remember that these kinds of offices are known as "hygiene" in that while they work, no one notices, but as soon as they fail or cease to exist, everyone notices.


  • Sell the idea; involve, commit, and get buy-in. Persuade various stakeholders to support the idea—especially those whose work, processes, and “power” will be affected. Integrating various services in one place somehow removes a good portion of what some colleagues understand by "power" from those who previously offered a specialized service in their own offices (hence the well-known resistance to change and its consequent obstruction by some people who feel affected). We encountered this, and not only was it not easy to overcome, but it also proved the most difficult obstacle to overcome. Even after operations in our one-stop shop started, we still encountered resistance to change. Today—eighteen years later— some people who were working during the implementation still make negative comments about the one-stop model.


  • Analyze, simplify, and connect processes. The next thing we did—the most laborious and time consuming, if not the hardest—was to analyze, simplify, and connect our service processes. Prior to the one-stop shop, each office had its own processes, requirements, documents, and even information systems. While some were linked to those of other offices or departments, they were not linked in a systematic way, which resulted in students having to make pilgrimages from one office to another to get the form or the signature that the next office required.To resolve this, we first had to analyze our processes separately, simplify them, and then connect them, all with a systemic vision. All who participated ultimately had to acknowledge that by virtue of being part of a whole (systemic vision), certain requirements and business rules were no longer necessary.


  • Design and build a strong, comprehensive database. The analysis, simplification, and connection of processes would have served little or no purpose if they had not led us to build a solid, comprehensive database that contained the information of all our students relative to the different offices that make up the one-stop shop. That is, it was necessary to include the information from the different systems and databases managed by each office in a single central database; this was also necessary for the next stage.


  • Merge or integrate student-service-related IT systems. All the requirements and validations that had to be done manually from one office to another were made directly by the system, without the need for students to go to each office to collect the required signature, seal, or authorization. The core of the design of a one-stop model is among stages three, four and five. Although it would not be impossible, it would be much more difficult to implement this service model without analysis, simplification, and connection of processes, a solid and comprehensive database, and a single system (or several, but integrated).


  • Recruit and train the right staff. At the same time, we worked on recruiting, selecting, and training the team with the right profile to give our students the service we wanted. The soul of any service is the people who provide it; a person who is not service oriented can do more harm than not offering the service at all. These positions tend to have high turnover. Even people with a service-oriented profile tend to burn out much sooner than those in almost any other position. As a result, the team requires close follow-up, motivation, constant training (primarily because of emerging technology and institutional change), dynamism in their positions that helps its members not get bored or burn out, and even a high degree of tolerance for frustration.


  • Design and develop a brand. We found it useful to create and position a brand within the institution, among students as well as academic and administrative staff. This supported the general strategy of our university as an innovative institution focused on academic quality as well as service; it also generated a sense of belonging to something greater—something more important—for the team that participated in this process (that is, those to whom we had to sell the idea).


  • Spread the news. At the same time our first self-service consultation system for students was released, we utilized the institution’s internal media to spread the word about the simplification of processes, the elimination of queues and endless visits, and systematization. In this way we were able to address people’s doubts regarding their academic and administrative information.
  • Open the door. This is the moment of truth—the moment to open the doors and start to serve students face to face. This led us to the next and crucial stage.
  • Fulfill what you promised. Since day one we have had to fulfill the expectations and promises we had generated. This is not a “single day” thing but every day, student to student, service to service, case by case. As noted above, this is a “hygiene” service: even one promise or expectation not fulfilled, whether eighteen years ago or today, is enough to undo the work of many people and a lot of time. The work is difficult, but it is necessary.


  • Measure everything that matters. From the day we started, we learned to measure everything. What is not measured cannot be managed and improved. As time passed, we learned to measure what really matters rather than absolutely everything. If even one person does not experience good service and complains about it to university authorities or on social media, it will be useless to have accurate measurements that reveal that, on average, it takes very little time to solve a problem or that we treat students well. Of course we will not reply to that person with our statistics; instead, we focus on measuring what really matters—which in our opinion is the particular experience of each customer and the resources these experiences cost us. It is also necessary to maintain balance.


  • Share the results of your measurements with whom they matter. These measurements must be shared—to celebrate what is good, to congratulate and reward, and also to correct what is necessary to. Much of this is not entirely in the hands of our team, but we can seek the solution nevertheless. For example, when it comes to something related to the systems, or when resources of all kinds are required in order to continue fulfilling our promises, we have to negotiate with whoever is needed in order to solve the problem for our students.


  • Make decisions. Even more important than measuring and sharing information is making decisions on the basis of it. Measuring is useless if it does not lead us to make decisions.


  • Improve.

    The decisions mentioned in the previous stage enable us to improve continuously. Services quickly become obsolete and have to be renewed in order to meet customers’ expectations. Students’ expectations are higher every day: as soon as they get what they expected, they raise their expectations, in such a way that the one-stop shop must improve continuously.


  • Stay student-centered. Keep the student at the center of everything, and encourage others to do so as well. This is perhaps one of the most important things we have learned. For other stakeholders as for ourselves, the temptation to put processes or systems ahead of or above the interests of students is constant. In everyday life, it is common to lose focus and look for the simplest or most efficient process. Yet the simplest or most efficient process is not necessarily either for our students. For this reason we have to be alert all the time and fight against each threat so that we—and others— keep students at the center of everything.


In Part Two of this article (C&U 94, 3), we will review topics such as the use of IT for high-quality service; who are today’s students (Millennials and Generation Zs), and what constitutes satisfactory service for them.


Francisco Maldonado Altieri is Registrar of Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), México. He has an MBA in marketing and 23 years’ experience in higher education, having served five years as Counselor for Entrepreneurial Programs, one year in recruitment, eight as Admission Officer and in student services (one-stop shop), and nine as Registrar and Director of Student Services (one-stop shop). He has attended and presented at six of AACRAO’s SEM Conferences and five of AACRAO’s Annual Meetings. He was secretary of the board of ARSEE, México (2012–2014) and is currently vice president of the board of ARSEE, México, and member of the board of directors of the Groningen Declaration Network.

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