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Increasing student engagement and long-term success

Developing a research-based strategy for digital experience at a community college

community members served
Example app screen or experience mapping artifact

CLC wanted to increase engagement among prospective and first year students by reimagining the digital experience from inquiry to on campus.


A cohesive digital engagement strategy informed by real student experiences and expectations on campus and across digital touchpoints.


CLC clarity about what drives student enrollment and long-term success, and redesigned the college website and student portal to provide a reimagined digital experience.

College can be a disorienting time for students, and having structure and clarity about how to progress towards their goals can make a tremendous difference in each student’s success.  A harmonious, unified school engagement and learning experience helps students to stay in school, achieve success, and gain self-efficacy. When lacking,  structure and processes can negatively impact student learning outcomes and academic performance. 

This was the situation for the College of Lake County’s (CLC), a Chicago-based higher ed institution. They knew they needed to adapt and transform their digital strategy to support prospective, first-year, and current students in reaching their educational goals, but needed help from Highland to understand how.

The Challenge: Disengagement among college students

The website, student portal, on-campus events, classroom activities, and legacy information system were all factors impacting students’ engagement or disengagement. But why? CLC needed a critical thinking approach and assessment of the student experience to understand underlying barriers. The analysis would inform an updated digital school engagement strategy that better enabled students’ academic achievements and success.

Learning about staff and student perceptions

Highland started with three questions: 

  1. Where is value being delivered? 
  2. What’s blocking students from accessing that value?
  3. What’s blocking faculty from delivering that value? 

These questions launched a discovery phase using mixed methods, including contextual inquiry and in-person interviews.

We put ourselves in the shoes of CLC students:

  • We registered for and attended student orientations and classes.
  • We interviewed students individually and in small groups to understand different viewpoints and experiences.
  • We assessed educational technology, student learning activities, and interactions between students and educators.

The goal was to assess multiple touchpoints across the student journey to uncover gaps and issues driving disengagement.

From there, we developed co-created journey maps, ecosystem maps, information architecture, and an inventory of tools to build a comprehensive view of the student journey and the school’s educational practice.

“I think doing the strategy work with a visionary kind of organization like Highland will really pay dividends for us as a college in terms of future enrollments and in terms of our student and customer success.” Greg Kozak, CIO at College of Lake County

Barriers to meet student feelings and goals

Research revealed a complex constellation of CLC’s existing software systems and learning environments.

While substantial efforts were being made to enable effective student learning communities and engagement, students were experiencing friction points and redundancy - all contributing to student frustration, confusion, isolation, and disengagement.

Students reported digital, economic, and cultural barriers when navigating the school’s various resources, including the website, student center, student portal, and the orientation and enrollment process. Some undergraduate students even said they found the enrollment process so difficult, they questioned whether higher education was right for them.

These maps enabled CLC and Highland teams to capture the staff and student voice and further understand feelings, goals, and intrinsic motivations -- leading CLC to newfound ways to reach those motivations and foster engaged students.

Redesigning the experience for student engagement

With a better conceptualization of staff and student needs, CLC was empowered to take action and form a more positive relationship across all student touchpoints. They now understand where additional touchpoints could dramatically impact student engagement before students began to lose momentum.

Every school needs tailored student engagement strategies and systems, and all stakeholders must feel aligned with the new path forward.  

Through a collaborative learning process among internal and external leadership—and students—we mapped previously disjointed journeys into a guidebook for the school. CLC now feels confident in knowing what drives student performance, engagement, and long-term academic success.

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