It’s the most wonderful time of year, she said sarcastically, not referring to the holidays. The time of year when flight plans almost certainly get changed, cancelled, or delayed. A couple of weeks ago my scheduled flight back home to Chicago from San Diego was on-time free from storm warnings or inclement weather. Then I received a text message from a friend at home asking if my flight had been cancelled, after quickly throwing salt over my shoulder and knocking on wood, I cautiously said, “no, why?” The text I received back said Chicago had been blanketed in a thick fog all day and a wave of relief washed over me. Just fog, no big deal. Planes have landed sideways to avoid the winds and pilots have slid planes across the tarmac during a snow storm, fog we could handle. Insert the appropriate rolling eyes emoji.
Shortly before boarding, there was an announcement that several passengers connecting in Chicago had their flights already cancelled. They were instructed to immediately go to a ticket counter to be rerouted. This is one of many customer-first approaches that makes me smile every time I fly Southwest Airlines. As passengers scrambled to change their flight plans, another announcement stated that the non-stop flight to Chicago was still scheduled and on-time; however, a disclaimer followed. Southwest Airlines reminded everyone that flight diverted or cancelled due to weather related events were beyond the control of the airlines. Therefore, the airlines would not be able to compensate passengers who needed to arrange additional overnight accommodations. A slight sense of dread washed over me.
After waiting another fifteen minutes, the boarding process for flight 2267 non-stop to Chicago started. As is Southwest Airline’s process, a brief 25 minutes later the plane was fully boarded, luggage stowed, and the comedic review of the plane’s safety features put everyone at ease. A short two hours into the flight, the pilots stated we were heading back to San Diego. During our brief time in the air, Chicago Midway made the call to not allow anymore flights to land due to poor visibility. The alternate was to land in St. Louis, but they did not want a plane full of people there either and cite poor weather conditions. This left 143 people logging onto Wi-Fi to try and make alternate arrangements during our return flight back to San Diego. Think of it as a really long amusement park ride with complimentary beverages, peanuts, and pretzels. As soon as we landed and pulled up to the gate, a Southwest gate agent came on board and provided detailed instructions on which ticket counter would help every passenger to rebook flights. This was not the result any of the 143 passengers wanted to deal with at 9pm on a Sunday night and Southwest knew it. Instead of throwing up their hands and telling everyone to call customer service, they communicated the realities, developed a plan, and called on every employee in the terminal to implement solutions.
This example, while a little comical, a little inconvenient, and a little unplanned, is a reminder of how thousands of students are diverted every day, left without guidance, help, or a plan. One of the biggest issues facing higher education that is rarely discussed, but has a huge negative impact, is the transferability of credits. Insert the appropriate angry emoji. Students enroll in accredited institutions that they decided best meets their learning styles, professional goals, and busy schedules. Then when life changes occur, students must adjust their educational plans. They are told, too late, that their earned credits will not transfer leaving them to start all over. They are left feeling angry and upset that they were not better informed of the possibilities or provided an alternative solution. Not only that, for students who rely on federal financial aid, they are required to take out further loans to pay for courses already completed and that should not only anger students, but tax payers as well.
As leaders in higher education are struggling to find the “big” solution that will address the overwhelming problems students face, we are missing the low hanging fruit which would increase completion rates and help students’ achieve their dreams by following Southwest Airlines’ example.
- Communicate the Realities: Southwest Airlines had already provided every passenger with their “act of God” disclaimer. They were not responsible for weather-related diversions or cancellations. They continued to proceed, optimistic that we would still be able to land in Chicago.
Higher education has a similar responsibility. Students’ plans change, that is definitely not the fault of the institution they are attending. However, students need to understand the realities of their choices to enroll in programs, to withdraw from programs, and mostly, when plans change, and they need to enroll at another institution. So often, students find out too late, that the credits they worked hard to earn do not transfer. Changed plans present an opportunity to continue supporting students.
- Develop a Plan: Southwest Airlines notified passengers as soon as plans changed. They maintained constant communication. The airlines knew that the decision to turn back was not their fault; however, that did not prevent them from developing a plan to take the sting out of cancelled plans.
Sometimes all we need is to help take the sting out of an already difficult situation, by working with students to find an alternative solution. Students are not always aware of their options and when solutions seem out of reach, we see despair turn into drop outs. Completion is not an individual institution challenge, it is a higher education problem. Institutions can take proactive steps to help students develop a plan when their life path changes including identifying those credits that can be accepted in transfer. Changed plans present an opportunity to provide an alternate path to continue supporting achievement.
- All Hands In: Southwest Airlines communicated their plan to every employee at the terminal. Each one knew they had 143 passengers who needed to be re-booked and sent on their way. Even after a long day, each employee greeted passengers with an understanding smile, apology, and understanding that we have all been there.
While the goal for every student is to support them through graduation at the same institution they started at, this tends to be the exception instead of the rule. Life has a funny way of altering our desired path. Institutions need to work together, empathize with students, and offer them a transfer solution. Changed plans present an opportunity to serve just one more student in achieving their dreams.
Winter travel, much like students’ lives, can be unpredictable and messy, but it does not have to derail progress and end in regret. As higher education seeks answers to the big issues, we can do more to take the sting out of transfer related issues if we take a page out of Southwest Airlines’ handbook—to always put people first.
How does your institution support transfer students?