Reimagining student services: Providing support in a hybrid world

How to free up more campus space for services and experiences best delivered in person.
John M. Reale, Jr.
John M. Reale, Jr.

More than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, colleges across the country are still working to establish a “new normal.” Even as on-campus instruction and operations have resumed, institutions are finding they cannot simply roll back the clock to the pre-pandemic status quo. After months of learning online, students have new and evolving expectations about how colleges and universities should operate in an increasingly digital world.

Spurred by ongoing disruptions stemming from the impact of COVID-19, many colleges are evaluating hybrid approaches that marry the best of virtual and in-person education. But the hybrid model does not need to be limited only to learning.

Student services can also be more effective as a hybrid initiative. This does not mean in-person facilities or experiences are destined to disappear completely. Far from it.

A radical redesign

It’s all about creating a more flexible and efficient system, with the use of digital tools lightening the load on campus staff, resources, and space. This enables institutions to better provide important on-campus student support services that are uniquely suited to in-person delivery, allowing them to have an even larger impact on the student experience.

The leadership team at SUNY Polytechnic Institute has been exploring such a transformation since well before the pandemic. We knew we needed a way to serve our growing hybrid student populations, and we knew digital course materials are a crucial component of improving affordability and accessibility in an era quickly being defined by virtual learning.

Over the past several years, SUNY Poly gathered feedback from students, faculty, and administrators. It became clear we needed to complement our brick-and-mortar campus store with an online course material platform.

That change meant we could radically redesign the campus bookstore and reimagine its purpose. Last year, we stopped selling physical course materials on campus altogether. Today, SUNY Poly students can easily find and purchase their course materials online, while the bookstore building serves as a central hub for a variety of services benefitting the campus community.

Initially, our decision to embrace this new bookstore model was driven by student affordability. According to U.S. PIRG, cost prevents 65% of students in the U.S. from buying all of their required textbooks. By shifting to an online storefront, we can provide students with a greater number of choices. They can select the format best suited for their learning—and financial—needs.

Our online course materials platform leverages technology to assist faculty with their adoption selections, ensuring on-time adoption submission and more prepared students. This is particularly helpful in ensuring our population of students who don’t live on campus have the same access to course materials as the students that do. Altogether, this means we can remain a trusted resource for students so they can find course materials at affordable, competitive prices.

The online course materials platform, created by Akademos, has been helpful for widening access and improving affordability for course materials, but it has also had a surprising and impactful side effect. The hybrid format allowed us to reduce the footprint of textbook sales on our campus, creating more space and capacity for critical resources best delivered in person.

Striking a careful balance

With input from several student affairs units, we completely reimagined how to make use of a high-traffic area at the heart of campus. Our campus store still maintains a well-stocked selection of the requisite branded merchandise for students, staff, and alumni. But, with the amount of space freed up by not selling textbooks, the building now also offers a dedicated location for our campus food pantry, which we are proud to offer—alongside all other public universities and colleges in New York state.

Our earlier version of the pantry was smaller and in an out-of-the-way location. We have seen foot traffic to the pantry increase significantly since moving it into the building formerly used for selling books. In addition, the building has been transformed to accommodate several offices, as well as community spaces. This will include an area devoted to our campus e-sports team, where they can gather, play video games, and recruit new members. Our students approached the auxiliary services with a request for such a space, and, thanks to our new hybrid model for the store, we were able to happily oblige.

Space is increasingly a sought-after commodity on college campuses, but it may not have to be much longer. In an analog world, the mailroom has to be the mailroom. The bookstore has to include physical books.

But in a digital and hybrid world, this can change. Certain resources can easily become digital, and may even be improved by doing so. This in turn frees up more space for services and experiences best delivered in person—like academic support, food and other basic needs assistance, and †‹†‹places where students can gather and interact with one another after such a long time apart during the pandemic.

By striking a careful balance of digital and in-person resources, institutions can design a new hybrid student experience far better suited for the varied needs of today’s students.

John M. Reale, Jr. is the executive director of auxiliary services for SUNY Polytechnic Institute.

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