Six Sigma is a process improvement methodology that improves higher education institutions by streamlining enrollment processes, administrative processes, and improving student satisfaction.

In part one of this three-part series, we’ll cover:

What is Six Sigma?

  • What are the principles of Six Sigma?

Why does higher education need Six Sigma?

How does Six Sigma apply to higher education?

  • Streamlines the enrollment process
  • Improves student satisfaction and learning outcomes
  • Develops efficient administrative processes

Read Part 2 & Part 3


What is Six Sigma?

Simply put, Six Sigma is a methodology that improves organizational processes by streamlining operations, improving quality, and reducing defects in order to increase profitability.

Six Sigma literally means, “six standards of deviation,” and in manufacturing the goal is to strive for the complete elimination of defects when compared with the mean. Six Sigma’s DMAIC mode of action (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) seeks to improve existing processes that may be falling below specification and looks for ways to make incremental improvements.

Six Sigma’s goal, therefore, is to improve quality by identifying defects, establishing their cause, and improving processes to increase the repeatability and accuracy of results. By promoting efficiency and reducing defects, companies can improve quality and save time. They can deliver better products, which can contribute to increased engagement and confidence among employees. When that happens, the company’s bottom line is strengthened so as to better help drive it toward the top. 

Originally formulated at Motorola and taken up with gusto by General Electric (GE), Six Sigma has been credited with saving companies billions of dollars by helping them reduce errors and increase efficiency.  

Once leaders in industries beyond manufacturing saw how well Six Sigma was doing with GE and others, they sought ways to apply its principles to their own industries, notably service and healthcare. Now, it is making improvements in an unexpected place – higher education.

Why Does Higher Education Need Six Sigma?

At first, education and Six Sigma may seem mismatched. Fear not, academic friends! We know that most instructors provide intangibles of far greater value than can be measured by course evaluations, student satisfaction surveys, or alumni salary reports.

Many areas of higher education, however, can respond well to the Six Sigma methodology. Quite a few of the activities that allow colleges and universities to educate their students are repeatable processes that can benefit from applying Six Sigma principles. After all, we are always seeking ways to improve the way we serve students.

The need for Six Sigma in higher education continues to grow as institutions adapt to the greater demands for efficiency and quality caused by a number of factors:

  • Government pressure on public institutions to improve student performance has increased, even as states across the country have cut budgets over the past several decades.
  • The current economic model has resulted in enormous generational differences in real tuition costs. Students and their parents have therefore learned to expect more from the coursework and amenities that colleges offer.
  • Global competition has only grown more intense, making it crucial for students to achieve academic success.

We understand the pressures that come with personal and institutional change, many of which were amplified by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As higher education moves forward, it will want to use the best tools it can to create the best outcomes for students and society. 

How Does Six Sigma Apply to Higher Education?

A wise former university administrator from an Ivy League school once told me, “Universities don’t exist to create jobs for administrators.” He explained that he always kept in mind that his job, and the job of anyone in admissions, registration, finance, catering, and custodial services, was ultimately to make it easier for students to connect with the right instructors and right research resources. A successful college or university is one where the students can focus on learning and the teachers, enriched by their own research, can focus on teaching.

As implied above, not every activity that goes on in a university is as well suited to the Six Sigma principles as others. Below are three areas of higher education that can benefit from carefully following Six Sigma’s methodology of defining, measuring, analyzing, improving, and controlling.

Streamlines the enrollment process

It’s important to keep in mind that the enrollment process is a key part of improving student satisfaction, the institution’s overall efficiency which impacts revenue and operational expenses. Institutions need a streamlined enrollment process that’s controlled and efficient.

Before education begins at the institution, students have to be registered and placed in a classroom, either physical or virtual or both. This process is hindered with inconsistencies and unnecessary inconveniences to students and teachers. Using Six Sigma, institutions can address such drawbacks by identifying what’s working and what can be improved to keep the academic engines of your school running at full capacity. By identifying issues, schools are able to improve and better control enrollment processes, which ultimately drives efficiency for the institution and improves student satisfaction. 

Improves student satisfaction and learning outcomes

The Six Sigma principles, well employed, can indirectly empower students to achieve their best. With the right advice from the right academic advisor at the right time, a whole new world can open up, and students may see a direction that they vaguely wanted to follow but did not realize was actually possible. Six Sigma can help schools create the process whereby these crucial connections happen for every student. For teaching, it can help schools choose the right faculty members, fairly distribute service work, and better organize tenure and promotion procedures. It can even help schools do better benchmarking to identify and implement the best practices of other institutions. 

Develops efficient administrative processes

While the university’s mission does not include creating jobs for administrators, it simply could not function without good ones. The processes these administrators count on must run smoothly and efficiently interact with each other.

Six Sigma principles can reduce variations and improve efficiencies in key areas such as:

  •   Admissions
  •   Implementing learning technology
  •   Recruitment
  •   Information Technology
  •   Certification
  •   Grant Administration
  •   Building and equipment repair and maintenance
  •   Procurement 

As parents, students, governments, and global economic conditions continue to place more pressure on those whose task it is to improve higher education, educational institutions may find the Six Sigma methodology helpful at overcoming the challenges of now and the future.

In part 2 of this series, we detail how institutions can apply Six Sigma to streamline technology implementation. From evaluation and decision-making to implementation, training, and integration with existing technology – Six Sigma can drive efficiency at all levels.

Read Part 2 of this series: Streamline technology implementation with Six Sigma

Read Part 3 of this series: What does online proctoring and Six Sigma have in common?


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