Having a competitive edge, being able to differentiate one’s educational product or degree from other institutions has become the driving force for many universities and colleges. To thrive in an educational environment of dwindling student numbers and unstable revenue sources, higher education institutions have turned to aggressive marketing strategies focused on the institution’s value propositions. Most higher education institutions use some flavor of student-centricity as their value proposition – the student experience, student outcomes, student learning, or the institution’s support of the student. However, are universities set up to set up to really fulfill this proposition? How do they know – even measure – the return on investment (ROI) to current and future students? Student satisfaction research by Destiny Solutions in their 2017 Year in Review finds:
- 44% of American students said they would have had a better experience if they could interact digitally with their university;
- 47% of students expect administration to be easier to manage, given the fees they pay;
- 33% of American students said poor administrative systems negatively affected their view of the university; and
- 33% of students are frustrated by the paperwork and the complexity of institutional administration.
These are some pretty significant gaps, considering the price point of the product Universities are selling. Given the long consumer life cycle and the vetting that goes into the selection process (for most students), one would expect these numbers would be much lower. One would expect satisfaction levels to be quite high.
In conversations with higher education constituents across the country, this multi-faceted problem is deeply rooted in technology and process challenges. While not as flashy as a new building or getting picked up as earned media through a press release, colleges and universities must increase their investment in their IT infrastructure (and, not just servers and band aid solutions). In the Age of the Consumer, corporations have managed the shift by recognizing the role the consumer plays in the sales process, and meeting the consumer where they are. In the educational environment, student information systems are lagging in keeping up with the times. All Universities and Colleges would benefit from investing in a system that supports student/customer relationship management – a CRM. Let’s talk about why.
Relationship. Relationship is everywhere in higher education. Enrollment and admission officers work for students to feel an attachment to a University before they set foot on campus. There is relationship in the classroom, in an advising office, with administrative support, with internal communities. The list is endless, really. University retention officers know that relationship is key to retaining students through to graduation. Imagine a system where any transaction with a student is recorded, and able to be referenced to any others (covered under FERPA) who have a need to know. Knowledge transfer can happen immediately, through secure data sharing. That is the power of CRM.
Let’s look at the situation that Sally Student finds herself in. Sally is six weeks into her second semester, when she comes down with a severe illness. She goes to her advising office to explain this painful situation, where her advisor recommends she withdraw from her courses and return to school once she is well. What would happen next at your University? If the answer is something like: Sally walks a withdrawal form (paper) to her instructor(s) for a signature and then to the Registrar’s office and then to Financial Aid to advocate for a tuition refund, you need CRM.
With CRM in place, the advisor creates a case on Sally’s record. The case notifies the instructor that Sally has been advised to withdraw from her courses. The notification and approvals are routed electronically to the Registrar, who sees appropriate approvals to withdraw the student after the withdrawal period. Imagine next, Sally doesn’t need to visit Financial Aid to plead her case for backdating tuition charges; it has been notated on her CRM record that the Dean has already approved returning funds due to the seriousness of her circumstances. No one without a need to know has seen any HIPAA-protected medical documentation. Sally is able to leave the University to focus on her treatment, only having to discuss and self-disclose the severity of her illness to one person (her advisor). She is amazed at how easy the administration made it for her to take care of herself, tells others about her positive experience, and returns one year later to successfully complete her degree. She then goes on to graduate school at the same institution.
Satisfaction. Why did Sally come back, when it may have been easier to drop out entirely? Why did she tell all of her friends about her University and how much they care about her, and even return for a second credential? Because her experience was the result of an operational process centered on satisfaction. So often, experiences in higher education allow the full onus to fall on the student. For example, the student is out full tuition because they withdrew from a course 3 hours after the drop window. Or, the student fails their course because a LMS glitch ate their term paper. Yes, some responsibility must fall to the student. But, students should not be asked to jump through needless administrative hoops to earn a degree they are paying 5-6 figures for. Who would ever recommend a company whose refund policy is so complex and so strict that if you pick the wrong size widget, you’d be out $800? No one.
Efficiency of processes. If you want to know how long a task takes to complete in higher education, take the time of that same task in a corporate environment and multiple it by 1000. Why? Academics are generally more comfortable thinking, researching, thinking, researching some more, deciding, researching to be sure the decision is correct, thinking, and then communicating the decision. Slow procedures and processes are an expected and accepted reality in the academic environment. This contributes to the increasing costs of higher education. Universities pay staff to process paper, route that paper by mail carriers, have it signed by multiple administrators, and then hand enter that data back into an SIS. CRM allows for the automation and digitization of human and paper processes that take significant amounts of time, and cost large amounts of money to support. And, in doing so, it increases efficiencies in every office and process it touches.
Insights through analysis of data. At higher education institutions, critical data often is living in disparate systems. Maybe an admissions portal has some critical data, an SIS has some more, a financial system has some other important stuff, and a learning platform has yet more essential information. What do you do when you want to know how provisionally accepted graduate students with lower GPAs are performing in their coursework at mid-term, which may impact their financial options? Do you look across 5 datasets in an Excel spreadsheet? Or, access four different systems for bits of information you need to know about these students? In a CRM system, you leverage the technology and its flexible Application Programming Interface (API) capabilities to provide a window into all other systems where these datasets exist. You create dashboards – splicing and dicing the data sets – to prove or disprove a theory that low-GPA, provisionally accepted students struggle more in their first graduate level course. Data problems solved.
Financial impact. The common theme in all of the above is ultimately financial impact. Retention, efficiency, relationship, and business insights through data all contribute to the bottom line. When implemented and leveraged correctly, the ROI of a CRM is proven.
At the end of the day, CRM provides the tools for a University to meet its value propositions on student outcomes and the student experience. It helps an institution support relationships, increase satisfaction, sunset outdated processes, gain insights, and see a return of investment to improve the bottom line. If your institution does not leverage this technology, you may want to reconsider.
Michelle Littlefield, MBA
Assistant Dean of Finance and Strategy
Martha K. Wilson, Ph.D., DSW
College of Graduate and Professional Studies
University of New England