CRM has gotten smarter—and that’s good news for higher education

There was probably a time when the thought of treating students like customers sent a chill down your spine. It’s true that the big ERPs at institutions helped streamline processes and improve services, but CRM? That was a sales technology. A tool to help close more deals faster. It flew in the face of everything valuable about higher education.

But as technologies grew more sophisticated, CRM evolved into something a little more human. Relationship building took center stage and as higher education looked for new ways to engage students more holistically, CRM started to make more sense.

Still, while CRM has been embraced as a tool for enrollment and engagement, it has been slow to move the needle. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, only 42% of students across all institutional sectors completed their degrees in four years. And though enrollment is projected to grow 15% overall by 2025, that growth, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, will be driven by increasingly diverse, first-generation, nontraditional students who will bring new expectations—and new challenges—to the table.

The student journey is complex
We already see the change at institutions. Students today are more likely to be parents, caregivers, or employees. They are often part time or returning students, with non-traditional schedules. Financial pressures, family commitments, and varying levels of academic preparedness make the hard work of persistence and completion even harder. New studies suggest that an alarming number of students struggle to pay for food and rent.

As the challenges students face grow more complex, institutions have responded with new ideas—new digital initiatives to help deliver better, more comprehensive support; new courses and programs to meet changing workforce needs; new models of degree completion using competency-based learning and stackable credentials, and more.

Recognizing the complexity of the student journey—from enrollment to graduation and beyond—has been driving new ideas about CRM as well. Back in the day, CRM was good for handling easily identifiable customer touchpoints across the sales cycle—visiting a website, downloading literature, contacting a call center, placing an order. Shoehorning those processes into the higher education landscape worked—for a while. But as institutions seek to broaden their engagement efforts across departmental silos and deepen their responses to unique student requirements, the need for solutions to help engage students more holistically and authentically has become increasingly pressing.

From engagement to intelligence
How can I understand the full student journey at our institution—no matter how complex that journey becomes? How can I know whether my colleagues from other departments have reached out to a student and how? How can I predict when a student will need help and what interventions will be the most successful?

From recruiting to enrollment, persistence to completion, and beyond, higher education is asking harder questions. And rightfully so. Today, CRM isn’t simply about the “nudge.” It’s about how an institution demonstrates its commitment to a student—across the complex and sometimes messy moments that comprise an education. CRM, in its best incarnation, should deliver new insights into student interactions across the institution so that faculty, student services, and administrators can provide the right level of support to help every student achieve his or her goals.

That level of engagement is possible. Today, smart CRM is helping institutions engage their constituents in the ways they want to be engaged—no matter what their needs. Enterprise-wide platforms are bringing people together in new, more collaborative ways to build better interventions—no matter where those interactions happen. Tools that make better use of data from across the institution are helping institutions understand trends and predict behaviors—supporting forward-looking action. When engagement gets smart, relationships flourish. And everybody wins.

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