How higher ed is using data to better serve students and engage alumni

At the start of each school year, colleges and universities want to ensure they are “sold out” with students who will pay tuition, attend classes, live in university housing, and participate in campus life. The long-term aim is for those students to graduate, secure good jobs, and eventually do their bit donating back to their school.

Historically, tracking the outcomes of those goals and allowing students to manage all aspects of campus life in one place has been a challenge. Academic institutions have been known to resist change and embrace progress slowly, rather than jumping quickly on the next big thing. While the cautious approach can have benefits, it’s not effective for university IT departments that have to process increasing amounts of student and alumni data, and satisfy their digital-native student bodies.

Imagine the path of Alice, a freshman entering a small liberal arts college. The school has data on her education history, interests and skills, potential career path, financial standing, and demographics. On move-in day, Alice expects her housing, class schedule, parking information, meal plan, grades, and financial aid to be accessible through one online portal. She also expects to be able to make changes to any of these with one click.

Jump ahead four years, and Alice will graduate and move to another city. Will she attend alumni events? Donate money to her alma mater? If the school’s systems don’t recognize her as the same nervous freshman from four years earlier, alumni officers will struggle to keep her engaged with the goings-on in her former department or the school’s latest research initiative.

Data can solve these problems, and IT departments are starting to act in the face of pressure from students to modernize, and a funding pinch that’s forcing them to be more efficient. Schools now rely more heavily on data analytics to predict what courses they should offer, the emerging fields students will want to enroll in, and more.

Forward-thinking institutions are modernizing their infrastructure and applying data analytics in four key areas:

1. Class scheduling, housing, and other student needs
Today’s incoming college students were not alive during the 20th Century, yet much of the infrastructure running their schools is older than they are. These students demand a single source of truth to track the many pieces of their higher ed experience, and universities see direct benefits from providing this.

As part of a broader initiative to replace its Student Information System and ERP system, Bowdoin College is integrating data from its critical HCM, ERP, SIS, housing, parking, and alumni apps. Berklee College of Music took on a similar, but unique, challenge: integrating the data of two schools as it merged with the Boston Conservatory. In both cases, integrating data allows the schools to provide the type of information experience today’s students expect.

2. Alumni engagement and fundraising
It’s crucial for schools to track students’ journeys from freshmen to graduating seniors to alumni. Smith College–a school with fewer than 2,500 undergraduates–has 55,000 alumni in 120 countries, who the college relies on as ambassadors to instill and continue the school’s pride and education legacy beyond graduation.

It’s a challenge all universities face: each year, the number of alumni who are also potential donors and ambassadors increases by hundreds or thousands. Smith took charge by investing in data integration to connect faculty, student, and alumni data, giving it a more comprehensive way to reach out to its alumni and increase fundraising opportunities.

3. Financial aid
As student loan debt balloons into a financial crisis in the U.S., it’s ever more urgent for incoming students to have a clear picture into how much they’re borrowing, and from whom. Private and government loans, grants, and scholarships can come from an array of sources with no connection to one another, but data integration can help schools summarize and share it with students.

After updating its legacy technology system, Boston University–a 180-year-old institution–integrates data and applications twice as fast to automate important processes including financial aid. This removes hurdles that students, staff, and faculty previously faced with the university’s aging data architecture, streamlining the experience on both sides.

4. Predicting what’s to come
As colleges and universities synthesize more data on students, faculty, and alumni, there’s no telling what breakthroughs could come next. Determining what courses students will want to take in a few years based on historic patterns, what time of year alumni are most likely to donate, or how schools can better support students with financial aid are just a few areas in which data integration and modernization will lead centuries-old institutions into the 21st century.

Today’s incoming college freshmen were six or seven years old when Apple released the iPhone–most don’t remember a world without it. They use collaborative tools like Google Docs for schoolwork and rely on services like Spotify to access the world’s entire music library. It should come as no surprise that they expect a similarly modern experience from their colleges and universities: powerful tools that allow them to track and manage their school lives in one place. Competition for students is fierce, and IT departments can play a central role in drawing them in and keeping them engaged long past graduation. CIOs at universities and colleges should take full advantage of the world of data.

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