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Proof of Life

With the new customer-oriented technology, Student Lifecycle Management, one vendor is making it easier for schools to give students what they want.

By Matt Villano

Customers are a demanding bunch. Each has different needs and, universally, customers expect top-notch service for the duration of their relationships with a particular company. Sometimes they want a great deal of attention. Other times, they want none. Keeping these desires straight can be challenging for even the smallest organization; for those with thousands of customers, the task can be downright impossible.

Within the past decade, vendors have developed an enterprise-level strategic approach to make this process a little easier. The approach, dubbed Customer Relationship Management (CRM), focuses on creating and maintaining lasting relationships with customers. In the corporate world, the best of these approaches are integrated from one end of a business to the other, including marketing, sales, and service.

In higher education, however, where the only “customers” are students, the notion of managing relationships is a little different. Once colleges and universities create relationships with students, they must nurture them to matriculation and maintain them well beyond that. The end-to-end components of this approach include recruitment, admissions, enrollment, student services, and alumni relations, to name only a handful of functions.

But, for years, colleges and universities interested in CRM were forced to purchase off-the-shelf software packages designed for corporations, and retrofit them for academia. Now CRM strategy has come to higher education, in the form of a strategy known as Student Lifecycle Management, or SLM.

SLM is nothing new; for years, vendors have offered solutions that track customer relationships in specific areas such as recruiting, student services and alumni relations. Today, however, with a new SLM solution from Oracle, colleges and universities can connect with student customers at every point of the lifecycle.

SLM from Oracle, technically known as Enterprise Campus Solutions, is a suite of applications that enables a school to attract the right students, keep them engaged, and stay in touch with them after graduation . All the while, the software culls data. And according to Curtiss Barnes, the vendor’s senior director of industry product strategy, customer institutions can manipulate and utilize that data to gain valuable insights about how to serve their students better over time.

“W hat you are doing with this system is creating a dialogue so you can get a more powerful relationship with each of your users ,” he says, noting that the entire suite d'es not have to be deployed to achieve this result; schools can sign up for different modules and deploy them as needed. “When that relationship gets stronger, everybody benefits—both the student and the school.”

Getting to Graduation

With 23 schools across the Golden State, the California State University (CSU) system has experienced some of the benefits of SLM first-hand. The system—the largest of its kind in the US—deployed Oracle’s SLM solution last year after confronting some sobering statistics about the time it took CSU students to graduate. These stats indicated that only 25 percent of the system’s freshmen were graduating in four years. Clearly, something had to be done.

That’s when Mike McLean, CSU’s senior director of common management systems, got involved. McLean dug around a bit and learned that the system itself was partially responsible for students taking so long to finish school. For starters, the CSU system was not offering the right classes at the right times. To make matters worse, advisors weren’t effectively communicating to students which classes they needed to obtain their degrees.

“We had situations where many students were far into their college program before they understood what were the specific requirements of their major,” says McLean, who notes the CSU system has more than 400,000 students overall. “By the time they understood, it they didn't have much time to catch up, and so it took them even longer.”

CSU turned to Oracle’s SLM solution to turn things around. With the help of regular degree audits, the school has been able to chart which classes are required for each major, enforce policies discouraging course changes, and provide roadmaps for students throughout the year. The system also has made this information available to students 24/7 via a new Web interface, and will get involved when students are in danger of slipping up.

It’s still too early for McLean to glean a specific return on investment (ROI) from the project, but he says students on at least three of the system’s campuses have reported overall satisfaction with the new approach and are moving through the system at a faster pace. Over time, he adds, less schooling will mean lower cost for students and parents alike—a benefit that’s bound to keep CSU “customers” and their families satisfied.

“We are finding out that just addressing the problem seems to help solve some of it,” says McLean. “Even if you don’t have all the software in place, just the awareness that we are trying to do better on graduation rates helps to improve it.”

Improving Retention

Technologists at DePaul University, a 23,000-student Jesuit institution in Chicago, have experienced similarly positive results using the SLM solution toward a different goal. There, the problem was retention of at-risk students. Those struggling students who didn’t just give up and drop out were transferring to other, less-demanding Chicago-area colleges, and receiving their degrees elsewhere. In all, about 275 students fell into this group.

The reasons for this trend were many. First of all, the school lacked any kind of program to help at-risk students. Many DePaul students are commuters, and some were having trouble juggling family responsibilities with academic ones. Toward the beginning of last year, DePaul unveiled a formal program to help these students stay afloat. The initiative, Students Together and Reaching Success (STARS), was built around SLM.

“STARS is designed to help students adjust and have positive experiences in their first year,” says Audrey Bleds'e, the school’s CRM craft lead and the person in charge of administering the program. “By matching at-risk students with peer mentors who can monitor their progress and help them set goals, we are trying to stay involved during the most critical periods, and keep them in school.”

The STARS program revolves around a series of e-mail communications. The first note g'es to students, and is a survey designed to identify those students who are experiencing stress. A second e-mail g'es out to program administrators, providing information about at-risk students and what is causing them to falter. A third set of e-mails (actually, e-mail newsletters) is sent to students to inform them about where they can get help if they need it.

So far, at least according to Bleds'e, the program has worked wonders. DePaul reports a 4 percent lift in the retention of STARS students, and, more impressively, a 50 percent response rate to the e-mail campaign. Perhaps more importantly, other departments within the school are taking notice, and have contacted Bleds'e about how they can use SLM to establish closer bonds with their students, as well.

“The word has been spreading,” Bleds'e says. In particular, She notes that representatives from the university’s Kellstadt Graduate School of Business and the School of Education have contacted her for SLM help with course planning. “We are excited that DePaul, as an institution, is really focused on the acquisition and retention of our students.”

What’s Next

SLM is so new that the parameters and limitations of the strategy are still being defined. Sure, it can help schools recruit students, retain them, and forge lasting relationships, but even the folks at Oracle admit that currently, the technology to support the paradigm is standalone and module-oriented. As the solution changes over time, Barnes says academic technologists can expect it to become more tightly integrated with ERP solutions in a centralized approach.

This evolution will make it even easier for schools to adopt SLM. Currently, subscribers must purchase separate silos for recruitment, admissions, graduation and alumni relations. Over time, however, Barnes says all of these applications will be contained in one basic SLM program that integrates with Oracle’s ERP solution and third-party analytics programs for seamless management of “customer” relationships across the board. Administrators do not have to wait for full integration in order to see marked student lifecycle management improvement. They can realize great improvement now, and upgrade to receive integration improvements later.

“From our perspective, SLM will take broader CRM capabilities and tune them to incorporate a host of higher education-specific business requirements such as online support and help desk capabilities,” he says. “Ultimately, we see this as a fully integrated solution capable of serving the entire academic enterprise.”

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