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Recruiting & Retention Technology

Gaining Acceptance

Gaining Acceptance The power of the web has changed the way higher education institutions handle recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and retention. Find your next yield bump here.

Back in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president and the internet was still a novelty, college recruitment was remarkably low-tech. Most prospective students visited high school guidance offices, wrote away for information about schools, attended college fairs, and visited campuses they were considering. Most admissions and recruiting activities were paper-based; student requests came in on letterhead and colleges replied with printed catalogs that cost a bundle to produce and mail.

Not surprisingly, with the rise of the internet, many if not most colleges and universities have digitized the recruitment process, and also are employing a vast array of technologies (see “Going Mobile”) to manage processes such as admissions, enrollment, and retention. Administrators may still utilize spreadsheets, but they are no longer dependent upon them; they are now happily exploiting the era of web-based student information systems, custom direct marketing projects, online scheduling software, and data-mining and analytics initiatives. The change is perhaps the best news for trees—nowadays, just about the only thing missing from these processes is paper.

Data analytics help UA determine how much time and money to spend on recruiting students from a particular region or demographic.

Webifying Operations

The most universally welcomed advances in the world of recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and retention technologies are web-based student information systems, although they are not necessarily the latest developments: Dozens of magazines (including this one) routinely report on software packages like Blackboard, Datatel, Campus Management, and more. At the University of Mississippi, for instance, officials have relied on SAP Student Lifecycle Management since 2003 to manage interactions from the moment a student is interested in Ole Miss, to the moment he or she graduates. The system enables students to complete almost every step of the student lifecycle through web-based interfaces. Specifically, they can apply for admission, register for classes, check grades, and make payments. Transfer students also can use the system to electronically switch records from their previous institutions to the new one. According to CIO Kathy Gates, the technology has streamlined processes so dramatically that student enrollment has increased in excess of 15 percent since ’03. The next phase for the university: degree audit, so students can see what classes they need to finish their degrees.


COLLEGE AND UNIVERSITY STUDENTS are on the move now more than ever. Mobile phones, Blackberrys, PDAs—you name the technology, students are using it. With this in mind, a number of higher education institutions have targeted the mobile environment as an area to extend recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and retention efforts.

Soon, with the help of TeamUp Mobile, they can truly go mobile. The company, which was founded earlier this year, offers a service through which higher education customers can keep in touch with current and prospective students via short message service (SMS) communications to mobile devices. While none of the company’s customers were live by press time, more than 40 schools had already signed up.

According to company President Matt Booth, schools will utilize these messages to communicate with students before they apply, and throughout the admissions process. Once students have enrolled, TeamUp Mobile messages will also keep them informed of events on campus. After graduation, they’ll receive messages as alumni, too.

“It’s all about marketing,” Booth says of the service, which he developed with his father. “Wherever schools want to drive student interest, we’ll send messages to that effect.”

At least for now, institutions can roll out the TeamUp Mobile model in one of two approaches: In the first, schools purchase a block of 30 SMS messages per student, for $1 to $3 apiece. In the second approach, schools offer students a monthly subscription service, through which they pay roughly $4.99 per month.

Booth says the latter approach enables schools to generate revenue from messaging, since actual costs to provide the service are a good deal less than what students would pay. In the $4.99 model, he says, $2.15 goes to the cellular carrier, and $.50 goes to TeamUp as a processing fee. The remaining $2.34 per user is pure profit for the school.

“Automating these processes eliminates the potential for human error and favoritism,” says Gates. “Students like that.” In the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, school officials have used a similar web-based system from RightNow Technologies since 2006. Their challenge: to improve the way Minnesota institutions interface with prospective students, before they’ve even applied. The system is part of the Minnesota Online website, and Kyle Snay, online knowledge and learning administrator for MnSCU, says application advisers use it to answer questions students have before they apply. From a web interface, students enter questions via e-mail, or in a chat window. From there, the staffer responds to the query in a number of ways:

First, the adviser reviews the question against an always-growing frequently asked question (FAQ) list—in actuality, a dynamic knowledge-base. If this database can satisfy a particular question, the adviser pulls the answer from there. If not, the adviser researches and answers the question personally. Prospective students also have the option to chat in real time with advisers, a service that is offered through the home page of the Minnesota Online website. While Snay says it’s still too soon to tell how the technology has impacted admissions applications or enrollment, he says students have reacted positively to the attention.

“If a student is not our student, he or she will become someone else’s,” Snay insists, noting that the technology spans 36 schools and 52 campuses across Minnesota. “Our philosophy is to give students as much of our attention and assistance as we possibly can, and hope that they choose to do their schooling with us.”

Talk about recruitment: Back in 2001, the University of North Carolina General Administration (the organization that oversees all state schools in North Carolina) teamed with Xap to launch a web portal for prospective state school students. North Carolina teens can start using the portal as early as seventh grade to collect transcripts and other materials for the application process. Funded by the state legislature, and continually improved and updated since its introduction, the program is designed to prepare students for the process of applying to college early in their high school careers. It’s the largest Xap implementation to date, and a model for other school systems nationwide. Once North Carolina students create their portfolios, they can “shop” them to any of 110 state schools.

The portal exists online here, and is branded under the College Foundation of North Carolina. The National College Access Network (NCAN) oversees the program, and Senior Consultant George Dixon says that over the last six years, participating institutions have fielded more than 700,000 applications, a “marked increase” from numbers the same schools saw in the six years prior to the portal. According to Dixon, the system works well as a recruitment tool because it gives students the opportunity to get involved in the process well before the pressure of applying mounts.

“We want to make the whole application process as painless and uncomplicated as possible,” says Dixon. “The earlier [students] start, the easier it is for them to get all of their transcripts ready, and the sooner they’ll start thinking about which schools they want to attend.”

At URI, school officials set up a warning system to alert them to online survey responses from freshmen having transition problems.

‘Mining’ for Students

More and more, schools are turning to data mining to improve the way they handle recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and retention. To wit: The University of Alabama. In 2003, when the university announced a plan to grow enrollment to 28,000 students from 20,000, school officials knew they needed to increase the size of freshman classes and keep more of those students enrolled through matriculation. Cali Davis, associate director for data analysis and specialized recruitment, was put in charge, and she turned to a number of solutions, including predictive analytics from SAS, to help the university achieve its goals.

Today, the school uses the Enterprise Miner tool from SAS to find out which prospective applicants are most likely to want to attend the university. Davis captures data on college preference, financial aid and scholarship awards, ACT and SAT scores, and in- or out-of-state residency status. This information helps the data analysis pro segment students in a variety of ways, including by state or region, so that the school can find out how best to market itself in a particular area (geographical region or demographic). Focus-group testing helps confirm what Davis’s analytics reveal. The result: a 40 percent increase in the size of the freshman class over three years.

“Context is everything,” Davis says. “Were we a student’s first choice? Second choice? Were we a supplemental choice? Answering these questions can give us a sense of how much time and money we should be spending trying to recruit particular students so that we get a higher rate of return.”

At Florida State University, officials are using tools from tech vendor Business Objects to achieve similar results. There, to make the enrollment management effort more strategic, the school deployed a business intelligence solution that leverages data from disparate silos of information. Specifically, the matrix determines which students have the greatest probability of succeeding at the school, identifies applicants who need specific correspondence, analyzes course availability and demand, and provides workflow documents that enable officials to keep tabs on all aspects of the process.

Rick Burnette, director of student information management, says that in addition to demystifying the process of data mining, the $200,000 solution has provided school officials with a valuable strategy for factoring in up to 20 variables including rank in class, test scores, and extracurricular activities. Every year, he adds, roughly 40,000 high school seniors apply, and the school admits about 13,500 with the intent of enrolling around 6,200. Though admittance has remained fairly constant in the past 10 years, enrollment has grown from 5,136 in 1988 to just over 6,000 in 2007, and qualification and selectivity have increased markedly. Among those who enroll, FSU has improved its six-year graduation rate considerably, says Burnette: For the class of 2002 (pre-BI), the graduation rate was 63.4 percent, but that figure rose a full 4.5 points for the class of 2006. Clearly, the BI tools help the school not only increase enrollment numbers, but also enroll candidates who are better qualified, and so more likely to end up graduating.

“It might seem like a small increase, but anything that makes our process more efficient and more successful is a step in the right direction,” he says. “As we collect a larger amount of data, the process will only improve over time.”

Rethinking Marketing

Marketing is a key part of recruiting, admitting, enrolling, and retaining students, and a number of schools have turned to new technologies to capitalize on improvements in these areas. At Texas A&M University-Kingsville, officials are using certain aspects of customer relationship management software from Talisma to handle recruitment. Manuel Lujan, the school’s associate vice president for enrollment management, refers to the school’s funnel-model approach as the best way to direct pertinent information to interested applicants and so push viable candidates to the top. The model is constructed around mailings. Students log on to the school’s website, answer some basic questions about their interest level, and request additional information. Behind the scenes, based upon the way students have answered these questions, the Talisma system automatically determines which mailings to send out. If students appear to be marginally interested, they receive general information. If students are curious enough to express specific interest in a particular major, they receive targeted material, and are moved to the top of the queue.

“The idea is to get the most detailed information into the hands of the students who need it most,” Lujan explains. “Obviously, if one student is considering our school more seriously than another, both candidates are important, but we want to make sure the most serious candidate gets the most specific marketing material he or she needs, in order to choose.” The Johnson School, the management school of Cornell University (NY), employs a similar approach, using technology from Media Logic. Before the new technology was put into place, the school recruited professionals for its executive MBA programs by printing up general-interest catalogs in batches of 40,000. Then, a few years ago, Director Tom Hambury opted instead to burn CD-ROMs with the information, in batches of 5,000. Hambury says the decision saved money and made the marketing process more “nimble.” Still, the school wanted to target its efforts even more effectively.

Last year, the school discovered Media Logic, which developed a special website—a “microsite” of the campus’s already existing portal site—to qualify prospective students who visit the school site. The microsite poses six basic questions to prospects, including whether each student wants an information session, or wishes to receive supplemental materials to review on his or her own time. Hambury says that while these questions seem simple, they provide the school with just enough information to make all student responses meaningful in the sense that the school R ECR U I T I NG & R ETE N T ION T ECH NOLOGY 29 is able to mine some degree of data from every question. So far, the microsite seems to be working effectively since it launched less than one year ago: Inquiries are up 45 percent, while application numbers are up 25 percent.

“When [prospective students] come to the website, we estimate we have oneand- a-half to three minutes to capture their information and figure out how we need to proceed,” Hambury explains. “If we can give people exactly what they want in that short a period of time, we think we have a good [chance] of at least getting them to apply.”

Gaining Acceptance

BRANDEIS UTILIZES an online calendaring system that enables prospective students to register with the school, and schedule information sessions and tours from the comfort of their own homes.

Tours and Staying Power

Still other schools have applied different technologies to handle aspects of recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and retention. At Brandeis University (MA), admissions officials have turned to software from TimeTrade Systems to streamline recruitment efforts for prospective students. The software presents high schoolers with an online calendaring system that enables them to register with the school, and schedule information sessions and tours from the comfort of their own homes.

Before TimeTrade, Brandeis didn’t schedule any appointments for prospective students; the visitors just showed up. Jacqueline Rockman, associate director of admissions, says that under the new approach, university officials can collect data on these individuals through the registration forms they fill out. The data eventually become part of the school’s database for marketing, down the road. The process also makes campus visits more personal, as prospective students receive e-mail confirmations and reminders before their visits, as well as follow-ups with links to evaluations of their experiences, after the fact.

“All of this has saved us time and provided us with better data,” she says, noting that the entire hosted solution cost about $6,000 per year for the software and $1,000 for additional custom programming. “These benefits have proven to be invaluable to our recruitment process,” she adds.

And at the University of Rhode Island, school officials have focused recent IT investments on retention. With the help of software from GoalQuest, the school has put together a survey for incoming freshmen to answer after they complete a 10-week online course called “URI 101,” a first-year prerequisite. The survey asks questions about overall readiness for college, study habits, work habits, personal adjustment, and more. According to Jayne Richmond, dean of University College and special academic programs, the school compiles the data anonymously and tweaks the program as the data return information about how students study, work, etc.

University officials also have set up a warning system to alert them to responses that might indicate a student is having trouble with the transition to college life. In these cases, academic advisers get involved and contact students about their concerns. Empirically, this aspect of the program has improved retention considerably: Since the initial adoption of GoalQuest in 2001—and, importantly, spanning the many retention initiatives the school has undertaken since that time—URI has seen its retention of firstyear freshmen rise from 75 to 82 percent of those who enroll. Still, is retention all about the technology?

“Retention is a combination of factors that also include financial aid and housing,” Richmond says. “But anything we can do with technology to make the overall experience better is certainly something that’s only going to help.”

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