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Student Lifecycle Management >> CRM Meets the Campus

In a world where student loyalty is tenuous and competition for enrollees can be intense, schools are challenged to better understand and value their ‘customer' relationships.

You can never know too much about your constituents. That was the theme of a recent Campus Technology-produced webinar sponsored by CA-based database vendor Oracle. The webinar, titled, "Strategies for Managing the Student Lifecycle," was so successful that though we rarely present single-vendor stories, we've decided to publish highlighted segments of that presentation here, because of the valuable strategic challenges facing the various institutions highlighted, and their willingness to forge ahead with a fairly young technology. Certainly, other vendors are making forays into this space: See the box in this article for a sampling. Our thanks to Oracle for its work on this presentation, and to Matt Villano, CT's senior contributing editor, for his work as moderator of an outstanding panel discussion.

CRMIn the corporate world, the notion of customer relationship management (CRM) is nothing new. That particular technology sector is now jam-packed with software that enables organizations to monitor and manage every interaction with a customer, from the very first experience on, throughout the lifecycle of the relationship. That relationship spans the gamut from prospect to customer; from referring customer to repeat customer; from displeased customer to satisfied service recipient, and so on. After purchase, some of this software is designed to reside within and across the enterprise; other forms exist on the web, often via an application service provider (ASP) or a company that offers software as a service (SaaS). It also can be delivered over a corporate intranet. Yet via whichever medium or channel, the whole idea of the technology is to improve the customer relationship over time. Generally, the software is highly effective.

In the world of higher education, however, CRM takes on an entirely different face—a face once known as client, or constituent relationship management and now generally referred to as "student lifecycle management," or SLM. In this scenario, the "customers" are the students themselves, and the technology manages all interactions from the moment students express interest in a school as potential recruits, through their first day on campus, then to graduation and beyond. Technically, this solution is brand new. Oracle has piloted SLM programs in the California State University system and at DePaul University (IL); other vendors such as Datatel and SunGard Higher Education have launched similar technologies elsewhere.

It's All About the Customer

In their book, Strategic Marketing for Educational Institutions (Prentice Hall, 1995), authors Philip Kotler and Karen Fox put the notion of SLM into perspective by equating students to customers (a concept that really rankled higher ed administrators, when they were first exposed to it some years back). "The best organization in the world will be ineffective if the focus on ‘customers' is lost," the authors wrote. "First and foremost is the treatment of the individual students, alumni, parents, friends, and each other (internal customers). Every contact counts!"

SLM is now broadly accepted as the process of developing and maintaining long-term relationships with students. The technology consists of systems that communicate with students at critical points throughout the lifecycle of their relationship with an institution: recruitment, admissions, enrollment, and graduation. Of course, the systems provide for relationships with alumni, too, for it is that ongoing relationship that can be so critical to the support of the college—financial and otherwise.

According to Curtiss Barnes, Oracle's senior director of industry product strategy for education and research, SLM is all about building connections. "There are very few other areas where you have an opportunity to manage a customer, in the sense of a student through very discrete stages of his or her experience with your organization," he says. "What you are doing with this system is creating a dialogue. The more you communicate, the stronger the connections to those students become."

The need for these kinds of connections certainly is imperative. A 2004 report from the college exam organization ACT, What Works in Student Retention, indicated that nearly 25 percent of college freshmen fail to return for their sophomore year, and that only 52 percent of all college students earn degrees within five years of entry. With stronger relationships, Barnes says colleges and universities can play more active roles to help these students, give them the programs that they need, and position them for greater success.

In an ideal world, SLM begins with recruitment. Via an institution's website, the system captures data on prospective students' survey responses, campaign responses, self-service use of the university system, and personal interactions with university staff, and then matches recruiters to potential applicants. Once students enroll, the SLM equation shifts to retention, and revolves around monitoring student progress (academic as well as social) and communicating frequently via e-mail, mail, telephone, and regular in-person counseling sessions, providing social and academic support. The last step in the SLM process is extending the relationship into the alumni years, encouraging lifelong learning, development and, eventually, donations.

"Managed correctly, way down the road, student lifecycle management actually can become a profit center," says Barnes. "Whether you're looking in the near-term or the long-term, this isn't something to be ignored."

Getting to Graduation

The California State University system is a good example of the way colleges and universities can employ SLM to help students matriculate. Comprised of 23 campuses and more than 400,000 students, the Cal State system is the largest university organization in the nation. With this many students enrolled at any given time, it's no wonder the school system had been experiencing difficulty getting students to graduate. Still, Mike McLean, CSU's senior director of common management systems, concedes some of the numbers were downright depressing:

  • 24.5 percent of first-time freshmen graduated in four years
  • 76 percent of first-time freshmen took six years or more to graduate
  • 37 percent of transfer students graduated within two years of transfer
  • 63 percent of transfer students took three years or more to graduate following their transfer

In 2005, McLean and the Board of Trustees set out to examine why these trends were occurring. Their findings were alarming. First, they discovered that CSU was not offering classes appropriate for students to meet their prerequisites in a timely fashion. Second, they learned that many students didn't even know what their requirements were. Finally, because most CSU students commute from home, many students were juggling school and family—and school was losing out. "Unbeknownst to us, there were a significant number of roadblocks to timely graduation for many of our students" he says. "We knew there had to be a better way to help them navigate the process in a more timely fashion."

That "better way" revolved around SLM. At the start of 2006, CSU set out to build upon Oracle's PeopleSoft CRM 9.0, in order to provide students with a series of clear, well-supported pathways to graduation. This transformation began with a degree audit process to establish requirements for each major. Next, through the school's intranet, officials communicated via e-mail to inform students about these requirements. Finally, with help from Oracle, the school created its "Common Management System" (CMS) to institutionalize support to more efficiently help students move through school.

According to McLean, this CMS system has created campus "roadmaps" for all degree programs, which include student study plans with term-by-term course outlines. The outlines are designed for students, but are accessible to faculty, advisers, and administrators, as well. Behind the scenes, CMS aligns class schedules to these roadmaps, so students know when their schedules contain conflicts. Through a simple web-based interface, students can chart their progress against requirements. Now such degree audits are mandatory.


Oracle isn’t the only vendor dabbling in student lifecycle management (SLM) these days; all told, a handful of vendors are gradually filling the space. Here’s a rundown of notables, and a brief description of the products they offer.

SunGard Higher Education
SunGard’s SLM products are those technologies that the company acquired from SCT, which means they all carry the Banner moniker. In particular, Banner Student fuses administrative and academic worlds and helps manage data strategically. This module is designed to work with six others that span a variety of functions.

Datatel’s ActiveAdmissions and ActiveAlumni products work with pre-existing ERP systems to track student “customers” from prospective status through enrollment and beyond. A series of online tools available with each product provides users with personal and customizable features designed to enhance the overall experience.

Campus Management
This vendor’s flagship CampusVue product is touted as a total administrative solution for SLM. It provides visibility across recruiting, financial aid, billing, online advising, career services, and other key workflows. The product also includes built-in CRM for workflow efficiency and better services to students.

Jenzabar brands its SLM offering as the Total Campus Management solution, and the technology is a combination of dashboards with datamarts and campus office applications. The vendor’s Constituent Relationship Modules are said to provide tight integration between the front-end portal and back-end logic.

Merced Solutions
As far as vendors go, Merced may be small, but its offerings are notable. Case in point: the company’s TopSchool product line. With its workflow-centric approach, the technology focuses on the student instead of the system, to maximize prospect conversion rate and minimize administrative errors.

Going forward, CSU hopes to use the CMS software to identify class scheduling needs; that is, to determine which classes to offer in which semesters, based on how many students are going to need a particular course as they move down the path to a degree. "We are not at that point yet," says McLean, "but that's certainly one of our major goals: to be able to assist better academic planning, or at least academic schedule planning." He adds, "For us, it means greater control of our process, so we don't have a situation where we don't know what's ailing us. For students, it means greater involvement in their education on the part of the administration, which is sure to get them more interested in sticking around."

While it's largely too early to determine how successful the pilot program has been, CSU does have some early results: As of October 2006, 10 of 23 campuses were running CMS. In particular, Sonoma State University and Cal State-Fresno had moved their course registration process from a painstaking paper-based routine into the online environment. Cal State-Long Beach followed suit, embracing a newer, more automated approach to creating courses and hiring lecturers.

Down the road, McLean says CSU expects these types of improvements to spread to the system's other 13 campuses. He says he fully expects the CMS technology to empower students to move toward matriculation more quickly, and notes that this process will ultimately increase enrollment since it will open up more spots. As an added bonus, he predicts that the process will reduce the cost of education, since students will spend less time in school. "Even though we don't have all the software in place, just creating the awareness that we are trying to do better vis-à-vis graduation rates helps to improve the situation," McLean says. "We're in good shape now, and we'll be in even better shape once the technology becomes more widespread."

Improving Retention

At DePaul University in Chicago, technologists led by CRM Craft Lead Audrey Bledsoe turned to SLM not just to improve years to graduate, but to improve the retention picture, overall. The eighthlargest private university in the nation, DePaul has about 23,000 students. But after spending a semester or two at the university, too many DePaul students (in some cases, as much as 20 percent) were dropping out or transferring to other Chicago-area schools. A 2005 internal study revealed that they either were stymied by unclear graduation requirement specifications; frustrated by trying to juggle family, work, and school; thwarted by DePaul's lack of at-risk student programs; or prey to any combination of the three factors. "Our students didn't have the help they needed to keep school first," Bledsoe explains. "While some of the responsibility for overcoming the challenges lay with them, it was up to us to improve our side of the situation, as well."

Naturally, those improvements included SLM. DePaul incorporated technology from Oracle into an exhaustive pilot effort known as Students Together Are Reaching Success (STARS). Geared toward first-year students, the STARS program was designed to help students adjust and enjoy a positive introductory experience. Via modules that interfaced with the PeopleSoft CRM 9.0 solution, the program revolved around an e-mail effort designed to follow student planning and performance on particular degree tracks.

Based upon information gleaned from the program, the school then matched a focus group of 275 at-risk students to peer mentors who monitored progress and helped students set and attain goals. Most of these students were commuters and in danger of failing, and Bledsoe reports that the program also facilitated connections with more professional, bona fide advisers—full-time counselors who engaged students through e-mail over school breaks, when loss of regular communication has proven to significantly contribute to dropping out. "The purpose was to provide this group of students with information about where to go for help with financial aid, registration, and other vital needs," she says. "We wanted to keep them in the educational environment, and make them aware of the valuable services that were available to them and the things that they should know."

While it's still too early for dramatic results, the STARS program has shown real signs of success. In just a few months, DePaul saw a 50 percent student response rate to the STARS e-mails. Overall, the school also experienced a 4 percent boost in the retention of STARS students. On a more basic level, Bledsoe notes the program has enabled DePaul to establish an ongoing dialogue with these students, build relationships with them, and offset attrition. Down the road, she notes, numbers can only improve.

But at DePaul, the impact of SLM evidently extends far beyond STARS. After Bledsoe broadcasted news about the success of the pilot study, a number of other DePaul departments contacted her and inquired about implementing SLM. One of these was the university's Graduate School of Business; another, the School of Education. While many of the followup projects are still in the planning stages, Bledsoe says she is excited at the prospect of expanding SLM elsewhere in the institution. "The word has been spreading around the school," she boasts. "In the end, it doesn't really matter what department you're in: Acquisition and retention are issues that are important to everybody."

Down the Road

Oracle's Barnes points out that in scenarios such as those at DePaul and CSU, a school can set the stage for SLM to expand naturally into other areas, moving beyond recruitment and retention into human resources, financials, and more. Currently, Oracle's standalone product is sold against either homegrown enterprise systems or other enterprise systems in the marketplace. As the solution becomes more widely adopted, however, Barnes predicts that Oracle will offer SLM in a more centralized approach as a technology that incorporates analytics and other forms of business intelligence for an even more comprehensive solution. "We will continue to evolve the way we bundle the products, so that institutions can either acquire pieces that meet their specific needs or the whole solution set," he says. "Ultimately, we see our product being part of a very robust ERP."

Despite this forecast, perhaps the biggest challenge to the future of SLM is its newness: Many colleges and universities may not be familiar with what student lifecycle management technology can do. Clearly, internally marketing the successes across a campus will help get the word out. In a more perfect world, institutions of higher education will learn to manage student relationships the way successful companies manage their customer relationships: carefully and diligently.

WEBEXTRA :: View CT's webinar on this topic, "Strategies for Managing the Student Lifecycle," here.

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