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Bringing Customer Focus to the Business of Education

Michael Berman, Chief Innovation Officer & Deputy CIO, California State University, Chancellor's Office
Michael Berman, Chief Innovation Officer & Deputy CIO, California State University, Chancellor's Office

Michael Berman, Chief Innovation Officer & Deputy CIO, California State University, Chancellor's Office

I sometimes perform the following thought experiment: what if Amazon was organized like a typical college campus, and I wanted to buy a pair of shoes?

First, I’d have to know what department had the kind of shoes I want—Men’s Clothing, Athletic Wear? And then once I picked out the shoes, I would be sent to a different department to get them shipped. Payment? Oh, that’s the Amazon Bursar’s Office. Need to finance the shoes? Go to Financial Aid.

Those of you with family members in college know that I’m not exaggerating. The business of traditional colleges and universities has been organized around the needs and processes of business offices, not the needs of the student and her family. But some higher education institutions have made progress in overturning this outdated model, and many others have started down the path to build a more student-centric approach to student services. The vision and leadership to create this new strategy has often been initiated by CIOs and other IT leaders, because student services redesign depends critically on choosing and integrating the right technologies.

A key component of successful student-centric service is an effective approach to Customer Relationship Management (CRM). A CRM enables every student touchpoint to have a full “360-degree view” of the student’s profile, needs, concerns, and transactional history. Whether choosing a comprehensive tool like Salesforce to be customized for the needs of all departments, or selecting one of the university-oriented tools in the marketplace, the CIO plays a critical role in assuring adoption. Success requires that all critical student service areas— admissions, financial aid, student billing, housing, parking, and career services, just to name some of the most important—have a stake in providing a unified student experience that replaces the old run-around. Change management expertise is essential to developing a CRM with buy-in across the institution.

An important and historically over-looked area with a critical impact on student success is academic advising. On many campuses, the advising role is fractured across central advising centers, school and departmental advisors, faculty, and specialty centers such as veterans or disabled student services. Even when these areas have the best interests of the students at heart, it’s inevitable that students will receive inconsistent and contradictory information from different offices. Students may be directed to seek help from a specialty service such as a writing center, without any follow-up to assure that the student gets the help needed.

  A CRM enables every student touchpoint to have a full “360-degree view” of the student’s profile, needs, concerns, and transactional history  ​

A relatively new approach called advising case management has emerged to address this issue. Advising case management is a special form of CRM built around the needs of the student’s developmental path as a learner. Modern tools not only enable advising offices to have the right information to help students, they also provide extensive data about the success—or not— both of individual students as well as cohorts. This data can be used directly to identify individual students with problems and prompt timely intervention that can help a student stay on track. It can also provide vital data about the effectiveness of student services on campus—for example, do students who follow up on referrals to the writing center do better than students who don’t? This data can direct campus leaders to provide better support to effective interventions, and an opportunity to improve—or eliminate—services that are not effective in improving student success.

Most recently, the improved capabilities and reduced cost of AI and Machine Learning tools have become part of the technology tool kit for campuses. Many campuses have implemented, or are implementing, one or more “bots” that provide an alternative way to get students the information they need when they need it. While we may think that “all the information the students need is on the website”, we know that many students will not read long, complicated instructions. Providing call centers for student questions and guidance is expensive, especially because so much of the business of higher education is seasonal and episodic - a student attempting to speak to the right person on the last day to apply for financial aid or register for classes is likely to end up in a queue.

Alternatively, what if a student knows that there’s a place to send questions via text message, or they can use a software enabled audio device to get answers? Routine questions can be handled well by the current generation of bots; more complex questions or highly personal issues (“I’m so depressed, I’m going to drop all my classes”) can be referred to the appropriate staff who have more time to focus on the complicated problems and difficult student challenges because they are not answering the easy questions (“What time does the library close tonight?”) Combining bots with information from CRM or advising software can enable customized communication or “nudges” to encourage students to make changes or take action to help them be more successful.

A bot implementation can provide data—what questions are students asking? What are the questions they have that we never thought they would ask? Furthermore, campuses that have enabled bots often report that students find them fun and engaging.

A college education is a far more complex process than buying a pair of shoes. However, we’ve done a poor job historically of simplifying the business aspects of the process. As one student said to me, “Sure, you can give me whatever run around you want and I’ll figure it out, because I want to get my degree—but really, I’d rather be spending the time learning about my subject rather than learning how to get through college.” Visionary CIOs partnered with leaders in the student services areas have the tools to reduce the non-academic challenges of the college journey so that students can focus on intellectual and personal growth.

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