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The Database Gets Personal

Smart Information Systems Drive Better IHE-Student Relationships.
University Business, Aug 2004

Many institutions today realize that they have to utilize technology to go beyond service and more towards personalizing and extending their relationship with students. The ambition now is to create an environment that strengthens the connection to students and other clients that is open and alive. And, it requires the judicious use of two-way communications, coupled with the database and information processing power to keep track of the relationships.

The term CRM, or Customer Relationship Management, came into vogue to describe this approach in the commercial sector. But an institution of higher education has a more complicated relationship with those it serves. Full relationship management on a campus is usually best accomplished by a combination of programs that include back-end databases, ERP processing systems, portals, learning management systems, and some specialized new software packages that manage content and customize communications.

How each institution melds these together depends on its character and mission. Institutions are most successful in this new arena when a clear vision of the desired relationship drives the design of the technology.

Chapman University is working on two goals simultaneously, expansion and quality. Enrollment at its traditional campus in Orange, CA, has recently grown to 5,000. In addition, Chapman has begun programs at 28 sites throughout California and Washington state, which enroll another 6,000 students.

But the most important goal is "quality, quality, quality," says Saskia Knight, vice president of Enrollment Services. "Because we want to become one of the premier institutions on the West Coast, the message from the campus had to be tightly woven," she says. "We wanted a really dynamic Web page and a lot of cutting-edge technology. Since we are competing for students with the more selective institutions, we have to use technology better to attract students, to tell our story. But we also needed to get better at capturing information, so we can use our human resources for more crucial activities."

To achieve its goals, Chapman University has fused two technologies: Datatel's ( Colleague and LiquidMatrix's ( ActiveAdmissions. As the basic tool of the admissions department and other administrative offices, Colleague handles the database and the processing flow, while Active Admissions personalizes the communication via the Web. Together, these technologies add up to a more rewarding experience for the prospective student exploring Chapman via the Internet.

We needed to get better at capturing information, so we can use our human resources for more crucial activities.

-Saskia Knight, vice president of Enrollment Services, Chapman University

"Spotlights" are an important feature of Chapman's new Web presence, and a good illustration of how this personalization works. Any visitor to the Chapman Web site will be greeted by a picture of a Chapman student or faculty member, accompanied by a brief story.

One mini-biography starts this way: "As a freshman film major, Brandon Adams has already worked on seven student films--as a grip, boom operator, still-photographer, sound recordist, and assistant cameraman. 'The opportunity to make films while still a freshman is invaluable,' he says. 'Chapman provides the necessary tools and equipment that allow students to create and get involved in filmmaking from day one.'"

For most visitors, the face and story they see are just randomly selected from an archive. But if a prospective student fills out a brief profile, she will see a personalized selection the next time. For instance, a student who expressed an interest in music might be shown a feature about music faculty member Joseph Matthews, whose student Dale Yang won the solo pianist competition for the state of California last year.

"The challenge for us is to keep that information refreshed, and to keep a broad collection of spotlight stories available," says Knight. Since the new system encourages students to enter their own applications online, the staff will actually have more time to spend on spotlights and meaningful communications. "There is a lot that students can do for themselves online," says Knight, and that has made it possible for Chapman to deal with the increased volumes that come with expansion, while also finding time for the more personalized forms of communication.

Chapman uses two software products, Colleague and ActiveAdmissions, because they complement each other. The combination of the two packages provides communications management, accepts applications online, and provides key reports that are needed for back-office activities, such as tracking high school counselors.

The new software is just part of the larger picture at Chapman. Before starting on the Web project, Chapman reviewed its overall admissions strategy with the help of enrollment management consulting firm Noel-Levitz ( and designed a message that would be consistent in both printed and online materials. Since the approach is strategic, all aspects of the campus have had to be involved in developing the plan and fine-tuning it. "If you are going to do something like this, you need buy-in across all major components of the university. It is going to be more complicated than you might think. But it's worth it," explains Knight.

The payoff for Chapman has been record applications this year. For next year, the university plans to roll out a further part of its message using ActiveAlumni, a complementary product from LiquidMatrix.

Although DePaul University (IL) makes heavy use of what the commercial world calls CRM, the focus is more on individual service than on mass marketing. The use of technology at DePaul is directly shaped by the institution's mission, explains Rev. Kevin Collins, C.M., assistant vice president for Student Affairs. The Vincentians, a religious community established by the namesake of the university, St. Vincent DePaul, founded the Chicago university with a clear mission. The community that sponsors DePaul has coined the phrase "Vincentian personalism," which sums up their commitment to recognizing and serving the needs of individuals.

DePaul has not been shy about making good use of technology in innovative ways to achieve the Vincentian vision. "Technology for us is an aspect of relationship management," says Collins. "With each student, we are concerned about the full life cycle, the way they come to know the university, on through graduation, becoming an alumnus, perhaps even becoming a faculty member or trustee."

Within this life cycle, retention is an area of particular concern to Collins and the university: "We make promises to students around the idea that they can succeed here. Retention is tied to academic success, but there is more to it than that. It is vital to strengthen the connections between students and faculty, and others in support roles. And somehow we need to attend to all 24,000 of our students."

DePaul came up with a plan to apply the power of its PeopleSoft ( CRM software to better identify students who were retention risks and reach out to them with support. "We looked for a starting point," says Gazala Siddiqi, project manager in the Office of Student Affairs, "and we found that our STARS program already touched all the dimensions we were interested in." STARS, or Students Together Are Reaching for Success, was already a well-established program of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs. It supports first-year students through a combination of peer mentoring, academic tutoring, help navigating through administrative paperwork, and service and leadership opportunities.

"We wanted to start with something that was working and improve it," says Collins. "We thought that if we could learn the secret ingredients of that program, we could scale it."

The first campaign was about stress. October is a particularly stressful time for students who are just making the transition to university life, with homesickness, writing the first midterm exams, and the full weight of course work making itself felt. The campaign started with e-mail messages to STARS participants, asking them to take a Web survey that asked about their stress level. If a student reported high stress, a second e-mail was immediately sent, asking the appropriate coordinator to contact the student. Another e-mail invited the student to contact the staff member.

The response surprised even the organizers. Within 24 hours, 50 percent of the invited students completed the online survey. There followed about a dozen interventions, some of which were credited with preventing a student from leaving school. "Sometimes it seems like a huge crisis for them, but we can deal with it if we can get to it right away," says Collins.

Perhaps the most surprising result was that this approach reached students who, it seemed, were already being well served by existing, more traditional support services. One student, who had an upbeat relationship with her counselors, took the Web survey in the middle of the night and put down that she was under high stress, something she had not mentioned in her daily, face-to-face encounters.

The success of this kind of effort is not going to lead DePaul to increase the volume of e-mail to students across the board, however. That would run counter to the individualized approach of the Vincentians. Instead, the university will carefully craft other campaigns that are tailored to individual schools within the university, and even to individual departments or programs. Collins encourages an incremental approach: "CRM can't be implemented the same way that ERP is. You have to start small; each school is different. It can't be blanketed the way a uniform business process would be."

But that doesn't mean that this approach isn't essential to the university's success. "We have to be large to meet the needs of so many first-generation students," points out Collins, "but we also have to find ways to communicate information to them individually, so that our interactions in face-to-face time are richer and are about more than just getting information. We found this is a way to do it both more efficiently and more individually."

There is a very carefully considered methodology behind this personal use of the technology. DePaul takes the new technology so seriously that it has a director of CRM and KM (Knowledge Management). This is more than a technical job. "I am a career CRM practitioner, but I have never led with the technology," says Andrew Drefahl.

Drefahl has been careful to let the functional areas such as Student Affairs take the lead, but his contribution has been to make sure there is a sound theoretical basis for the projects, as well as an effective use of the software. "Often people don't have a mental model of what they want to accomplish, what is the dependent variable that they want to move, like a student's decision to persist, to re-enroll in the next term. We develop something very much like a causal diagram as the underpinning of our measurement model." A causal diagram is a type of graph showing causes and effects that is often used in business modeling.

To carry out projects like this one, DePaul has been using PeopleSoft's CRM software, in conjunction with a base system that includes PeopleSoft's products for higher education: Student Administration, Human Capital Management, and Financial Management. DePaul is partnering with PeopleSoft to help develop the specification of products for use in higher education.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology faced a dilemma after weathering the Y2K crisis. Should it spend the time and money required to update its administrative information systems? Or could it jump to new technologies, such as a dynamic portal and a learning management system, while maintaining its older database in the background?

CRM can't be implemented the same way that ERP is. You have to start small; each school is different.

-Rev. Kevin Collins, C.M., assistant vice president for Student Affairs, DePaul University

NJIT decided it could get more immediate benefit, and promote the services to students that it really cared about, by leaving its base system in place. Meanwhile, it forged ahead with a student portal, based on SCT's Campus Pipeline, and implemented WebCT ( as a learning management environment. According to NJIT, the results have been good, in both expected and unexpected ways.

Fortunately, the institution had a solid foundation to build on. Its existing student system was SIS Plus, a product that began life in the 1980s as a transaction-based, mainframe-powered system. When SIS's developer, Information Associates, was acquired by SCT ( in the 1990s, SCT continued support for the software and its customers, upgrading the software under the Plus label. Despite Plus's long history, NJIT felt that it was still receiving good service from the product, and that the institution should pay more attention to improving services than to upgrading functions that might only be seen in the back office. It was added comfort that SCT also had a partnership with Campus Pipeline and they would work together to provide seamless interfaces between the portal and the Plus back end.

Another factor working in NJIT's favor was that self-service for students was not something new for the institution, according to David Ullman, associate provost for Information Services & Technology and chief information officer. "In 1991 we were already doing self-registration," remembers Ullman. "We managed to do away with arena-style registration, or cattle herding. Most of our students already had computers in those days. So we skipped over telephone registration, which was coming into vogue at the time. We just let them go online and register themselves, look at courses, and check on grades and holds."

To achieve a leap forward in self-service, NJIT partnered with SCT to install a customized portal, called Highlander Pipeline, on top of SIS Plus. Those two systems were also integrated with WebCT for learning management, so that students are automatically added to a WebCT class roster when they sign up for a class using Highlander Pipeline. As a result, faculty make heavy use of e-mail distribution lists that are automatically maintained by links among the software packages.

The combined use of e-mail, the portal, the learning management system, and the functional processes of the SIS database in the background produce a higher degree of connectedness than was possible before. Ullman gives credit to NJIT faculty members Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, whose 1978 book Network Nation brought early attention to the sense of community that can be generated by computer-mediated communication.

"Murray and Roxanne have been intimately involved in encouraging the vision of connectedness," says Ullman, a vision that is still a vital force within the institution today. "I am teaching a hybrid course myself--part online and part face-to-face," notes Ullman. "You get more thoughtful and richer responses because they have more time to think about it."

From the registrar's point of view, the results have been both practical and personal. "Registration is now a nonevent," says Registrar Joseph Thompson. "I feel like Mister Wizard. We turn on registration at 4 p.m. on Friday, then we all go home. Over the weekend, I can monitor thousands of students' activities, add a section here, adjust class limits there, watch room utilization, and make sure everything works smoothly."

The benefits go beyond the registration crush. NJIT has moved all the systems that students need to carry out their business to the Web. Routine matters like applying for graduation can be done online. Students can even perform complex activities, such as auditing their requirements for a degree or trying scenarios for changing a major. Transfer students from local community colleges can find out how many of their credits will transfer. The result is that the amount of traffic that comes into the registrar's office has diminished, but the amount of student activity has increased.

"We have to remember that people come here to be students, not to jump through bureaucratic hurdles," says Thompson. "My philosophy is, if somebody can go here for four years and take away no impression at all of the registrar's office, then I am doing my job."

But one surprise for Thompson was that the increase in electronic communication has generated more personal interactions with students rather than fewer--it's just that many of those personal encounters are now virtual rather than face-to-face. For instance, the registrar's office sends out a routine message to eligible students, informing them that their department has certified them for graduation.

"You'd be surprised how many students reply to those messages, thanking us for letting them know, and even sharing details of their lives that we wouldn't expect. A student may write how hard it has been getting through with his wife having a baby, but he's really proud to have made it. They see the e-mail as something really personal to them, and they respond in kind." This may be because the current generation of students has become used to having online encounters that are personal, even intimate, and so they don't necessarily view e-mail as a cold, businesslike medium.

NJIT is continuing to expand the reach of its portal solution. Accepted students are now invited into the portal, and an alumni portal should be launched this summer, all integrated with SCT's Campus Pipeline and Luminis products.

Today, more and more powerful communication management features are being built into ERPs, learning management systems, and portals, and they are also offered separately as powerful add-on software systems.

I feel like Mister Wizard. I can monitor thousands of students' activities and make sure everything works smoothly.

-Joseph Thompson, Registrar, New Jersey Institute of Technology

However, you need more than software and an information system--you need a plan, a personality, a philosophy, and an overall design of your institution's overall communication strategy. The design needs to be consistent, so that expectations raised in one area about responsiveness and personal treatment are not disappointed when the student comes in contact with another area of the institution that is farther behind.

Shallow CRM is nothing but mass marketing in expensive new clothes. Deep CRM is a two-way flow of communications and services, creating as seamless a texture as possible in the online world where students, perspective students, families, faculty, staff, and alumni carry out their roles as a living part of your institution.

John Savarese is a consulting principal at Edutech International (

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