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Look to the On-Demand Model for Higher Education to Weather the Storm

University Business, April 2015

The following content is sponsored by Campus Management.

Colleges and universities are facing tremendous headwinds today. Competition is increasing as more institutions compete for fewer applicants. Demographically, a generational shift has occurred, with millennials entering college with high expectations for flexible and accessible delivery models. Budget reductions are forcing institutions to do more with less, with fewer than one in four college university presidents now believing their institution will have a sustainable financial model over the next five to ten years, according to 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Presidents. Add to this the increased regulatory pressure around student outcomes, and what we end up with is a super storm of forces reshaping higher education.

In light of these forces, one might say that the age-old higher education mantra of “Publish or Perish” has evolved into a new edict of “Transform or Perish.”  Higher education institutions simply cannot cling to traditional methods and offerings if they are to remain relevant to today’s student population.  The On Demand Model for Higher Education is a response to these forces that introduces new business processes, approaches and technology to better engage, educate, and serve constituents. 

On Demand Higher Education is not just about delivering academics online. It’s not just an IT or cloud strategy. It’s actually a business strategy that is built upon four critical cornerstones:  constituent engagement, flexible terms and associated financial aid, as well as an agile DNA.

Cornerstone #1: Constituent Engagement 

Today’s generation of students and workers is constantly connected to their data. Their work, personal and social lives are intertwined. Institutions can use this to their advantage by capturing interactions as they happen. Additionally, with more flexible tools, they don’t have to be at their workstations, rather they can respond from anywhere. The cornerstone of On Demand Higher Education for constituent engagement centers around orchestrating interactions through multiple communication channels, gaining a 360 degree view of student interactions, working from a playbook or strategy rather than daily processes and tactics, and untethering an institution’s workforce.

While institutions are beginning to embrace constituent engagement across departments and campuses, situations remain where one campus or department is reluctant to share student information with another, which results in missed opportunities, blind spots, and duplicative efforts.

Campus Management recently worked with a state university that discovered students recruited from a particular county were more likely to leave during their first year. Part of the reason was that the county was close to campus and many of these students tended to commute from home. To engage more of these students in university life, the school created a filter that identified students from this county and automatically prompted student affairs and residence life departments through the institution’s CRM tool to schedule appointments with them. As a result of analyzing existing data to identify a range of indicators, and executing efforts to act upon this information, this institution has experienced a 200 percent increase in retention between first-year and second-year students.  

Institutions need to view CRM as more than just a recruitment tool, but rather as a piece of technology that can be utilized as the universal platform across the entire student lifecycle, integrating with Student Information Systems, Learning Management System platforms and staff members’ mobile devices, to gain greater visibility into the issues impacting student enrollment, performance, financial aid status, and other factors.

Cornerstone #2: Flexible Terms

Traditional higher education models start with established academic terms (semester or quarter) and students conforming to that schedule. This is also true for most online classes. On Demand Higher Education actually flips this structure by putting student needs first, allowing them to adhere to the traditional standard term or to choose their start date. Terms then become trailing data points the system uses to define the academic years for managing financial aid.

For one institution, what was once a 15-week course is now a five-week course with assessments effectively managed and facilitated by the faculty responsible for the curriculum.  Another institution has designed a wheel calendar program consisting of one class every three weeks to provide students with an opportunity to start the program at almost any time throughout the year.

Flexible terms present new challenges, however, mostly around an institution’s ability to effectively retool the courses. The need to retrofit aging or inflexible systems is often the biggest obstacle for schools considering newer models incorporating flexible terms, competency-based education, and MOOC-based academics along with traditional term programs.

Cornerstone #3: Associated Financial Aid 

When offering programs that start frequently, one of the first challenges is getting financial aid packaged in time for the first day of class. Before students can start their classes, they must complete their FAFSA.  At the same time, schools must receive the ISIR and communicate how much aid is available to students.

Managing flexible terms can be taxing on many departments. An institution’s systems must be able to post grades, disburse financial aid and determine where students are in their accelerated or self-paced programs to enable reporting on satisfactory academic progress and Title IV funding…and do all this automatically.

By adopting a borrower-based academic year over a scheduled academic year, an institution removes summer trailer and header problems, but has to navigate a new level of complexity. Institutions need a system that can create a package based on a set of institutional rules, schedule disbursements for the first and subsequent payment periods, properly bill students based on course scheduling, refund monies, and make adjustments when students fail or drop a class.

The good news is that most of these problems have been solved. There are well defined processes and systems available today that take into consideration each student’s set of data and prepares a financial aid package that includes grants, scholarships, tuition discounts, and automatically sends the award letter to the student.

For the institution that has new classes starting every few weeks, it is also managing and dispersing financial aid at an accelerated pace. What’s more, if a student withdraws or drops a class, the institution must have a system to assess the impact to financial aid based on this flexible schedule. Triggers must be set up for Return to Title IV if the student drops below the minimum academic standards for financial aid, even with this accelerated schedule.

Cornerstone #4: Agile DNA

Does your institution have the ability to embrace transformational change in order to meet this generation’s expectations for higher education? To successfully implement On Demand Higher Education, an organization has to be ready, willing and able to embrace change. It has to develop a playbook that addresses the needs of today’s students and gain the support of the entire organization to provide students with the ideal learning environment to achieve success. It doesn’t just happen by offering online classes or through continuing education programs. It needs to be embraced culturally, across departments, campuses, and systems.

How does an institution approach the technology requirements for On Demand Higher Education? Institutions don’t have to bite off all the challenges at once or rip and replace systems. Some institutions start with CRM and extend it beyond recruitment to become more responsive to students and help them succeed. Others augment their current systems by adding a “school-within-a-school” (in essence, a separate dedicated system) to handle flexible terms and related requirements.

Change has always been the catalyst for future innovation.  Between the super storm factors and the undercurrent of a generational shift, the higher education landscape will look very different a decade from now. Those institutions that remain nimble and responsive to change will have transformed those challenges into opportunities.

Connor Gray is the Chief Strategy Officer at Campus Management.

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