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Retention Intentions

When it comes to keeping students happy and productive, constituent relationship management is shaping up into a high-tech, high-touch tag team.
University Business, Aug 2006

Everyone knows how to reach prospects and alumni, and the importance of doing so. But what about the students in between?

The University of Alabama is one institution that takes "a formalized view of retention," as Jennifer Benson Jones, director of academic retention, puts it. The 2005-2006 retention rate is 86 percent-a 2 percent increase over the year before. Benson Jones doesn't take the credit, but the fact that her position is new reflects the institution's focus on this area. Part of UA's plan includes using a student-facing website, full of information on UA and college life, to survey students and send up red flags that some might be struggling. During the academic year, Benson Jones, who points out that schools don't have to worry much about students who are already engaged, used the system to contact students who hadn't registered for the next semester and provided information either on how to contact their advisor or register. She e-mailed 306 freshmen and wound up talking to 160.

She was also able to do exit interviews, which provided information on areas to improve. With constituent relationship management (CRM) systems, institutions like UA are using data to develop strategies that help keep their students through graduation.

CRM has been a hot topic in higher education in recent years. Some systems are simply used to capture and store data about students, while others are set up to generate communication opportunities. They can range from discrete programs used by one or two departments to institution-wide systems that create a 360-degree view of the student.

According to the Eduventures report "Constituent Relationship Management Makes Inroads in Higher Education," 23 percent of institutions in the 2004-2005 academic year had CRM software in place, with another 22 percent saying they planned to implement CRM solutions during 2005-2006.

" CRM is allowing us to fully engage students."
-Jerry Harrell, Ivy Tech Community College, Central Indiana

CRM systems usually start in Admissions as a way to keep track of recruitment activities, but they can also be used to enhance retention efforts. Here's how a handful of institutions of higher education are using these systems to boost retention.

At the University of Oklahoma, retention starts with identifying qualified students who will succeed at OU, says Melanee Hamilton, director of communication for Recruitment Services. "We're careful about who we go after."

To that end, they are implementing Intelliworks' IRM Enterprise to replace a homegrown system. The new system allows for more automation in the recruitment process based on student behavior. Prospects receive communications in a more timely manner (instead of when a staff member can organize it), and recruiters gain more free time for personal follow-up. Eventually prospects will be able to set up an account, request campus tours, and receive personalized information based on indicated interests.

Admissions must be doing something right, since recruitment efforts, combined with a mandatory "University College" course for all freshmen, helped contribute to an 84.6 percent retention rate in 2004, which is an improvement of about a percentage point over the first three years of the decade (and the same rate as in 2003). "We pride ourselves on having a lot of personal touch with our students," Hamilton says, adding that there has been a general trend of increased retention over the past 10 years.

At Cardinal Stritch University (Wis.), the goal is to find a balance between self-service and having students talk to an advisor.

Using Jenzabar's Internet Campus Solution (JICS), advisors can pull a student's information online before arranging an appointment. Under the school's old system, all of this was up to the student, who would have to go to a student center in person to get his or her records and then use a form to request an advisor meeting.

Eventually, students will be able to see their own records and what classes they still need for their major online, leading to more meaningful meetings with their advisor. JICS also allows faculty to enter grades online so students receive them faster. Before, professors submitted sheets to a staff member who performed the data entry.

Cardinal Stritch's focus on interpersonal communication will be strengthened by the online efforts, notes Charles Collins, the institution's web developer and content facilitator. "We're trying to get to a point that if students have questions at 11 at night, they can find answers."

The Admissions and Advising departments at Ivy Tech Community College, Central Indiana, have teamed up to use their CRM system to track at-risk students during their entire career on campus.

"CRM is allowing us to fully engage students," says Jerry Harrell, director of student support and advising. "The end goal we are after is to help students to be self-sufficient lifelong learners." The top four risk groups monitored are first-generation students, those from low-income families, students who are employed part-time, and those needing remedial courses.

Ivy Tech, which is piloting its system at Central Indiana before it's rolled out to other campuses, is using Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The system is integrated into Microsoft Outlook, so the faculty and staff are already comfortable with it. Tracy Funk, director of Admissions, says the system is very customizable. While many of the systems they reviewed focused on academic aspects, such as what courses a student has taken and what they still need, their system "addresses the relationship with the student," she says. "We don't allow them to fall through the cracks."

The college launched Microsoft Dynamics CRM in February and will be rolling it out to other departments throughout the year. One plan they have developed is for assisting students who need remedial classes. Funk's department collects information on prospects, cross-references it with test scores, and can pass everything on to advisors or faculty as needed. They can view each other's notes, allowing Harrell's department to track a student's progress.

Harrell points out that students who engage with their advisor are more successful. The system allows the school to "manage a student holistically," he observes. Interventions can be tailored to address the needs of a group or individual students.

So far Ivy Tech is applying the new system to first-year students, which allows them to build a student profile from the ground up, as well as gain a clear perspective of the impact of the new system and the interventions used for each student. The new system was also a catalyst for a thorough assessment of the college's internal programs and the structure used to respond to students.

Retention was a big factor when considering implementing a CRM system. "We want to measure that we are doing what is best for the students," Harrell says. In 2001 the college retained 46 percent of its full-time students and 44 percent of its part-time population. Administrators have a plan to increase graduation and retention rates by 50 percent each year up to 2010, and they feel the new CRM system will help them accomplish that goal.

Housing all the data on a student in one area is a key attraction of most CRM systems, but following through on using the information is where the real benefit is found. Institutions that have implemented solutions from GoalQuest, which offers tools that can help IHEs communicate with constituents, say it's easy to follow up with students because the system is arranged to prompt students to reach out when they need assistance.

The University of Scranton (Pa.) combines a freshman seminar with the Royal Way, an online repository of information about the school and college life, to help students make the transition from high school. On the Royal Way students can find everything from tips about study and time-management skills, to campus clubs and pizza places in town.

"A lot of times they don't want to raise their hands in class," explains Mary Kay Aston, enrollment management information coordinator. The website gives students a less public way to let someone know they are homesick, or are struggling in some way. There are also forms to send questions directly to different student services departments such as Financial Aid or Housing, and links that will guide a student to the writing center or other services.

The program allows Aston to see who is a registered user and what sections each user is accessing. As the system grows, she will start utilizing built-in "flags" to alert the school when a student is struggling. When the system launched last September, 65 percent of the freshman class accessed it. Efforts are under way to ensure all faculty and freshmen are aware of the resource.

With an 88 percent retention rate, Scranton doesn't just rely on technology to retain students. They also believe in bringing in the right students to begin with and then adding extra touches-such as, on move-in day, having the president of the university hand out water and having students available to help carry things into the dorm. Joe Roback, associate vice president for Admissions and Undergraduate Enrollment, says, "We are always looking for ways to improve what we do and how we do it."

Retention efforts can come from unexpected places. At Texas Tech University, Sean Duggan, managing director of Housing and Residence Life, is using tools called TTU FYRE (First Year Raider Experience) and Raider Experience (upperclass program) to add value to living on campus.

"We were looking for ways to connect with students in a medium they like," Duggan says. School research has shown that students living on campus have better progress in their studies and higher GPAs than students living off campus. All students living on campus can access the system and see different information depending on their year. Although housing is sponsoring the system, it still drives students out to other departments and services available on campus. During the first year the system was live, the school experienced a 38 percent participation rate; the aim is for 50 percent this year. The first step? Advertise the program during orientation.

The University of Alabama sees parents as a means to connect with students. Last year the school launched PICS, a portal for parents to access information about the university, and "they ate it up," Benson Jones says. Since parents know their child best, they can easily tell if something is troubling them. The system gives parents an easy, direct way to communicate their concerns to the school, which can then bring in appropriate departments to examine the situation. The parent's involvement is kept confidential-as it wouldn't help matters to tell a student that his or her mother was concerned about the student's loss of weight. With the student's permission, Benson Jones can also use the system to pass along information to parents, such as midterm grades.

"We believe CRM should be individual," says Vince Kellen, vice president of information services at DePaul University (Ill.). Its Student Affairs department wanted more interaction with students receiving a high level of support services, so administrators added Oracle's PeopleSoft Online Marketing product two years ago.

They can now target specific populations with surveys and other communications to find out what is working well and what should be improved. This has already led to a number of solutions.

The department also conducted a "stress survey," which helped identify students who were thinking of dropping out, but hadn't talked to anyone. The College of Commerce used it to conduct a study of new students to measure how DePaul's program compared to those at other schools. Kellen says the students are comfortable with the electronic communication and the department usually receives about a 30 percent response rate, depending on how focused the group is.

His department is also using the system to control the flow of communication to students to prevent "e-mail fatigue," track whom messages are sent to, and track what response is being received.

Housing all the data is one thing, but following through on using the
information is where the real benefit is found.

As interactions with students become more digital, it is harder to know whether they are engaged. "At the very least, the quality of communication has improved," Kellen says of the new system, and students are receiving responses on a more timely basis. DePaul is also creating a central location for students to go with questions, so they aren't bounced from one department to another. "At a large institution you have to work harder to stay in touch," he adds.

Although the why's and how's of using CRM systems for retention efforts may be different for each institution, it's clear that retention can be improved with this technology.

Multiple schools have cited a drop in grades or attendance and failure to register for classes as indicators that a student is struggling. In addition, keeping in touch with students and providing them the information they need in a timely manner seems to be a universal concern.

Administrators at all of the schools mentioned say they view their CRM systems as a way to capture data on students and react in a more personal, proactive, and efficient manner to address student concerns-and in the end keep those students coming back.

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