Taking advantage of the digital disruption to improve student success and campus efficiency

Doing More With Less: Technology & Current Priorities in Higher Education

From the Editor

Part 1: Student Success and Budgets

Facing an election year and all the associated uncertainty, higher education institutions are facing more than the usual rhetoric around efficiency. The new economic model includes the imperative to do more with less, and despite rising student (and faculty) expectations, IT departments are no exception. This is an indication that institutional efficiency and student success are going to be the driving forces behind an upgraded digital experience in colleges and universities across North America.

Data reveals that enterprise software currently installed in colleges and universities is not keeping up with the disruptive technology transforming the digital experience and life as we know it. Student Information Systems (SIS), for example, date back to an average of 13 years – and dated is the right word. 13 years ago Facebook was still the purview of select college students with .edu email addresses, Uber hadn’t been conceived of, and smartphone ownership was negligible. (Remember the first iPhone, rolled out in 2007? Me neither; but by 2015 smartphone ownership was up to 68%). In that context, it’s easy to understand how 13 years can make a significant difference in terms of what is now commonly referred to as the digital era, where “intuitive” is the ultimate technological aspiration. The gap between the digital revolution that we are experiencing every day and the technology we are using on campus is what we call the Digital Downgrade.

Start with Student Success

The grander aim of higher education is to drive society forward by expanding the horizons of tomorrow’s leaders. This focus on the future requires a commitment to student success across a broad spectrum, which must start with meeting students where they are – and they’re full digital natives. Remember, most of today’s students have never licked a stamp.

The American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) states as one of its main goals, in the 2013-2017 strategic plan, “Equity: Innovation, Inclusive Excellence, and Student Success.” This goal is about using innovation to expand the accessibility of higher education, for both entrance and completion. We see this as a great opportunity for digital technologies to make a real difference in supporting colleges and universities to drive student success for anyone who wants, as AAC&U says, to “develop both a rich understanding of the world they inherit… and the practical knowledge and capacities graduates need to help solve difficult problems they will inevitably confront.”

While campuses across North America expend a lot of energy and resources on recruiting good candidates for admission, there has historically been a lack of action on why and how to counter the fact that many of these students don’t complete their studies. Research shows that institutions with high completion rates are not always those you might expect, but share some common characteristics:

  • “Presidents [who] made a visible, vocal and persistent commitment to retention and completion;
  • The institutions systematically collected data on student performance and then acted on that data; and
  • The institutions created degree completion pathways for students on an individual basis and regularly audited their progress.” (Kirwan, page 6-7)

Select universities and colleges have already recognized the importance of this kind of action and have achieved great results. Georgia State, for example, was able to formulate an advising strategy to intervene with at-risk students based on big data analysis of students who had dropped out in the past. They achieved an increase of 20 percentage points in graduation rates and eliminated differences between graduation rates based on race and ethnicity. William Kirwan, former Chancellor Emeritus of the University System of Maryland, says Georgia State managed all of this in a time when Georgia’s state budgets were contracting. This is a perfect example of using technological innovation to be more effective – to do more with less.

Speaking of which: Budgeting and resource allocation

Yet as Kirwan says “[a]t the very time we need to marshal our resources and broaden our nets to serve more students, it [some critical media attention] rewards greater selectivity and increased per-student expenditures.”  Doing more with less is no easy task and I certainly don’t mean to suggest not demanding better funding – colleges and universities are among the most important pillars of society. But, greater institutional effectiveness and improved campus management means you can reinvest in increasing quality learning resources and other innovations. Digital disruptions offer the means of revolutionizing higher education to better serve students, faculty, staff and the wider community.

Continuing budget cuts mean that institutions need to find more revenue somewhere and this often comes in the form of tuition hikes. Taking advantage of digital disruptions to transform the landscape of student success and institutional effectiveness actually bolsters the argument for more funding as it shows Higher Education’s ability to adapt and succeed in creating more efficient campuses, and add value to society looking towards the future. Innovations in budgeting and resource allocation, which can be aided by technology that helps evaluate and redistribute resources based on data-driven analysis, are possible with a little imagination.

According to its blog, the University of California, Riverside, is assessing the implementation of a performance- and incentive-based budget model. They hope this will help them work towards their goals of a “flexible, transparent, strategic, risk-tolerant and logical” budget to align resources with their institutional transformation strategy. And it is this flexibility that is key to creating a more adaptable university that can power important aspirations like student success.

Tune in next week to read Part 2 and discover how business analytics and improved automation will help you create the campus of the future. 

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