Why it’s critical for higher education to think digital

As higher education evolves in the wake of COVID-19 and as student expectations change, one thing remains clear: digital is the way forward

Higher education is changing dramatically amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and institutions are tasked with finding a new way forward.

Many institutions have seen declining enrollment numbers driven by a large number of freshman choosing to defer enrollment and many international students unable to return to campus.

In response, many institutions made significant adjustments. Through the summer, some dipped further into their waitlists to boost enrollment. Others are making changes to program offerings and curriculum requirements to ensure on-time graduation. Universities have had to invest in technology to support remote learning and operations even as they’re challenged by already reduced budgets. The financial impact to the institutions is significant, prompting leaders to make difficult decisions, like cutting programs at an accelerated pace.

Students felt tremendous uncertainty as they faced a college experience that was different than what they had imagined. Navigating this environment meant worrying about everything from how they would connect with instructors and other students online to ensuring they were choosing the right classes to meet and maintain financial aid criteria.

It is clear that institutions will need better ways to connect with and guide students remotely to ensure they are supported even when they are not on campus. For this, having the right technology in place is critical.

Planning ahead

Many institutions have long-used enterprise performance management (EPM) applications for scenario planning, and as such, were ahead of the curve when the pandemic struck. The applications give institutions the ability to develop accurate and agile plans, improve data driven decision making and better predict the biggest budget impacts.

EPM has proven essential to helping institutions make informed decisions and better manage costs and budgets as they quickly make adjustments to areas such as admissions, curriculum requirements, and available courses in a constantly-changing environment.

Another important–though often overlooked–set of tools in helping colleges and universities understand and plan around student sentiment is social listening and monitoring tools. These tools provide valuable insights that can be leveraged in decision making and social campaigns, giving institutions a huge leg up on the competition.

Managing a changing student base

While the higher education business as a whole has had to adjust the way it operates, admissions staff, recruiters, and counselors have had to rethink their approach to connecting with students, as well. Institutions have been overwhelmed with calls from students and teachers struggling to adapt to the new remote reality. This is where automation comes in. Using emerging technologies such as chatbots, digital assistants, and conversational AI interfaces ensures that no student’s question goes unanswered, and it frees up staff to spend more time forging critical one-on-one connections with students in an almost entirely remote landscape.

Having the underlying technology to recruit and support students digitally can impact students choosing one university over another. For this reason, institutions should think of student engagement points from a customer experience perspective. Picture prospective students seamlessly browsing course catalogs, finding information about faculty members, and connecting with institutions digitally. Automating where possible makes it much easier for students to engage with a university. For example, implementing a chatbot to answer common questions around COVID-19 so that students can quickly find answers and alleviate concerns, or developing a nimble, student-centric portal for scholarship and grant recipients to quickly check their course load to ensure they are on track to maintain their scholarship status.

By automating these processes and putting them in the hands of students, counselors and recruiters can devote more time to reimagine virtual events, such as virtual student days, to create meaningful interactions and make students feel like they are truly a part of the university, even if it’s through their computer screens.

The bottom line is that times are changing for higher education admissions, enrollment, and retention, and the necessary changes to things like curriculum requirements and student portals aren’t easy to make on a legacy system. Technology needs to evolve in order to enable greater flexibility in today’s environment and provide students with the guidance and confidence they need to pursue their higher education goals.

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