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These Colleges Are Speeding Up Digital Transformation. Here’s How.

By October 14, 2020

In a matter of months, higher education institutions have had to reinvent themselves from physical hubs of learning to digital enablers of the student journey. And while no one knows exactly how the education experience will change in the future, it’s safe to say that colleges and universities need to be agile, adaptable, and flexible enough to embrace the “next normal” and future disruption.

Even before the current health crisis, institutions struggled with low enrollment and retention issues due to reduced federal funding, changing demographics, and students questioning the value of a college degree. Now, campuses of all sizes are expected to operate more like nimble software organizations—innovating quickly, scaling up virtual service centers, and putting infrastructure in place to support the always-on digital engagement needs of students.

Some forward-thinking higher education leaders have already taken steps to form wider and deeper ties with students. Although years behind most consumer product companies, they’re following the retail and service sectors in implementing technology to make the student and alumni experience seamless. Picture using the underlying technologies in Amazon one-click, Spotify recommendations, or the Apple Watch’s health tracking for higher education.

College student on computer.

Some forward-thinking higher education leaders have already taken steps to form wider and deeper ties with students.

The pandemic has accelerated these efforts to better connect with students, as innovative campuses set the foundation for how the industry will support lifelong learners. In just seven weeks, the London School of Economics built a course assessment planner and dashboard to allow professors to capture student assessments while working from home. The University of Vermont launched a campus-wide marketing automation platform in only two weeks to help them deliver more targeted, personalized internal communications around COVID-19. And at Indiana University, the CMO, CFO, and CIO have banded together to keep the focus on students as the environment around them quickly changes.

“A crisis like this gives all of us an opportunity to refocus on our core purpose, which is to educate students and to engage in research that will better society,” said John Sejdinaj, CFO, Indiana University. “Universities will take some across-the-board actions to mitigate the financial impact of the pandemic, but there will also be strategic opportunities.”

From admissions and enrollment to student retention and alumni relations, here’s how education leaders across the country are using technology to transform their operations and ensure they can meet the needs of students throughout their learning journey.

Reach, Engage, and Enroll

Students studying on campus.

The crisis has made it harder to get students to complete complex application processes and actually show up for their first class.

Higher education institutions have faced low enrollments and summer melt issues long before the pandemic, but the crisis has made it even harder to get students to complete complex application processes and actually show up for their first class.

51% of students expect online application support. Only 35% say it’s available.
(Source: Connected Student Report, 2020)

Rather than expecting students to ask for the information they need to make it to that first day, two colleges are making it easier to take next steps by providing self-service options and more cohesive student journeys.

Tidewater Community College (TCC) in Norfolk, VA is helping students find the information they need by providing a variety of self-service options on their website. For example, if a visitor is browsing a page on payment plans, the site serves up FAQs from the university’s knowledge base to ensure students can quickly find the answers to their questions.

They’ve also incorporated help center search results into their website searches, as well as added live chat to every page of their site for more complex questions. Especially useful during peak enrollment periods, the virtual help center has reduced web cases by 21% since its launch.

“Instead of placing the burden on our students and our prospects to know what they need to do, we’re taking it upon ourselves to provide the information they need—when, how, and where they need it.”
—Lucy O’Brien, Marketing Manager, TCC

At the University of Washington Continuum College in Seattle, the marketing team is also focused on providing relevant content along every step of the student journey. Specifically, they want to close communication gaps and encourage more students to complete the enrollment process for certificate programs. With the help of their marketing automation platform, they created a journey to ensure that students who enrolled in a program early received a steady stream of relevant communications.

Along the way, the data showed which students were entering and exiting the journey, and helped the team deliver emails that were relevant and action oriented. As a result, they saw a 73% open rate for that journey versus a 33% average rate overall.

“As adult learners, things can happen quickly and roadblocks can pop up. We wanted to help our students all the way to that first day of class,” said Claire Lewis, Marketing Technology Manager, UW Continuum College. “We thought it would be a powerful combination to take the marketing recruitment we had at the top of the funnel and combine it with program-specific content that was delivered after somebody applied. That, in turn, would create a more cohesive path for our students.”

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Strive for Service and a Sense of Belonging

For new students, the college experience can seem overwhelming and confusing. Registering for classes, completing financial aid applications, and adjusting to new people are just some of the challenges these students face in their first days. That’s why giving students a sense of trust and community is so important—even more so if they can’t actually attend classes on campus.

34% of students say feeling disconnected from others is the top reason for a poor university experience.

(Source: Connected Student Report, 2020)

With the help of their social collaboration platform, higher education institutions like Cornell University in Ithaca, NY and Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., are helping students build that community while providing them with practical information like details about student orientation and application deadlines. Amherst College has also found that the platform is an important tool for student equity, as it provides all students with access to the information and support they need.

“People who are like one another are more likely to associate with each other,” said Jakina Debnam Guzman, Assistant Professor of Economics, Amherst College. “In this way, student networks can amplify existing inequalities that students might bring with them to campus. However, making information more accessible can have positive benefits for everyone in the community.”

The college also saw more gender diversity in online social groups than in on-campus groups.

“Several studies suggest that social collaboration platforms can enhance a physical in-person community. It can lead to more community interaction, more involvement, and more social capital for everyone.”
—Jakina Debnam Guzman, Assistant Professor of Economics, Amherst College

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Create Community for Lasting Relationships

While building community in a post-COVID world is challenging, it’s essential for developing lifelong alumni and donor relationships. But when those alumni are located in countries across the globe, it takes a healthy dose of innovation to make them all feel included and valued.

With almost 400,000 alumni all over the world, the mission of Harvard Alumni Association (HAA) is to engage their members and build community. Since they communicate with their audience primarily through email, the association has increased engagement by delivering relevant content to each of their audience segments.

In the case of their alumni and events newsletters, HAA uses a template with dynamic content blocks that serve up different content based on audience needs. As a result of these changes, the association saw engagement increase across the board. Click-to-open rates for the alumni newsletter increased from an average 16% before the redesign to 20% after.

“Before, everyone got the same newsletter. It was hard to find news relevant to you. Now, rather than building many different versions, we can build one version of the message with dynamic content for whatever audiences we want.”
—Kellie Celia, Director of Engagement Marketing, Harvard Alumni Association

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Transform Experiences with the Power of Digital

For these and other higher ed institutions across the globe, the path to digital is never-ending. As world events, student populations, and expectations continue to change, colleges and universities need to respond at a moment’s notice. All the while keeping their focus on providing students with the best experiences as they move through their learning journey.

Learn how Salesforce can help transform your higher education institution with the power of digital.

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About the Author

Kathryn Peterson,

Kathryn leads the content strategy for Education Cloud at She has more than 15 years of experience managing content for top-tier organizations, including The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Adobe, and eBay. As a former adjunct professor, she’s passionate about building strong relationships, listening with intent, and telling powerful stories.