NOTE: This blog was originally posted on Forbes. Read it here.
American youths have a keen desire to learn, often leading them to pursue additional education after their high school graduation. But there is a crisis waiting for them at the steps of these higher education institutions — student loans. More than 40% of all students have a student loan debt, totaling more than $1.4 trillion across 44 million Americans.
For many of these youths, accumulating debt before they even obtain the skill sets needed to pursue their career path of interest can dramatically impact their ability to find jobs or own a home. As this crisis expands and its ramifications are being researched, the college decisions of millennials and Generation Zers have altered drastically.
What does this mean for higher education institutions?
Colleges are aware of the unsustainable burdens students and their families are facing, and to reduce tuition costs — or at least keep them at their current rates — university boards have begun cutting back on their expenses. Combining these budget cuts with the ongoing decline in support from public funding, school administrators are facing the challenge of becoming more efficient without sacrificing the quality of education. This challenge is leading colleges to invest in technology, often cloud-based solutions, to strike that balance.
How does the cloud come into play?
Unlike eight years ago when I had to explain what the cloud was to our prospects and customers, college administrators are now more comfortable with the notion that cloud-based applications are secure, support strategic initiatives — such as reducing expenses to keep tuition affordable — and can transform the student journey. Gone are the days when IT departments needed to focus on the maintenance and upgrades of more traditional software. Cloud solutions now empower IT departments to focus more on operational efficiencies and innovation. This technology is creating a new service paradigm within IT departments moving them from IT-centric operations to student-centric.
The openness of the cloud allows IT departments to address the decentralized nature of higher education institutions. Many departments tend to look at their data with tunnel vision. For example, they may possibly focus on admissions data, advancement data or alumni relations data rather than looking at the data through the student’s journey. As a result, many of these departments have traditionally implemented their own technologies. This decentralized model creates frustration among students and alumni, especially since today’s students were raised in an environment that is driven by technology and mobile devices.
Queue the cloud, which offers a way to connect every touchpoint with each student beyond a four-year degree. The relationship between your institution and the student should not depreciate after the time he/she spends on your campus, it should continue into their adulthood. Universities should offer continuous value to their alumni over their lifetime. The implications are endless. You can listen to what your applicants are saying about you before they apply, connect with them and tailor their experience as they go through the admissions process. Being engaged might mean an increase in admission or maybe a better way to contact students in crisis. The more you know about your students the more you can engage with them by having meaningful conversations about giving and being an involved alumnus. It’s now an expectation that a school’s registration, admissions and ongoing administrative tasks will be as simple as launching an app on their phone.
Can the cloud be a competitive advantage?
The integration of the cloud and the internet of things (IoT) into campus-wide initiatives is an important step in modernizing how students interact with the institution and thus improve the overall experience.
But the move to the cloud isn’t just about schools trying to meet the digital demand, it’s also about increasing their competitive advantage. In simple words, rather than focusing on maintaining complex IT infrastructure, the cloud allows colleges to focus on what they do best — teach. The innovation that is being driven by migrating to the cloud allows institutions to develop a more personalized experience for their students and alumni.
The personalization enabled by technology is much more than a convenience to fit coursework into a busy schedule. For example, artificial intelligence (AI), could help colleges identify the learning path for students based on their individual progress in contrast to the current learning model of delivering the same content to an entire class. The University of Michigan is already using AI to provide immediate help for students with their writing assignments. The insights from the integration of AI into the learning will also allow faculty to identify where most students are struggling so they can dedicate more instructional time to those areas.
How can technology change the big picture?
With the entrance of tech-savvy Generation Z into the college world and the need for funding at a peak, it is more important than ever that higher education institutions leverage technology in a meaningful way. The more universities understand their students and centralize their data, the easier it is going to be for them to build long-term relationships with them. The more complete picture the development team has about what students accomplished when they were enrolled, the more personalization they can include in their outreach leading to a higher likelihood of those students giving back to the school after they’ve graduated.