Against a backdrop of rising fees, and with student loan debt standing at an all-time high, US colleges and universities face mounting pressure to offer the best possible experience to their students.
But first, they’ve got to attract and recruit them - and overall enrollment is down for the seventh year in a row, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In its Spring 2019 report, the nonprofit higher education research organization stated that current enrollment in US colleges and universities was down 1.7%, or by nearly 300,000 students, from the previous spring.
Kent State University in Ohio hasn’t escaped these problems - at the start of its 2018/19 academic year, enrollment was down 3% - but there was good news, too, in the form of its largest-ever full-time freshman class of 4,363 students.
With colleges competing to attract and retain a finite number of students, there’s a growing recognition that data lies at the heart of providing them with a rich and meaningful experience, says Kent State CIO John Rathje. The challenge here, he says, is that this data is held in a very wide variety of different systems at Kent State and, in the case of admissions, arrives in a wide variety of formats.
Much of it must subsequently be integrated into a core ERP system, Banner, from Reston, Virginia-based higher education software specialist Ellucian, as well as Salesforce CRM and other SaaS applications.
That could potentially be a lot of work, and has been in the past, says Rathje, but Kent State has streamlined much of it using data integration technology from Talend, with a view to becoming a more data-centric organization:
We’re really looking to improve our data maturity as an organization. We have a large number of different applications that support the business and mission of the university and each of those applications has a need for data, or is an application requesting data from other systems. We want that data flow to be very defined, to be harmonized. We want the quality of the data from system to system to be very good, so that we can use that data to develop deeper insights into our business.
During the graduate and international students admission process, for example, Kent State will receive thousands of standardized test scores and candidate lists relating to applicants. This involves integrating 60 systems to handle more than 6,000 applications in a fast and efficient way that simultaneously keeps applicants informed of their progress. Its main system for orchestrating these graduate and international student applications, meanwhile, comes from Portland, Oregon-based CollegeNET, and this must also be integrated with Banner.
Using data integration technology from Talend, Kent State has been able to pull together these systems, ensuring that data entered into Banner is replicated in CollegeNet, via a nightly sync. Talend also picks up any problems in data, saving employees the need to manually change it in Banner, saving up to 20 minutes of admissions staff time, per applicant. Says Rathje:
For every piece of data, there is typically a set of business rules and business logic that helps describe different domains of our business. Talend helps us incorporate that very consistently and uniformly as we look to integrate applications and bring new ones into our environment.
That gives us confidence that data moving between systems will do so in a harmonized way and we’re no longer relying on point-to-point links, requiring application developers to move data from system to system. We’re allowing this platform to help orchestrate the data flow and I can’t tell you how helpful that is, as we grow the number of possibilities of where data might be used.
Student experience goals
As that last statement suggests, Rathje’s plans for data integration go way beyond the admission process. In effect, he sees Talend working as a virtual layer that floats above a vast array of different back-end and cloud-based systems, stitching together the data they each contain to provide students with joined-up ways to check test scores, enroll for classes, interact with faculty members and so on.
In this way, the ‘student experience’ effort has direct parallels with the ‘customer experience’ initiatives of commercial organizations, such as B2C retailers. As he puts it:
All universities today are working in some way to create the best experience they can for students from their community, on their path through university and onto a career path. And I’d say that one of the most important ways that commercial businesses in certain industries succeed is by creating a great experience for the consumer that differentiates them.
So when our students come to Kent State, they are very well-experienced with different digital platforms from the world outside the university, and their expectations are high. We want to provide them with an experience that will help engage them, provide them with the right resources at the right time, helping them to move through the university in a timely fashion, have a great experience, get a great degree and connect them with opportunities in the workforce.