Technology Transcends Departments: From CIO to VP of Enrollment

min read

Key Takeaways

  • CIOs have foundational knowledge they can apply quickly to a new operational role, and some campuses have begun transitioning them to become leaders of enrollment functions.
  • As pervasive as technology has become, enrollment is the lifeline of higher education institutions.
  • Technology truly does have a ripple effect, with the data the campus systems provide helping students plan timely degree attainment, reducing the potential cost.

Kevin Palmer, Vice President of Enrollment and Marketing, Columbia College

Technology is critical to institutional success in today's higher education industry. Chief information officers have a lot of responsibilities, from managing current technology to understanding and applying new tools. Failing to maintain or implement new technology may set the institution years behind, making the CIO a critical role in advancing the priorities of everyone on campus.

A strong connection between technology, marketing, and enrollment make it easy for college leaders to see the value in transitioning their technology experts into other critical roles on campus. As pervasive as technology has become, enrollment is the lifeline of higher education institutions. The shrinking pool of prospective students intensifies competition between schools to recruit the students who best fit their campus culture, and a drop in enrollment can forecast severe consequences. Given the pervasiveness of technology in higher education, some schools have tapped CIOs to become leaders of enrollment functions — as Columbia College did in moving me to vice president of enrollment and marketing (VPEM).

Why Move from the CIO Role?

The transition from CIO to VPEM reveals a tipping point where technology has invaded every aspect of the institution. It shows that this position requires an understanding of both technology and business, a role CIOs know well.

Prospective students engage with institutions via social media, websites, college rankings, and more, well before they apply for admission. The VPEM is responsible for directly engaging students before, during, and after the application process, with the goal of maximizing the number of prospective students who apply for admission and ultimately enroll.

Prospective students must submit a variety of materials when applying for admission, including essays, references, and test scores. The VPEM provides students different ways to see which parts of the application the college has received and what it still requires. The VPEM's goal is to make the application process as simple as possible for both prospective students and staff.

Following student admission, the VPEM is responsible for achieving the targeted enrollment rate. The common denominator? Technology. Strategic marketing, a top priority, ensures effective spending of funds and achievement of applicant goals. Accelerating the process to send admissions decisions before other institutions, another priority, helps maximize the chances of students enrolling with us. And finally, technology is key to engaging with admitted students to get them to enroll. One particularly effective tactic relies on our enterprise content management (ECM) system, OnBase: we include transfer credit evaluation notifications with admissions decisions to show students exactly how many credits and courses they will need to graduate, saving them time and money. Columbia's overarching goal is to meet or exceed the expectations of prospective students.

CIO Experience as Preparation

Those who come from a technical background might find themselves speaking a different language than colleagues on different parts of campus. Although technology often helps staff work faster and more efficiently, sometimes technology doesn't completely solve the problem — frequently because of miscommunication between technology experts and business users.

To help me better understand the business aspect of these daily interactions, I earned an MBA, which proved incredibly valuable in my role as a CIO and then in my new role as VPEM. Aside from a better understanding of the challenges my colleagues face, I learned the critical importance of finding the root cause of an issue. Only then can it really be solved.

A great example of this happened when my colleagues wanted to find a way to better manage the waiting line that formed at the Enrollment Service Center during busy times. The first idea was to install benches, then to install monitors to track the waiting list. We weren't solving the problem; we were addressing the issues resulting from the problem. We should have asked, "How can we get rid of the line?"

In this case, we found a way to operate more efficiently, streamlining parts of processes that needed little attention but took the most time. After that, we no longer needed benches, monitors, or a machine to hand out numbered tickets. Addressing the root cause addressed the entire predicament.

CIOs have foundational knowledge they can apply quickly to a new operational role. At some point technology expands to touch all aspects of our lives, and it's no different for higher education. Technology transcends campus departments, and knowledge of how technology should and could work proves its value for leaders in running an efficient, effective team. At one time the CIO either knew the technology or the business application — that time has passed. By understanding the root of a problem, IT leaders can come up with solutions that prevent bottlenecks in the future.

This foundational knowledge applies to many aspects of my new position. How can Columbia College use technology to meet our applicant and enrollment goals? How can we raise our enrollment yield? How can we send out application decisions faster? How can we become more competitive by adding value to the admissions process?

Advice for CIOs and VPs

The first step when moving into any new role is to reevaluate everything about the department — the phrase "That's the way we've always done it" can be dangerous. While learning the people and processes, don't hesitate to ask why things are done in a particular way or why specific technology is used.

CIOs provide solutions on a university's path to becoming a digital campus. It's no longer all about purchasing hardware and servers; it's about solving everyday business problems and improving business processes. As we work toward a digital campus, the business aspects and corresponding processes should enable administrators to focus on positively affecting the student experience.

VPEMs without a technical background might have looked at technology as a necessary evil, but a VPEM with a technology mindset can facilitate the emergence of wildly different solutions to opportunities that arise. In any case, a close relationship between the CIO and VPEM is critical. Technologists bring expertise to a conversation where technology might not previously have been an option.

One of the most important aspects of any role is building trust. When colleagues trust you and your work, you start to transition technology from a necessary evil to a powerful tool. VPEMs must work closely with the CIO to ensure they meet enrollment needs in the most efficient way possible. This does not mean just completing projects; it means influencing positive change for students, faculty, and administrators by understanding their needs and addressing those needs with the best technology.

Transparency is critical for success. To solve a problem requires understanding it in its entirety. Otherwise, you risk protecting an inefficient process. After gaining full transparency into the transcript evaluation process, for example, we could automate it using OnBase. In this case, technologists helped change the process and take full advantage of the technology, eliminating more than 90 percent of the manual work.

Lastly, although we find it hard to acknowledge, CIOs can't be experts in everything. To progress professionally, some skills must lapse in order for you to learn new ones. Rely on your team to be experts in certain areas so you can focus on the strategic movement of technology instead of its inner workings. Administrators, faculty, and students depend on the CIO for tech leadership, product roadmaps, and bringing innovative technology to campus. When you transition out of the CIO role, you get a perspective on what it feels like to rely on the CIO for leadership and counsel and understand the importance of an effective partnership with IT.

A Changing Vision

Being a CIO is one of the most enjoyable, challenging, and rewarding roles around. It's gratifying to create a truly digital campus, making sure the right people have the right information as quickly and easily as possible. In moving to a VPEM role, a CIO background provides a tool set to leverage technology to its fullest extent and helps simplify enrollment for everyone involved.

Simplicity is paramount. The VPEM should replicate this key approach in the admissions process, making it as simple as possible for prospective students and admissions officers. Meeting enrollment goals is one of the most important aspects of an institution's health, and appropriate technology supports the process of achieving enrollment targets.

The VPEM can also position entering students to earn their degrees in a timely — and thus more affordable — fashion. Because many students have previously taken courses, I can send them a transcript evaluation along with their admission letter. This additional information lets students see exactly which courses they will need to take when they enroll to reach degree completion. Technology truly does have a ripple effect, giving us the data to help students help themselves.