A corporate community leader offers insights and recommendations on the EDUCAUSE 2024 Top 10 and the higher education community.
Which one or two of the EDUCAUSE 2024 Top 10 issues will be most relevant to Jenzabar in the future, and why?
I wish I could choose eight of the issues to speak to, given our involvement with higher education institutions, but if I'm forced to choose one or two, the first issue would be #3, The Enrollment Crisis: Harnessing data to empower decision-makers. As part of my role as vice president of strategy and innovation at Jenzabar, I keep my finger on the pulse of the market to see what's happening in the industry. My team utilizes a variety of market research methods, including surveys, to understand emerging trends and what we should be investing in. These surveys have revealed, unsurprisingly, that higher education has a looming enrollment cliff. There's been some discussion that maybe the cliff is not as bad as we think, but the data shows that the picture isn't great, especially for smaller institutions with regional and local brands.
Institutions with national brands are launching aggressive marketing strategies that take many students away from smaller local and regional institutions. As a result, those smaller campuses continue to struggle. We also see this struggle via the growing number of mergers and closures, with 40 to 45 having occurred since March 2020. We see that trend only accelerating if institutions don't change course.
Those are pretty strong indicators for us at Jenzabar to ensure that our solutions focus on these trends. Our solutions enable institutions of all sizes to address some of these challenges head on at every step of the student lifecycle.
One of the biggest things that happened for Jenzabar over the past year was our acquisition of Spark451, an enrollment marketing agency focused on higher education. Spark451 helps colleges and universities tell their unique story, identify which students are the right fit according to that unique story, and then attract and enroll those students. In terms of enrollment, the prospecting that Spark451 enables is an effective way for institutions to build out their enrollment funnel and drive growth.
Recruitment is a big focus for institutions. Once you've got those students interested in your institution, how do you nurture them? How do you form relationships with them? Jenzabar empowers institutions to improve their recruitment strategies with solutions that incorporate modern technologies as well as Enrollytics, a Spark451 tool that acts as a single source of truth, combining enrollment, marketing, and web analytics. A lot of institutions will have inconsistent enrollment numbers—between the number of deposits received in finance, the number of applications in student life, and even the immunization forms received at the health center—and it can be difficult to get a real, accurate number of students expected for the coming semester. Enrollytics pulls together data from different systems to provide a clear and predictable view on the admissions yield and on how many students are actually going to enroll.
After recruitment and enrollment, the next focus is retention. Once you've enrolled students, how do you keep them? How do you establish early alerts to figure out which students might be at risk? How do you implement multipronged, campus-wide interventions to engage with those students and support them in a way that helps them persist? These are core areas of focus for Jenzabar's solutions.
Clearly, we've taken notice of and interest in how institutions can improve each step of the student's journey. To ensure that our solutions address the challenges, we have launched two exciting solutions: the Strategic Enrollment Suite and the Student Retention Suite. The Strategic Enrollment Suite brings together Spark451's marketing services as well as proven technologies like Jenzabar Recruitment, Jenzabar Communications, and Spark451's Enrollytics. The Student Retention Suite is much more technology-heavy with advanced analytics, key performance indicators to figure out which students are likely to be at risk, and workflows to empower staff to implement timely and personalized interventions.
The second issue I'd like to highlight is #5, Administrative Cost Reduction: Streamlining processes, data, and technologies, and the challenges that institutions are facing today, how those challenges are different from the past challenges, and potential ways to solve these challenges. I think higher education institutions are having to adapt to a mentality of looking at revenues and costs. Historically, that mindset was not as ever-present as it is today. If you look at recent appointments of officers within institutions of different sizes, you'll see a lot of professionals from outside the higher education industry. That's a reflection of a shift in mindset to controlling costs and streamlining operations.
Jenzabar has a few different solutions to help institutions address these cost issues. In particular, we've released what we call the Unified Cloud Platform, which brings together student engagement and success, finance, human capital management (HCM), financial aid, and other core functions across campus. It enables institutions to automate traditionally manual processes, eliminate data and departmental silos, and align workflows across these different areas and offices on campus. It is designed to increase efficiency, which can lead to lower costs and overhead.
Unfortunately, many campuses struggle with data silos, such as those between systems like the student information system and the HCM platform. The unique strength of Jenzabar is that we have all those systems in our suite. When you can enable real-time data-sharing between the financial aid office, the business office, and other areas of the institution, there's incredible power to be leveraged. And while that sounds really simple, it's hard to do for a lot of institutions, especially considering that many platforms do not have the functionality to enable it. Without this data transparency and sharing, decision-making is difficult and unclear. With Jenzabar's solutions, we're giving institutions the tools and information required to make important institution-wide decisions.
What challenges are ahead for higher education in 2024?
Enrollment challenges are inevitable. But going more broadly than that, I think institutions will also face challenges in finding and implementing the right tools and partners to modernize and future-proof their campuses, because doing so requires investment. A lot of institutions are operating with a very short-term view of meeting their budgets. But to prepare themselves for the future, they need to think about how the next generation of students might want to be served. These students' digital experiences are shaped by services such as Apple Music and Netflix; they grew up with Wi-Fi, and they want instant, detailed account information. These experiences could be deployed using chatbots, artificial intelligence (AI), and other related technologies. But many colleges and universities are not making those investments; leaders are not aware how important those investments are in order to be relevant and to serve learners in a way that students have come to expect.
Another challenge facing higher education is the trend around the unbundling of the college degree. A lot of institutional leaders are thinking, "We're going to continue to be this traditional institution serving students who come in, stay for four years, and then leave." But degree models are rapidly evolving. Some students may come in for six months, get a credential that has market value, leave for a year, then come back again with the intention of stacking all those credentials into a degree. Instead of serving 2,000 students, a college or university might have 100,000 students, each with different kinds of relationships with the institution. From a technology and student perspective, how do you serve those students at scale?
What opportunities are ahead for higher education in 2024?
Thinking about the challenges associated with more students interacting with the institution over a smaller period of time gives rise to opportunities for chatbots, AI, and self-service models. Gen Z students are very open to using those self-service tools. They're digital natives, and they're comfortable in that space. Institutional leaders must recognize that fact and change their operating models, investing in tools that can help with meeting students where they are (issue #6).
Another opportunity is presented around lifelong learning and unbundling the degree. There are ways to supplement the traditional college degree with certificates that provide more market-ready, day-one, on-the-job skills. This allows students to earn the traditional degree as well as the skills that will get them hired. With this more skills-based education, institutions could bring together content from faculty as well as industry leaders to provide relevant skills training that can help students succeed in the workforce. This is a big part of Jenzabar's strategy. We recently launched Campus Marketplace powered by Jenzabar, which combines technology to help institutions manage those shorter-term engagements with ready-made content that can be leveraged by institutions. If a smaller institution doesn't have its own data analytics bootcamp, for example, we can provide that through a bootcamp that can still be vetted and adapted by faculty. Campus leaders can decide whether those bootcamps are up to the institutional standards or if they'd like to create their own and whether they'd like to incorporate those learning opportunities into credit-bearing certificates.
While there are similar platforms—such as Coursera and Udemy, with hundreds of thousands of courses, if not millions—Jenzabar's added value is that we've started with the skills and areas that are most in demand. We've looked at data on what employers are saying they need. The content we're bringing together is vetted by both faculty and employers to ensure that we have input into not only what the right topic areas are but also what should be included in the courses. That's a unique differentiator for us compared with some of the larger platforms, where authors might come and create their own content that hasn't been vetted by important stakeholders.
Going back to the idea of meeting students where they are in terms of their expectations, another opportunity is for institutions to move to the cloud and leverage more modern systems. Moving to the cloud provides tremendous benefits in terms of cybersecurity and the overall availability and management of systems. In many cases, though, there are questions about how institutions can manage all that infrastructure. This is an area in which we shine. Jenzabar is a leader in cloud technologies; we're at the front of the group for student information system vendors. We also help institutions completely outsource their IT departments to us. In some cases, an institution has one IT person as the entire IT department, and that person can't possibly have all the knowledge across all the different systems need attention on campus. We solve that problem by providing IT professionals on staff, with their own unique areas of expertise. An IT professional can come in for two hours and provide expertise on a particular area, and then another can come in for four hours and provide expertise on a different area. That's a much better model, especially for smaller institutions, to follow.
In general, though, I would say I'm cautiously optimistic about the future of higher education. I say optimistic because I see the potential of technology and making the right investments that will transform higher education and change how institutions interact with students and with faculty. Still, I'm cautious because there's a lot of inertia, and change in higher education takes time. I worry that many institutional leaders don't realize the sense of urgency. In reality, the runway is much shorter than many people might think. So, 2024 is a year that will define, for a good number of institutions, which direction they want to go. Do they want to adapt and thrive with new models of education, or do they want to slowly decrease their enrollment base over the next few years by not changing?
How are the EDUCAUSE 2024 Top 10 issues going to change the relationship between Jenzabar and the higher education community in the future?
At the core, the answer to this question comes down to trust. Some of the solutions we're developing will make certain decision-makers on campus uncomfortable because they represent model changes that institutions may not be ready for. And the answer comes down to whether or not institutions have a proven partner to help them make those changes—an experienced partner they trust enough to say, "Okay, we trust you to know what's going on, and we trust you to have the right tools to guide us through these times of tremendous change." Fortunately, Jenzabar has that trust, evidenced by the longevity of our partners. We have institutions that have stayed with us for forty years; hundreds have stayed with us for twenty-five years or more.
We're in a unique position to help college and university leaders realize the urgency and need for change, and then provide them with the right tools to make that change. How we see that relationship changing, especially for smaller institutions, is by taking a much more active role in filling some of those service needs. For example, smaller institutions may not have their own full-blown marketing department, and that's where marketing services from Spark451 can help. Those are some of the areas I'm really excited about.
Omer Riaz is Vice President of Strategy & Innovation at Jenzabar.
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