Ensuring alumni back the future

Utilising the power of data is key if universities want to engage the loyalty of – and income from – former students, says SnapLogic’s Neerav Shah

At the start of each school year, universities want to ensure they are full with students who will pay tuition, attend lectures, live in university housing, and participate in campus life. The long-term aim is for them to graduate, secure good jobs, and eventually donate to their alma mater.

Historically, tracking the outcomes of those goals, and allowing students to manage all aspects of campus life in one place, has been a challenge. Academic institutions have been known to resist change and embrace progress slowly, rather than jumping quickly on the next big thing. While a cautious approach can have benefits, it’s not effective for university IT departments that have to process increasing amounts of student and alumni data, and satisfy their digital-native student bodies.

As universities synthesise more data on students, faculty, and alumni, there’s no telling what breakthroughs could come next

Imagine the path of Alice, a first year starting the next stage of her education. The university has data on her education history, interests and skills, potential career path, financial standing, and demographics. On move-in day, Alice expects her housing, timetable, parking information, meal plan, marks, and student finance, to be accessible through one online portal. She also expects to be able to make changes to any of these with one click.

Jump ahead four years, and Alice will graduate and move to another city. Will she attend alumni events? Donate money to her alma mater? If the university’s systems don’t recognise her as the same nervous fresher from four years earlier, alumni officers will struggle to keep her engaged with the goings-on in her former department, or the uni’s latest research initiative.

The long-term aim is for students to graduate, secure good jobs, and eventually donate to their alma mater

Data can solve these problems, and IT departments are starting to act in the face of pressure from students to modernise. Universities now rely more heavily on data analytics to predict what courses they should offer, the emerging fields students will want to enrol in, and more.

Forward-thinking institutions are modernising their infrastructure and applying data analytics in four key areas:

1. Lecture scheduling, housing, and other student needs

Incoming university students were not alive during the 20th century, yet much of the infrastructure running their schools is older than they are. These students demand a single source of truth to track the many pieces of their higher ed experience, and universities see a direct benefit from providing this.

Berklee College of Music took on a unique challenge: integrating the data of two institutions as it merged with the Boston Conservatory. In this case, integrating data allowed them to provide the type of information experience today’s students expect.

Related news: The University of St Andrews has received funding to develop its
SafePod network, allowing secure remote access to data centres around the UK

2. Alumni engagement and fundraising

It is crucial for universities to track students’ journeys from freshers to graduating third years to alumni. Each year, the number of alumni who are also potential donors or ambassadors increases by hundreds. Universities often rely on these ambassadors to instil and continue the school’s pride and education legacy beyond graduation. A challenge all universities face is being able to connect faculty, student, and alumni data. Therefore, universities should be implementing the correct data integration tools to ultimately give a more comprehensive way to reach out to alumni and increase fundraising opportunities.

3. Student Finance

As student debt threatens financial stability, it’s increasingly urgent for incoming students to have a clear picture into how much they’re borrowing, and from whom. Private and government loans, grants, and scholarships can come from an array of sources with no connection to one another, but data integration can help schools summarise and share it with students.

After updating its legacy technology system, Boston University – a 180-year-old institution – integrates data and applications twice as fast to automate important processes, including student finance. This removes hurdles that students, staff, and faculty previously faced with the university’s aging data architecture, streamlining the experience on both sides.

Each year, the number of alumni who are also potential donors or ambassadors increases by hundreds

4. Predicting what’s to come

As universities synthesise more data on students, faculty, and alumni, there’s no telling what breakthroughs could come next. Determining what courses students will want to take in a few years, based on historic patterns, what time of year alumni are most likely to donate, or how schools can better support students with financial aid, are just a few areas in which data integration and modernisation will bring centuries-old institutions into the 21st century.

Incoming college students were six or seven years old when Apple released the iPhone – most don’t remember a world without it. They use collaborative tools like Google Docs for schoolwork, rely on services like Spotify to access much of the world’s music library, and devices such as iPads are commonplace in their classrooms. It should come as no surprise that they expect a similarly modern experience from their university, which need to start catering for their needs by implementing powerful tools that allow them to track and manage their school lives in one place.

The competition for students is fierce, and it’s time for IT departments to play a central role in drawing them in and keeping them engaged long after graduation. This is a call to action for CIOs at universities and colleges to take full advantage of the world of data.

Neerav Shah is General Manager EMEA for data integration providers, SnapLogic