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Net Effects

Setting out to build high-tech services for students based on an integrated campus Web portal, North Shore Community College realized increased enrollment, better retention, and improved financial ratios.

By Janice Forsstrom

The college’s high-tech journey began in 2001 with the launch of its campus Web portal. Since then, we have established a number of underlying objectives that influence our technology initiatives:

  • Maximize value and functionality of existing technology investments.
  • Keep up with or exceed the evolving service expectations of our technologically savvy campus constituents.
  • Integrate multiple disparate systems to improve efficiencies.
  • Provide convenient self-service access to information, teaching and learning resources, and campus services.
  • Make it easier to perform college administrative tasks.
  • Promote redesigned business processes while generating cost savings for the institution.

The long-term technology plan became an extension of our centralized Web portal, which could support development of multiple functions across time (for details, see the sidebar, “It Started With a Portal”).

It Started With a Portal

In 2001, North Shore Community College, Danvers, Massachusetts, launched an integrated campus Web site that included e-mail, course resource areas, administrative services, and more. This “unified digital campus” provides portal capabilities, collaboration and communication tools, and a common interface that facilitate seamless interaction for learning, teaching, and administration. The overall outcome has been not only a vastly improved online experience but also an opportunity for the college to redesign its business processes. Along the way, the college has also received national recognition for innovation, particularly in the use of technology for student and administrative services (for more information, see http://myweb.northshore.edu/users/gham/nacubo/).

Return on investment for the entire portal project has been significant. For details, read the online article “An Integrated Digital Campus Delivers ROI and VOI,” by Janice Forsstrom and Gary Ham, at http://connect.educause.edu/library/abstract/AnIntegratedDigitalC/40017.

Currently, North Shore’s Web portal supports faculty, student, and staff self-service applications; a learning management system; course resource areas; content management applications; an intranet with customized paperless processes; and personal Web space available for all students, faculty, and staff. The integrated system is embraced by nearly 100 percent of campus employees and students. The streamlined suite of technological services requiring only one username and password has further allowed the college to use technology as a tool to increase access and engagement. Future possibilities encourage thinking about how to present information and communicate with students and faculty with the innovative new technologies that are available—and that are constantly changing.

From File Box to Electronic Recruitment

One of the areas we wanted to enhance via e-communication was our recruitment and enrollment process. Prior to 2004, we had no way to identify and follow up with our institution’s potential applicants, including the 30,000–40,000 monthly visitors to our Web site. Instead, we collected information from 400–500 potential students using “recruit cards” gathered during high school visits. Clearly, this was an old-fashioned, inefficient, and ineffective process.

So, we turned to our unified digital-campus portal to leverage the information gathering experience and to implement the institutional culture change necessary to better address this problem. Along the way, we wanted to determine how to refine our communications and make them more student- and action-driven. This would not only satisfy the expectations of our students and potential learners, it would elevate the college’s overall image in the process.

To electronically capture and use recruitment information, the college had to make substantial changes to procedures that had been in place for decades. We formed an institutional communications team to provide centralized planning and to deal with issues that might arise from this ambitious undertaking. With diverse representation from staff in recruitment and student services, a Web administrator, and others, the team worked cooperatively with the marketing department to coordinate e-mail campaigns and other initiatives targeted at potential students and other populations. These activities have since become standard practice as the project has expanded.

Under direction of a cross-component institutional-image council, the team was formalized and charged with creating a long-term institutional student communications plan. This effort would document, prioritize, and assess all communications to students throughout their college experience, starting with recruitment.

After considering priorities, the team created a communications management initiative, identifying three main ways to combine creative e-communications, automated processes, and innovative recruitment activities.

1. Create an e-recruitment system that allows us to capture the identities and interests of Web site visitors. Now we collect an additional 3,000–4,000 online recruit cards in the same amount of time as the earlier manual process—or less. NSCC’s e-recruitment system implements recruitment and admissions modules that allow potential students to self-recruit at their convenience. It also provides constituents faster access to information and resources. Since all potential student information needed to be captured online and passed through transparently to the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, we created a series of custom Web pages and tools to collect the data and provide an interactive experience for users.

The online self-recruitment pathway we devised works via the following steps:

  • A large graphic on the home page invites potential students to the self-recruit area.
  • A simple form collects prospect data, including area-of-interest information.
  • Upon form submission, a personalized thank-you page appears with links to resources that match the prospect’s interests (a copy of this page is also e-mailed to the student at this time).
  • An invitation suggests that the potential student explore the area-of-interest pages, program-of-study pages, and faculty-maintained academic department pages.
  • The prospect automatically receives an e-mail from the director of admissions on the next business day.
  • The prospect becomes the subject of an e-marketing communication plan that tracks e-mail openings and click-through rates. For a brief (three-minute) interactive overview of this system, go to (http://myweb.northshore.edu/users/gham/nacubo/e-recruit).

Results. Since implementing this system, we have seen steady growth in our enrollments. Our 2006 full-year and 2007 fall credit enrollments were the largest ever—moving North Shore from the fifth-largest to the fourth-largest institution in our state’s system, which includes 15 public comprehensive community colleges.

Our e-recruitment application has resulted in an overall increase in communication with potential applicants, timely interventions, and follow-up, and has increased constituent contact—all using an existing system that required no additional staffing and minimal additional expense.

The college chose to use an inexpensive but effective online e-marketing service and e-mail communication system to manage prospect communications. The system exports population selections and uses them for targeted e-mail communications. Because we collect the appropriate information on the prospect form, we are able to send communications based on age, projected term of entry, city or ZIP code, and academic interests.

Based on the initial results from this system, we have expanded its use to additional populations, including nonreturning students, accepted but not registered students, current students, and financial aid students. To facilitate this expansion, we developed a custom form in-house that allows for simple population selections to automatically create the target groups within our campus portal.

Equally important, the application provides a sophisticated image to traditional and nontraditional constituents who demand immediate and personalized communication. Since today’s students judge colleges by their Web sites and Web services, a positive impression is critical. Our e-recruitment system establishes North Shore Community College as an active participant in the online world.

2. Reorganize the way our programs are categorized on the public Web site to better suit prospects’ requirements and interests. This project involved extensive cross-component collaboration among admissions, recruitment, academic affairs, marketing, and information systems. It meant abandoning the tradition of grouping programs by academic division in favor of a new categorization system that mixed programs from various divisions under a single heading and integrated noncredit offerings with for-credit programs. This allows prospects to request information on a variety of courses or programs that to us might seem unrelated but to the potential student are of increased interest.

Results. The project took a year and has resulted in a dynamic online environment that directly reflects how students think individually, rather than how NSCC thinks organizationally. The extensive collaboration among admissions, recruitment, academic affairs, marketing, and information systems broke down organizational barriers and created a major shift in how we view our programs and services. The spirit of collaboration was particularly apparent in creating the areas of interest, which led to abandoning traditional program groupings in favor of adopting the new categorization method.

3. Develop an on-the-spot-event (OTSE) program and early acceptance events. These additions include the following components and improvements:

  • Our recruiters can now hand out letters of acceptance during high school visits, a practice similar to that of some of our area’s four-year college admissions processes.
  • An electronic communications plan for local high school guidance counselors encourages them to promote OTSEs at their high schools.
  • These are designed mainly for students who would normally be our clients but would be admitted much later in the process without this early focus on recruitment.
  • Fall and spring applications are being processed concurrently in our service area, a modification that reflects our changing institutional demographics and addresses the growing number of traditional-age applicants.
  • A series of early-acceptance events for students and their families promotes more information, creates better connections, and fosters future relationships.
  • Revised business processes have changed our recruitment from a semester-based cycle to an annual cycle.

Results. The OTSE program has increased our acceptance numbers, and we have earlier, better information on our first-time/full-time student cohort. For example, in April 2007, we were 40 percent ahead of where we were the previous year and 71 percent ahead of where we were two years prior. By accepting students earlier, we are able to develop better advising options to counsel them much sooner and more thoroughly on academics and finances before they arrive on campus. Consequently, we expect they will be more confident and prepared on the first day of classes. The fall 2007 cohort was the first group accepted with OTSE students. Through our initial experience, we’ve learned some lessons and improved the process for the next OTSE cycles.

This three-tiered effort has spurred significant growth in potential applicant information, increased our prospect pools, and given us a completely new way of approaching our customer-relationship management activities. Since our state budget formula and key performance indicators are largely enrollment- and retention-driven (unduplicated credit headcount and credit-hour course enrollments are two key factors for determining budget needs and allocations), these linked projects have led to increased performance in important areas and also have prepared the college for future advancements.

Many Happy Returns

This project has contributed to increased and improved institutional performance that can be measured quantitatively and described qualitatively. As mentioned, two of our state’s higher education key performance indicators have grown consistently from 2004 to 2007. In one year alone, from fall 2005 to fall 2006, headcount increased 3.7 percent and course enrollment increased 2.9 percent.

Since our state budget formula is fundamentally enrollment-driven, annual enrollment increases are critical for funding allocations. We have met or exceeded our targets for the last three years and expect to continue this trend. The college has been able to increase the volume of recruitment-related communications far beyond what is possible with a typical budget for physical mailings. There are no limits to the e-mails we may send, although we reserve this type of communication for situations that require individuals to take direct action (i.e., to register, return next semester, attend open houses, and so forth).

As a result of increased efficiency, the recruitment department can now focus its attention on recruiting for more than one semester out. Previously, NSCC recruited fall-to-spring and spring-to-fall only. Now, we are recruiting fall-to-fall, along with the four-year schools.

The overall return on investment and value for the college derives from the years of technology integration that prepared us to bring service to consistently higher levels. Using a core ERP system as a foundation, the college used out-of-the-box portal software and developed innovative Web front-ends that are easy to use and attractive to students. In addition, the college institutional culture has evolved to accept that services on the Web are the way we now do business. Our strategic investment in a flexible, scalable technology infrastructure eight years ago has proven to be an excellent customer service as well as a good business decision. (For more information about serving students, view NACUBO’s webcast “Living Up to Student Demands at Today’s Community Colleges” at www.nacubo.org/x9210.xml.)

Measure for Measure

When we evaluate how far we’ve come in developing our technological village, we note the following improvement factors:

  • Enlargement of the prospect pool through expansion of Web-based recruitment efforts.
  • Growth in the number of applicants in specific programs by matching their areas of interest.
  • Efficiencies achieved, such as decreasing staff data entry by automating the population of prospective student information into our systems, electronically connecting with potential applicants, and automating communications.
  • Heightened student satisfaction by providing timely, customized information and follow-up.

In addition, by using our core systems to track all communications and related activities, the college is now able to measure the effectiveness of various recruitment efforts. By analyzing statistical trends and comparing data about programs or areas of interest, we can make informed decisions about our recruitment efforts to maximize investments of human and fiscal resources. At the same time, we can align strategic programmatic directions based on hard data, as recruitment communications are refined over time.

Next Up

As we continue our communications initiatives, we are now experimenting with Web 2.0 aspects that students appear to expect from us. For example, about a year ago, the college consciously decided to maintain an institutional My Space page to provide direct links to our college home page services and to counter the informal NSCC My Space community that had developed on its own.

We pursued this path carefully and thoughtfully to educate our constituents with correct information concerning the college and also to reach out to students where they actually communicate, not just where we think they are in the online world. Our future projects in this area include integrating a prospect portal and further enhancing our retention tools. To support these initiatives, we also began a data warehouse effort that provides easier and more flexible reporting, allowing us to make better use of the collected data.

All of these activities are connected to creating a positive image of the institution and increasing awareness of our new strengths and offerings. At the same time, we’ve brought our communications to a new level, using technology and the Web to provide faster response and better service. Shifting our paradigm from what we consider best to what our potential and current students expect began with our implementation of an integrated campus portal. We feel that the resulting culture change and follow-on projects position us well with our stakeholders. This shift not only provides improved customer relationship management, but also results in measurable institutional performance.

JANICE FORSSTROM is vice president, administration and finance, North Shore Community College, Danvers, Massachusetts.