Technology Can Help Compete For & Retain More Higher Education Students

Technology is an essential element to every higher education institution and student. We see students coming to campuses with multiple devices; professors and staff all carry around or use devices as part of their jobs; bookstores are filled with devices for sale. But, in this age of necessary transformation – one which will define the future success or failure of institutions of higher learning – is technology being used to deliver on that promise of transformation?

Unfortunately, while the answer is likely “no” at most institutions, the opportunity to leverage technology to change the institution and adopt more student-centric models to recruit and retain students are very possible. This doesn’t mean quick “promotions” or “public relations stunts” to try and attract students with the promise of a free tablet, but instead looking at the basics of technology to envision how it can make higher education more academically effective and financially sustainable for its students and the institution as a whole.

The Realities Facing Colleges Today

As reported by the College Board, tuition rates have risen 146% at private colleges over the past 30 years (225% increases for public schools). While past decades associated “price” with “value,” very few institutions can rest on their laurels with astronomically high prices. Research by Moody’s suggest that most schools have lost their “pricing power” – family incomes are flat, a smaller pool of eligible students, and the need to give away more scholarship dollars to attract students. The result is less net-tuition dollars per student, while facing rising contractual costs, underfunded pensions and increased competition from other institutions as they all fight to attract the best students. Today, Moody’s predicts that 1 in 10 colleges are in a state of “acute financial distress” in that the school is unable to keep its net tuition dollars in line with its increased expenditures.

In this age of necessary transformation – one which will define the future success or failure of institutions of higher learning – is technology being used to deliver on that promise of transformation?

The “net tuition” figure is further complicated by a change in student tenures. Once the concept of the “super senior” was quite typical – taking 9 semesters to complete a bachelor’s degree. Now, more students are coming to college with the equivalent of their freshman year under their belt – the result of Advanced Placement and dual-certification courses taken in high school. Others are commencing their studies at the community college level to combat rising tuition at 4-year schools, while others are taking online and local courses during inter-sessions to help expedite graduation in under 4 years.

Parallels with the Hospital Industry 20 Years Ago

Local hospitals represent the closest form of “institutional thinking” shared by many colleges – just they were forced to change their business models two decades ago. We may recall the local community hospital as having a monopoly control as the only destination option available. But competition began and it started to change the industry. These changes I refer to as “transformational change” vs. “reforms” as the latter elicits negative connotations in academia.

Living on Long Island, I watched as North Shore/LIJ and Catholic Health Services, two modest institutions, began embracing change while many of their local counterparts focused on being a community institution. Their focus was improvement of services and a patient-centered model. Over the years, those two institutions acquired dozens of other hospitals, as they faced bankruptcy. Today, few independent hospitals remain in the region, and those that do have been forced to embrace change and be more competitive or risk facing extinction themselves.

Prior research confirms that when universities and colleges adopt the same customer-centric approach, the results can be positive. A 2009 report from the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that if faculty are trained to be more effective “teachers” and focus on great engagement with students – keeping students on track and helping to reach out to students who appear to be disconnecting from their studies – a professor teaching 600 students could help keep 5 students from dropping out or transferring to another institution. In essence, each faculty member has the potential of generating an incremental $250k which would have otherwise been lost tuition revenue.

Meanwhile, some forward-thinking institutions are making great strides to change the very nature of the student-college relationship. Most recently, Arizona State University introduced a “delayed payment” program called the Global Freshman Academy, where students can take online courses for credit, and if happy with the results, then pay the tuition to receive college credit for the class.

How Technology Can Create Student-Centric Transformations

Whether a college president, provost or other leader, I have been asked on several occasions, “What can technology do to help attract and retain students?” Blending the needs and realities of students, and the resources available today, here’s some things to consider exploring for your institution…ideas that represent proven strategies and will not radically disrupt the very foundation of your charter:

1. Setting up Key Performance Indicators for Intervention – Traditionally, we have set the expectation that students are responsible for their own learning. Issues such as poor attendance or low performance in class was a matter between the student and faculty member. But more institutions are attempting to track data in real time (attendance, grades) and setting up internal red flags for intervention from advisement staff. Being proactive can help the school identify the student’s problem and attempt to proactively resolve before fear of failure leads to a withdrawal.

2. Leveraging All Touch Points to Measure Customer Engagement – Students interact with dozens of college personnel daily, as well as multiple means of connection (phone, email, online, in-person). Yet most schools can’t identify or understand patterns and trends that exist with those interactions which may be hurting or helping their efforts. Elevating customer analytics with tools, such as HP Haven, look across every touch point, news source and social media outlet to gain a greater understanding of the very issues you may or may not be aware of that are impacting your reputation and what students are actually feeling.

3. Reduce or Eliminate Materials Costs – I have visited schools this year where tuition is still below $90 per semester hour. But while taking a math course may be approx. $270, the textbook for that one class is being sold in the bookstore for $307. In lieu of resorting to expensive textbooks, which in previous articles I’ve shared have risen over 800% in the past 35 years, schools are starting to embrace and encourage faculty to curate free and open-source content as part of their courses. Using a more dynamic learning management platform, colleges can virtually eliminate the course materials charges, and instead create a technology fee for substantially less cost, which includes the student’s computing device with complete turn-key support (accidental damage, on-campus tech support, loaners, and automatic data backup). The result helps greatly lower two large expenses incurred by students, while improving the service experience associated with them (i.e. no more bookstore lines, no worries about what to do when my laptop breaks).

4. Make On-Campus Printing Easier – Few students come to campus anymore with their own printer, but rely on local printers for assignments and projects. Ensuring easy access to printers that are fully stocked, always working, and at little to no cost eases some of the most common complaints and challenges experienced by students, especially at the end of the semesters. Where concerns over costs have arisen, creative companies like WEPA offer on-campus print kiosks paid by the students via an account or credit card.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of steps a proactive institution can take, but it gives some simple or more innovative steps a college can take to change its culture to emphasize student-centered experiences. By focusing more on our customers and delivering a better service to them, companies and colleges alike can continue to flourish in the years ahead.

Elliott Levine is Chief Academic Officer for Hewlett Packard Americas Education. There he works with schools and universities to support major educational technology initiatives and was co-inventor of the HP Personal Learning Engine (US PTO PCT/US2013/062777), an effort that has him featured as one of three employees at A former K-12 official and regular public speaker, he has worked for and launched startups in the education and marketing industries. You can learn more about him at  

Related toolkits

Learn more now with materials from these toolkit and resource collections: