As higher ed looks to move into the post-coronavirus world, the sector has found itself having to adapt. Leaders hope to drive up graduation rates and to lure more students in through their gates, especially given threats like the enrollment crisis.
Under these considerations, the impact of technology on teaching and learning hasn’t been lost on university leaders, researchers say. And as a result there’s been a surge in investments, particularly as institutions modernize by moving digital operations to the cloud and as they pour money into student success systems that link all the digital tools used to help learners progress from recruitment through commencement.
The Tambellini Group, a higher-education advisory firm, noted this year that many institutions have restarted their long-term investments that might have been put on hold due to the coronavirus and that others were stimulated to update their old systems. It’s not just pandemic recovery, the firm says, but a structural update.
So far, they estimate that only about 5 percent of institutions have been able to pull the trigger on these structural transformations, but they say that many more are carefully mapping out such moves. These sorts of investments are expensive—a new cloud-based administration system, for example, can run a large research university tens of millions of dollars—and they take time to put in place. They also rely on IT staff, who like teachers and other faculty are stressed and burned out from the pandemic but who would need to perform much of the work.
Nonetheless, Tambellini says they see the uptick in investments as a tantalizing sign that the higher ed market will continue to grow.
“We are seeing an increase in spending and investments in student systems from higher education systems of all sizes and types,” says Vicki Tambellini, founding CEO, who predicts that the investments will not taper off or dip.
It isn’t the only report that’s predicted a stream of expensive updates to higher ed systems. Last year, Educause, an edtech association, noted that higher ed institutions were making room in their budgets for student success technologies, especially in customer-relationship management systems. They’ve also noticed increasing plans for higher ed spending on IT.
“I do think it’s encouraging to see that institutions are aware of—sensitive to—and working to address students’ needs,” Mark McCormack, senior director of analytics and research at Educause, says.
Institutional leadership has realized the need to make more data-informed decisions and to automate some processes, he says. They’re exploring ways to connect data and applications across different units at the institution.
Yet even at colleges where leaders are interested in investing in new tech tools, barriers remain, including the cost and effort, as well as concerns about student privacy, a dearth of solutions for the largest and most complex institutions—and maybe even a lack of clear vision.
One of the things the student systems do is make collecting information about students easier. To universities, this allows them to give real-time feedback to students. It shows students how the decisions they’re making affect their graduation and eliminates inefficiencies that are expensive to universities and potentially derailing to students.
But collecting data on students has historically been a charged issue that can stir up concerns over privacy and sometimes even over elongating inequities. Attempts to introduce some data analytics programs—like one earlier this year at George Washington University, a private research university in Washington, D.C.—run the risk of kicking up controversy.
But Tambellini argues that students are struggling right now, in part, because they don’t have sufficient support.
“Students need better systems and more support than they’re able to get in real-time, especially post-pandemic. Not everybody is available in a way that makes it easy for students to get what they need from administrators and faculty,” Tambellini says, “And so modernizing has become critically important.”
If you ask the vendors, they’re not sure the investment level has really taken off as yet.
“I don’t know if I’m necessarily seeing lots and lots of real investments flowing through,” Nicole Engelbert, vice president of higher ed development at Oracle, one of the largest software companies in the world, says.
Tambellini’s study tracked the upswing in student system purchases, Engelbert says, but it’s not the explosive growth of the kind economists call “hockey stick growth” yet, in part because “switching out your student system is like [a] major organ replacement for an institution.”
And there’s also the question of size and complexity. A lot of the explosive growth occurred in relatively small, private, nonprofit colleges for whom existing solutions are ready to be deployed, Tambellini reports. For large institutions with many degree programs and even multiple schools, the challenge is different than for smaller or mid-level institutions. Basically, the tech solutions just aren’t there yet.
“Boston University has suffered from [the lack of scalable solutions like student information systems] in that we have needed a new student information system for many years, but couldn’t really identify a next-generation cloud-based one that we could go to that was ready for an institution of our scale and complexity,” Tracy Schroeder, vice president of information services and technology and chief data officer for Boston University, says. “And unfortunately for us, that’s still the case.”
Tambellini predicts that the solutions for large institutions will mostly be ready by 2026.
Universities can’t pin all of their student-success challenges on limited technology.
These institutions should spend less time on “shiny tech toys” and put more resources into shaping the bold vision and reengineering the business processes that will truly transform higher education, Engelbert of Oracle says.
The migration of institutions using what Engelbert considers to be massively outdated tech is going to happen, she says, but whether it brings in “a new golden age in higher education or seals the fate of some sectors in the market will, in large part, rest not on the technology—but on the business-process reengineering that precedes it.”
The goal for higher education should be moving past vague talk about “digital transformation” and figuring out how to actually measure student success and improve the student experience, Engelbert argues. Otherwise, she adds, colleges are just letting companies like Salesforce, Workday—or Oracle—define that for them.