Why personalising the student experience is critical to higher education’s viability

Why personalising the student experience is critical to higher education’s viability
Better use of data can inform decision making so universities make better decisions, attract the right students onto the right courses and ultimately manage resources more effectively.

Over the last few months there have been two disparate themes in my conversations with higher education institutions. The first has been the pervasive and ambitious plans for growth throughout the sector, and the second has been concern over increased competition for students and resources. At first glance, these seem a little contradictory. However, they can be reconciled – better use of data can inform decision making so universities make better decisions, attract the right students onto the right courses and ultimately manage resources more effectively.

I’ve alluded to them above, but several factors are casting a cloud on the financial viability of university growth plans. They include:

  • Brexit – this is widely expected to reduce the numbers of EU students choosing to study in the UK.
  • Increased competition for UK students – from within the British education system and from strong international alternatives.
  • Drop in international student numbers – the UK has fallen back into third place as the destination of choice, behind Australia, and is showing weaker growth rates than Canada and France, two of the UK’s biggest rivals. This is a worrying problem, since Universities UK states that spending by overseas students supports more than 200,000 jobs – with an economic impact across fees, travel and living costs of £25.8 billion, including £1 billion in tax revenues.[1]
  • Growing discontent with educational value – as more and more students who graduate do so with the highest grades, many question the value of their qualifications versus the debt they’ve acquired.
  • Significant dropout rate – an average of around 6 percent of students across the system leave between their first and second year.

By all accounts the combination of these factors poses serious challenges to higher education. Recent reports from the i have even suggested that three universities are already on the verge of bankruptcy.

What can be done to address these challenges?

Experience tells us that the answer lies in developing a deep understanding of your students at every stage of their life cycle and by implementing systems that can turn that insight into action. What do I mean specifically? Using technology to support the following four key activities:

  1. Recruitment – understand your prospective students better and use data-driven decisions to manage how you communicate and engage with them.
  2. Education – put granular reports into the hands of decision makers that allow them to monitor performance and to optimise individual student pathways.
  3. Retention – figure out when (and why) students are likely to drop out and develop engagement plans to prevent this from happening.
  4. Engagement – assess which alumni are the most likely to donate so that you can invest fundraising resources more efficiently.

It starts with recruitment

The most important step in ensuring a university’s ongoing success is to ensure that you attract the right kind of students to begin with. The start of an analytics platform built around this is to have brought together data silos from throughout the university in order to understand the kinds of applicants who have been successful in the past. The end goal is to develop that insight further and to use it to proactively engage with the available pool of prospective students from around the world.

Can a data-driven approach really make a material difference?

Yes, it can. Analytical tools can deliver powerfully engaging messaging and personalised web experiences. Why is this so crucial? Because your web presence is effectively your shop window. And if it’s anything like the typical university, then monthly visits could be in the millions. Consider the impact you could make on your recruitment efforts if you could deliver a personalised web experience for each visitor that automatically adapts over time in response to what works and what doesn’t.

That understanding of your web traffic will allow you to understand who your visitors are, what role they play in the selection process – are they a student, parent or teacher/advisor? – and what interests they have. These could reflect any part of the university ecosystem from courses to facilities, pastoral care, religious and cultural societies, extracurricular activities, or fees. You’ll also be able to know what stage of research they’re at, their visit history and how they interact with the site. This granular level of information is a rich data source itself, but the real value lies in the ability to move quickly from understanding to personalisation on a large scale. You’ll be able to serve up relevant information and tools – such as calculators, chatbots, departmental videos and demonstrations – that help to progress prospective students and other influencers successfully through the decision-making process.

The outcome? Really showcasing all the facilities and support you can offer to create a positive, supportive, tailored and valuable learning experience to each student – rather than a generic, self-centric experience that students find difficult to buy into from the start. That’s going to have an impressive effect on marketing ROI.

Recruitment is just the start

There is a whole student life cycle to support, and data is your friend throughout! Insights captured early on can then be used to support other activities as students progress, creating a powerful feedback loop across the university that will improve outcomes across the board. Understanding your students doesn’t just help in recruiting them, but also in keeping them, educating them and staying in touch beyond graduation.

There is a whole student life cycle to support, and data is your friend throughout! #SASacademic #datadriven Click To Tweet

What’s the alternative to being data-driven?

Marketing without data-driven insights and a platform capable of bringing those insights together to create powerful marketing execution will leave you making planning decisions based on high-level results and instinct. And you won’t be able to react in near-real time to changing circumstances, which affects campaign ROI, and all of which negatively affects your ability to compete for the available pool of students.

How can we help?

SAS is working as a strategic partner with higher education institutes around the world to help transform the student journey – not simply increasing numbers, but targeting the right kinds of students for each university. We are able to do this because our capabilities and experience incorporate data management, analytics, marketing and higher education market knowledge, bringing everything together in one solution that delivers rapid time to value. And because our solution is cloud-based, it’s simply a case of switching the technology on and taking action.

If you would like to learn more, please get in touch at Harry.Clarke@sas.com to organise a discovery session or a demonstration of our solution, or visit sas.com/uk/uni.

[1] BBC, UK Missing Out on UK Students, 4th September 2018 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45398634


About Author

Harry Clarke

Working with public sector organisations in order to prove the value of analytics, SAS UK

Harry works with higher education institutions across the UK in order to deliver the value of analytics to the student journey, advocating innovative approaches to maximising the value of data. He is passionate about lending his voice to the opportunities that emerge for universities through embracing data-driven decision making and putting the student at the heart of everything that they do.

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