Student value happens in the cloud
The cloud has swept the higher education landscape, creating digital campuses in which technology and systems run smoothly in the background—simplifying processes and improving the student experience—so that teaching, learning, and administrative activities can flourish in the foreground.
While greater numbers of institutions have made the jump to the cloud in the wake of worldwide digital transformation, the cloud should not be considered a destination in and of itself. It’s an enabler that institutions need to accelerate and succeed as the landscape of higher education continues to evolve, providing value to students in an increasingly individualized and choice-driven market.
In the business of student success
In times of uncertainty, one thing is a safe bet: the road ahead will not be a smooth one. Postsecondary enrollment is on the decline, with the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reporting a 2.5 percent drop in fall 2020 and a 3.2% drop in fall 2021. To understand why, institutions need to reimagine their relationship with students, thinking of higher education with a business mindset and treating students as customers, a word that would have been shunned in higher education just a few years ago.
Understanding the value of a degree
Colleges and universities sell a product. Education. That product is only valuable if it’s in demand. Degrees were once thought of as necessary gateways to career success, but that assumption has been shaken by market demands, and the impact on enrollment is clear.
Students evaluate the worth of a degree by the experiences colleges offer—whether remotely, in person, or a combination of both—as well as potential career opportunities. Because of this, institutions must not only demonstrate the value of education for their students, but also for students’ future employers.
Talent recruiters today still look for the basic qualifications and course study most institutions supply, but they also want new hires that know how to think, plan, and continuously adapt to market forces. They’re looking for applicants with certifications in Google Analytics, Salesforce, and more, certifications that some universities build into certain degree programs. An ability to adapt—combined with practical skills that translate to a real job—gives students an edge over other candidates.
A new class of choice-driven consumers
Adopting a business mindset frames students as customers who are increasingly driven by individual choice. In a 2021 survey of more than 1,400 students, 70% of respondents wanted more flexibility in their learning options, and 50% believe the value of higher education has decreased. “[Students] want the same thing that most customers want: more convenience, more choice, the quality to be better,” University Business reports.
While remote vs. in-person instruction is a significant choice factor, institutions must also examine structural trends in learning today. More students—traditional and otherwise—seek a mix-and-match approach to education that supplies them with the specific skills and certifications they need for their career paths.
Universities that can provide the type of flexibility students want will be best equipped to compete with the rising number of education models on the market.
Making the most of the cloud
Once, the cloud was thought of as a technological advantage in and of itself, but at this point, most institutions have some key applications in the cloud. Fewer have migrated their core ERP, but that number is growing.
Higher education understands how the cloud makes data more secure and accessible while streamlining operations and improving the day-to-day student experience. Given the challenges colleges and universities face, however, this alone is not enough. Even institutions with the most cutting-edge platforms will only succeed if they fully utilize their technology.
Technology as an enabler
The cloud positions institutions squarely in the middle of data. One platform on the cloud can connect an entire campus, integrating once-siloed systems to provide efficient and well-informed support for all users.
Interoperability—the capacity to integrate disparate systems—was important before the pandemic, and now it’s essential, enabling seamless, secure data delivery between on-premise and remote users, as well as across departments. Institutions need holistic views of student information to understand what resources they need and how to efficiently deliver them.
At first glance, unifying IT architecture may imply a flattening of systems, forcing institutions to adhere to solutions that may not be the best fit. With modernization, however, the opposite is true. A cloud-based integration platform is flexible enough to meet the unique needs of each system it serves, without sacrificing connectivity across operations.
Solutions at scale
At the onset of the pandemic, colleges and universities around the world had to quickly ramp up their ability to deliver high-quality, remote learning. Those already on the cloud were better equipped to adapt, and now those flexible data ecosystems are positioning institutions well for the new challenges ahead.
Business continuity and data security will always be top priorities, making the cloud’s enterprise-grade data back-up and disaster recovery support essential services. Beyond that, however, is the potential for scalability. Institutions can implement new functions as needs arise, adapting to student and staff needs.
The evolving role of Chief Information Officers
Ensuring educational value requires aligning technology with consumer needs. To do so, institutions are reassessing critical decision-making positions such as the Chief Information Officer (CIO).
In the past, the role of the CIO went to faculty members, often tenured professors. Now, universities are looking for best-fit CIOs inside and outside the higher education space, recruiting individuals well-versed in business, process, and finance to maximize available resources.
This is because CIOs are taking on exponentially larger roles in shaping higher education. In a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 86 percent of responding college officials said the pandemic required closer collaboration between the CIO, president, and other senior leaders for strategic decision-making, with three-fourths believing this level of collaboration will continue into the future.
The evolving importance of CIOs reflects larger changes in higher education. Technology is no longer a tool for institutional success. It’s the foundation.
A shift in thinking
To start fully utilizing the cloud, finding the right technology is only the first step. The next is implementation. But implementation doesn’t just refer to installing software and migrating data. It’s about people.
Today’s students understand technology. They’re used to having access to information at any time, on any device. Faculty members and staff are a different story. Not everyone has embraced the digital age.
New technology can’t simply be “assigned” to a campus community. Instead, a broad approach to change management is required to guide the entire institution along the cloud enablement journey. Make the mission clear: It’s about providing value, attracting best-fit students, and helping those students succeed from enrollment to graduation and beyond. To achieve those outcomes, every user will have to embrace the technology required. Institutions should follow change management best practices.
One best practice is to allow all stakeholders to have a voice and a chance to participate in the process. Getting that input sooner rather than later can go a long way toward making change an easier, more streamlined process for everyone involved.
Implementing a change management program is only the beginning. One of the most difficult challenges is figuring out how to communicate that change to all stakeholders and do so effectively without alienating core constituencies. After all, attempting to make any change without adequately communicating what’s happening is a surefire way to sabotage your own efforts.
A digital transformation, an institutional shift
The next frontier of digital transformation is already underway. While some institutions are evaluating a move to the cloud, many others are demonstrating how technology drives value for students. By modernizing old processes and empowering faculty and staff to fully utilize the available tools, the cloud now plays an essential role in amplifying the value of attending a college or university.
As life in the cloud becomes the norm in higher education, institutions that integrate it into their culture will be the ones that keep pace with whatever the future has in store.