How to convert more Applicants into enrolled Students

    The Evolution of CRM in Higher Ed

    Find out how higher education CRMs have evolved from basic contact management platforms to comprehensive student lifecycle management resources.
    Last updated:
    February 14, 2024

    I was recently invited to participate in ICEF´s webinar, alongside three other edtech panellists. During the conversation, we explored the ways in higher education CRM solutions can optimise and improve international student recruitment strategies.

    My involvement in the webinar got me thinking about the evolution of higher education CRM systems since I started my career in the industry 14 years ago.

    As Kirill Mirgorod explains in his introduction, higher education CRMs have ‘evolved from simple contact management systems into real game changers - especially for recruitment specialists.’ So, where did it all begin, and where is it heading?

    When did higher education embrace CRM technology?

    Software companies began to develop CRM solutions in the mid-1990s.

    Household names such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle (then Siebel Systems) were among the first companies to do so. By the late 1990s, more and more businesses started to adopt these technologies, and the emergence of cloud-based and scalable CRM solutions widened access for smaller enterprises.

    Over the last 30 years, CRM solutions have evolved to encompass a range of advanced features, including analytics, AI and automation. A variety of industries use CRMs - from sales and marketing to healthcare and, of course, education.

    Higher education institutions started to adopt CRM technologies in the early 2000s. They were driven by a need to more effectively manage relationships with stakeholders and stand out in an increasingly competitive landscape.

    Like the early adopters in the business world, these universities were among the first to streamline their operations and improve the student experience by implementing better systems of communication.

    Larger higher education institutions with more resources to invest were typically the first adopters. Once the benefits of centralisation became evident, small and medium institutions began to invest in CRM platforms too.

    Somewhat surprisingly, as Milgorod highlights in the webinar, fewer than half of higher education institutions are currently utilising CRM tools. In short, there is still significant room for growth when it comes to CRM adoption.

    How are higher education CRM solutions evolving?

    CRM systems are evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of the higher education sector. From prospect to applicant, student to alumni, there are features to facilitate and enhance every stage of the student journey.

    Here are six ways CRM technology has evolved in recent years:

    1. Whole-lifecycle management

    The first CRMs acted as digital databases for stakeholder information.

    Today, they are sophisticated whole-lifecycle management platforms. CRMs that are designed to meet the needs of universities can manage the entire student lifecycle to provide a seamless journey for both staff and stakeholders.

    2. Customisation

    Customisation has become a CRM cornerstone over the last decade. Universities can use their CRM to drive personalised interactions with individual students, segmenting data to create targeted messaging and delivering campaigns that boost applications and enrolments, and improve student retention rates.

    3. Integration

    A good CRM isn’t a standalone entity. It will integrate with other systems, including financial aid, payment, library and storage platforms. Integration enables better data management and sharing, and allows institutions to automate workflows.

    4. Analytics

    More recently, analytics and AI have come to the fore of CRM innovation. Analytic capabilities equip recruiters and marketers with the insights they need to glean actionable insights from their data, while predictive analytics can identify trends.

    By interpreting data in this way, universities can make informed decisions about student admissions and retention.

    5. Alumni/donor engagement

    Lifecycle management doesn’t stop at graduation.

    Increasingly, universities are using their CRM to manage communication with alumni and donors. As well as facilitating customised communications, a CRM for higher education can also be used to manage fundraising campaigns and track donation patterns.

    6. Mobile accessibility

    At a time when virtual workplaces and classrooms are being used on a hybrid basis, a CRM won’t have longevity if it isn’t designed to work seamlessly on phones and tablets. Mobile-compatible CRMs let staff, students and alumni access information and perform tasks while on the move or working/learning from home.


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    What’s driving innovation in the CRM landscape?

    It is my opinion that student experience is the key driver of innovation in the CRM landscape at the moment. Not only is it informing developments in edtech, but it is shaping - or perhaps even re-shaping-  the higher education landscape as a whole.

    Today’s students, particularly those from Gen Z, are digital native, and as such expect the same level of technology that they are used to in their day to day life.

    If a university isn’t providing relevant information or a user-friendly admissions experience, they will inevitably lose candidates to the universities that offer a more personalised and modern experience. In other words, personalisation and automation are no longer nice-to-haves: they are non-negotiables.

    Fortunately, CRM systems enable universities to leverage automation in a way that wasn’t possible before without losing personalisation (it could only be delivered in an impersonal, ‘en masse’ way). An example of  personalised automation in action is the email workflow: universities, through their CRM, can create a sequence of emails to nurture individuals who are in the process of applying to the institution.

    Data privacy and security is another evolving trend.

    With increased data collection and usage, data privacy and security have become critical concerns - particularly in Europe. Universities need to adopt solutions that have robust security measures, complying with regulations like GDPR and CCPA, and prioritising data protection. They are also implementing data governance strategies to ensure the responsible handling of student data.

    Today’s students also want choice. One channel of communication is no longer enough: increasingly, higher education CRMs are integrating a diverse range of channels, including email, SMS, social media and live chat.

    This inclusive approach helps higher education institutions to communicate more effectively with a wider range of stakeholders.

    A higher education’s CRM’s aim has always been twofold: to improve the student experience and make life easier for those working at the institutions in which they are deployed. As the sector diversifies and technological developments accelerate, CRM technology is only going to get smarter.

    Those of us operating in the sector need to understand and embrace aspects of these changes in order to avoid losing out to competitors.

    Tania Roquette

    I am the Head of Solutions at FULL FABRIC. I am passionate about education and technology.

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