We all know the problems.  For the first time in decades, colleges and universities are seeing (true) competition for students as birth rates are declining and a lesser percentage of traditional college-aged students are seeking higher education first.  Current international student barriers and declining numbers only pile onto the issues.  Add in one of the lowest achievement rates for higher education in the world (retention, persistence, graduation, etc), and there are a lot of pundits talking about reform.  But change in a sector which has historically found success despite atypical business practices (like deep, impenetrable silos, poor communication, weak technological system architecture, and questions around whether the customer is ever right) make transformation extremely hard. 

Yet scientists and researchers know more about what it takes to overcome these kinds of obstacles by individual learners, often weighting “non-cognitive” measures of connectedness, communication, collaboration, grit, resilience, etc., more than academic success for most students.  Solutions do exist. Technology infrastructure is likely one place to look.  While technology may not solve every problem, it is almost impossible to scale any solution without it. In this blog post we discuss a technology / infrastructure solution that college and university administrators are starting to seek out and even leverage, so as to help cultivate a connected student experience.

Let’s look at two hypothetical schools of higher education.  One has adopted a technology infrastructure aimed to help support connection and community (the Campus portal and mobile app platform) while the other is using legacy, cobbled together technology.

Adams University and Hancock University represent two fictitious universities in Massachusetts (named for founding fathers of both the state and our country), but they easily characterize any college or university in America.  The demographics are purely for the purpose of comparison, but you might insert your own institution’s information and start to see how you stack up. 

Adams University (AU) Hancock University (HU)
FTE of 7,400 undergraduate students and  1,300 graduate students FTE of 8,800 undergraduate students and   2,000 graduate students
 33% online 25% online
 2 satellite campuses – 90 min drive from main campus in Cambridge  5 satellite campuses – 50 min drive from main campus in Boston
Considered a research school with teaching excellence Considered a teaching school, although publication and service are components of faculty tenure 
38% graduate in 4 years /
58% graduate in 6 years
38% graduate in 4 years /
58% graduate in 6 years
Cost ~$14,000 per year Cost ~$14,000 per year
+100 years old +100 years old
Motto: Students First / Students Last Motto: Bringing Curiosity to Life

Like all state institutions in 
Massachusetts, the graduation rates at both campuses are close to the undergraduate average of 38% who graduate in 4 years / 58% who graduate in 6 years.  Cost of each school is ~$14,000 per year and both schools are just over 100 years old.  

Here is where the differences can start to be seen:

1. Community

Building a sense of community at university and college improves student success

Hancock University

18 months ago, HU started using Campus as their portal replacement.  Their previous portal was 20 years old with only minor updates over the years, yet it contained over 100 links to “important” tools and sites, which students needed at some point during their college experience.

HU staff and faculty surveyed students finding that most students, especially those at the satellite campuses or online, had no way to take advantage of the dozens of community experiences around the institution.  Their existing portal could not help.  Those same students (and staff / faculty too) often complained of feeling disconnected from the “mother ship.”  They were adrift and alone, hoping to succeed despite feelings of fear and frustration.  At the same time, administrators realized that pushing students “connect” only to academics was not working.  As majors changed more than 5 times per student prior to graduation, promoting all community fall within academics seemed like a bad strategy.  The administration brought in researchers and speakers who showed that a student who was connected to something (anything) was far more likely to succeed, but it wasn’t until they turned on the Campus portal and mobile app that they saw it come to life. 

Students only see tools and resources they need, instead of having to navigate a sea of links.  But at the same time, they can now join groups, start groups, be automatically put into groups, and more.  Staff and faculty can do the same while mentoring opportunities abound between alumni, faculty, and even board members who want in on the actionAnd best of all, the actual users can drive community around whatever matters to them, be it academics, a group, a person, and event, or even a cause. 

The Campus portal has proven to be more than modern looking but is highly functional without simply being a link aggregator.  Campus actually promotes connection.  To take advantage of that, via their integration to Banner, the school promotes a handful of groups, pages, and tools per student persona (like Freshman, Law Student, 1st Generation College Student, etc) automatically placing them in student menus, even as students can customize their menu further through creating or joining things of their choosing.

An extra benefit is that the Campus platform can be used by admissions for prospective students too.   That particular persona shows links to only 7 resources, the specific tools that admissions noted were commonly missed in emails and other messaging channels.  But more important regarding connection and community, prospects can also speak with key alumni and groups of “current student ambassadors” to really understand the HU culture. 

Adams University

AU has been using a legacy portal for more than 17 years.  While it allows for a few single-sign-on resources for specific tools, it is essentially just 5 scrolling pages of links.  A few new links are added every year but most people do not think of the portal as a front door, or central hub.  In fact, they only think about it all if someone asks, to which they reply that it’s bad…very bad.  It has become institutionalized.  Whenever the annual IT survey comes out, people see the question about the portal and roll their eyes, typing in the comments section that it is awful.  But what is one to do?  It is what it is.  So, the dinosaur system does come close to helping with community.  It barely helps with functionality.

Adams students have other community options (if they happen to find them) although more than 50% of the time, when community is mentioned, it is assumed that students will find community in class or after declaring a major.  

That said, the main campus has all of the traditional organizations one might expect (such as student government or a running club) and the satellite campuses have a few groups students can join, although most center around study groups.  Each group’s leader determines if they are going to have a web or mobile presence and about half create back channels or notification options via any number of free tools.  Five groups use social media tools so that they can communicate asynchronously, although AU is considering shutting those down as some privacy data was recently stolen and another incident of bullying took place, which administrators had no ability to see nor work through. 

Adams students have a bevy of mobile apps they might download, from the LMS to Microsoft apps for email, calendar, One Drive, etc.  But the school is finding that fewer and fewer students are downloading the various apps and they are not sure why.  This worries them for current students but also for prospects and alumni which seem to be taking advantage of fewer and fewer social media apps, essentially disconnecting them from information. 

2. Communication

Improving commuication at university or colleges helps student experience and success

Hancock University

The Hancock University Communications Office has finally cracked the email conundrum by using Campus. Instead of sending every message to all students, every time, they can target specific groups (even groups created and joined by students ad hoc). Not only can they proactively send messages to the right person or group, but most of the messages come in a way that is meaningful to the receiver. Some prefer text, some alerts, and some still like good old fashioned emails. Whatever the channel and whomever the group, the Communications office sees open and read rates that are 3-4 times what they used to be. It has also made it easier for admissions and advancement to take advantage of the natural groups in Campus, sending targeted messages to the right person at the right time.

As all prospects and current students are in the Campus platform, alerts are regularly sent to appropriate faculty and staff based on keywords or phrases used. While swearing is rare in the identity-based system, the school now has access to what used to be cafeteria conversations and can be alerted to common problems and barriers like a hold on an account or confusion around a process. And the best part is that students, faculty, and staff can do all of this via web or mobile, as the experience is the same across modalities.

Adams University

The Communications office at AU is stuck.  Their main channel for information delivery is email.  They know that people, especially students don’t really read email anymore, but what can they do?  They’ve tried mail lists, having to merge group after group by hand each time, but that has not helped the two main problems they face.  They end up sending too many emails to people who don’t care because the office has to act conservatively.  So they send notices via email because that is the only delivery mechanism.  They yearn for another way.

As a result, the Communications office is solely used for current students, as admissions staff try to create their own lists and advancement has actually gone back to phone calls due to poor read rates and zero visibility into popular social media platforms.

3. Personalization

Personalizing the student experience

Hancock University

Just a few years ago, when still using their old portal, the number of links on the page was 112.  But when their IT group did some investigation, they found that the average student only clicked on 4.7 links per year.  So, by pushing no more than 7 Tool links, 7 Page links, and 7 Group links per persona, they ensure that students have access to the resources or people they truly need, which grows and transforms as the student progresses.  Freshman see the resources they need, Seniors see their links, and even alumni see only the stuff pertinent to being a graduate of the school.

And as students can add their own resources or groups, the Campus platform is not only the launch pad to the LMS or to check grades, but a true one-stop-shop for students seeking a single landing page to start their academic experience.  This move from GUI (global user interface) to PUI (personalized user interface) helps students, faculty, and staff feel like they are in control of their experiences.  This has led the charge of “One Hancock U” to actually mean something. 

Adams University

At AU, personalization is more of an unattainable buzz word than anything else. They like to speak about personalized pathways, but that is completely dependent on the adviser, so it only happens for a handful of students. Otherwise, the apps, websites, and other tools all employ use of a GUI – a “global user interface” – which means every person at every level sees essentially the same thing. There is no such thing as “One Adams U”.

Prospects and alumni are on their own in this arena as well. Trying to make use of “free” social sites, they have struggled with data, privacy, security, hacks, and other pragmatic issues, but most importantly they are finding that the prospects and alums are not really using the systems, in either a personalized or even a standardized way.

4. Integration

integrating tools and systems used by students improves the student experience

Hancock University

HU is in the process of converting from a legacy Student Information System (SIS) to a new one, during which they will transition authentication for all students, faculty, and staff from ADFS to OKTA.  But because they have seen the seamless nature of Campus work so well with their people, they do not want to give up the ease of logging into one system, one time, and having immediate, single-sign-on (SSO) access to the specific tools used by each person, with every other resource a few clicks away.  But more than that, they have found the power behind a “front door” experience for students, prospects, and alumni that reminds them of important announcements for their entire education or even networking processes.  For current students it means everything from LMS announcements reminding them of what is happening in class to reminders about payments, potential holds, and event notifications for team athletics, clubs, and other organizations.  For prospects, it means immediate access to application materials, campus tours, and student ambassador groups.  Even alumni get in the game with personalized messages from career services, or as group members with people in their region or in their career field.  Hancock University is really starting to feel like a connected university. 

Adams University

AU mostly leverages the ADFS authentication system, but not all tools can handle the authentication protocol (like those using Shibboleth), the school gave up on SSO (single-sign-on) years ago.  They do the best they can to get users into as many tools as possible without logging in again, but the students, faculty, and staff likely need to use their ID and passwords for 7-10 different tools or platforms.  (Unfortunately they also need 3 different passwords.)  The school knows this results in people missing important communication, timely access to various processes, and even fatigue by frustrated users.  So the school just hobbles along, with everyone pretending not to notice.

5. Data

Collected student data helps universities and colleges make informed decisions as well as track students performance

Hancock University

The administration for HU has adopted technology slowly, but purposefully.  They have watched a myriad of other schools jump into the data pool too early and get burned, spending money they didn’t have with very little result.  So HU started with basic LMS data, requiring all faculty to use the system for grade input and attendance (vs the old requirement to use the SIS for those things) finding grades to be an intervention predictor for at-risk students.  So when Campus became the central hub, and after they found that 97% of students used it every single week, they were intrigued by a new kind of data.  They had not considered that affective (engagement) data was even possible.  But once they were shown how to correlate a bit of demographic data from the SIS with some “cognitive” (scores, grades, etc) data from the LMS, with the new addition of affective data from Campus, suddenly they were intervening with struggling students two full weeks before their grades dropped!  And in HU’s experience, once the grades dropped it was almost always too late to keep the student in the class.  So Hancock University is gradually shifting to more learning analytics, powered by data sets other schools simply do not have.  In fact, as the school is disciplined with regard to data collection and measurement, the school believes they have seen a 5-7% change in persistence rates.  In fact they are called on to explain that at conferences and as the President delivers keynote addresses regularly.

Adams University

Adams University started using data a long time ago, as one of the first users of an early alert system.  Unfortunately, their implementation was not ideal and the pockets of data they did find was not consistent.  Neither students nor faculty are required to use the LMS, so getting behavioral or even grade information from that system is not possible.  There are a few mobile apps used at the campus, but none are used by everyone, so there is no way to track that.

Unfortunately AU pays a healthy amount of money for their early alert system that may or may not be helping them save 1% of their students, although they are not really staffed to do the detailed analysis to even know if it is or is not working.  So they end up relying on the company to let them know what kind of metrics they are achieving.  


Will a digital campus via a student portal and mobile app solve every problem?  Of course not.  There is no magic pill nor silver bullet.  But what keen administrators across all sectors know is the same thing a chef knows.  The pasta in your spaghetti may not bring much flavor to the experience, but without it, the sauce – aka the desired taste – has no foundation on the plate.  For whatever reason, great pasta can make mediocre sauce taste better, but bad pasta can hurt even the greatest of sauces.  Educators know that people are the sauce of a school.  Yet education has struggled to give its people a scalable foundation to do what they do best, hence the silos, bureaucracy, poor communication, and weak outcomes.

So while Campus is not magic, it is an outstanding foundation, helping people do what they do best by making it easy to build community, better communicate, personalize experiences, integrate systems, and analyze meaningful data.   Students can finally “connect” to whatever matters in their life.  Staff can send and receive notifications in ways that feel normal.  Faculty can find individual areas to promote their research or to help students study.  IT professionals can rest easy knowing that users are not overwhelmed with too many links, seeing what is needed, when it is needed.  And success takes on a whole new look when combining demographic, cognitive, and affective data, allowing users to be helped based on their own “digital fingerprint” of data, instead of only comparing them to the average.

This is where our story ends and your story begins.  Hancock University may not be real, but it can be you.

Want to talk to someone about YOUR story?  Want to add the next Chapter of better connection to your institution?  We’re ready to talk!

transforming student experience within higher ed increases graduation rate