Colleges and universities primarily make money in three ways: through recruiting and retaining students; through donations; and through the highly-competitive process of winning grants.
Our IT team at the University of Alabama Birmingham is laser-focused on supporting each of these three revenue-generating principles, and we do so by partnering with faculty and students to understand their experiences, whiteboarding potential solutions, and then developing strategies to optimize it.
[ What do IT leaders who succeed at driving revenue have in common? See our related article, Two strengths of revenue-generating IT teams: Speed and talent ]
Here’s a closer look at our approach to these three areas.
Attracting and retaining students
Every university wants to attract more students and encourage them to stay until they graduate. We’ve optimized a number of processes to make UAB a more attractive option for both prospective and current students.
One way we’ve done this for prospective students is by streamlining the campus visit process. Previously, prospective students were required to slog through a 17-step process that included entering in various pieces of information that the university would never need or use, making the entire process incredibly difficult. Today, the process takes just two steps and requires only basic information, such as your name, how many people are visiting, and the day and time you’d like to come.
The second initiative for prospective students involved the application process. Previously, we required prospective students to create an ID and password, which many 17-year-olds ultimately forgot. When they weren’t able to access their account they’d get frustrated and apply elsewhere.
The username piece of the application process wasn’t all that necessary; we just needed a way to identify an applicant. Instead, we allowed you to log in through social media accounts, or apply as a guest.
We also made the application adaptive so it worked on mobile devices, and we optimized the back end so prospective students would receive a decision more quickly. These small, nuanced initiatives had a big impact on attracting students: Our enrollment has increased by 1,000 students over the last two years.
We also made some changes to streamline processes and add value for current students. One example of this is in scheduling classes. Students used to copy and paste class information into an Excel spreadsheet in order to build their schedule, so we automated it. We also added wait lists for classes so administration knew which ones were full and holding students back.
Finally, we built intelligent agents that actively engage students on behalf of the faculty in instances when they don’t attend class, do well on an exam, or do poorly on an exam, for example.
When a student performs well on an exam, the intelligent agent sends a short, pithy note congratulating them. Conversely, when a student does poorly, the intelligent agent sends a note saying, “Hey, what’s going on? How can I help?” The accolades and extra attention have been very motivating for students.
[ Want more examples of revenue-generating IT? Check out our Strategy Snapshot series with stories from HBO Go, GE, Land O'Lakes, and Union Pacific. ]
The Advancement Office uses telethons to raise money. All calls are routed through a central switch, which, for security purposes, anonymizes the caller’s phone number. This was a problem because prospective donors would receive calls from anonymous phone numbers – and most people don’t answer their phones if they don’t know the person calling.
I called the central switch to discuss the problem and discovered there wasn’t actually a security reason for anonymizing the phone numbers. Fifteen minutes later, that feature was turned off. The Advancement office went from two callbacks a week to two callbacks every 15 minutes and even had to hire more staff.
We also deployed a CRM to help the Advancement Office build in an alumni experience and form personal connections with their donors. We’re also deploying a mobile app that identifies when a big donor is attending one of our campus events so we can thank them and build on that personal connection.
I often say that universities treat faculty members as the most expensive typists since they spend a large percentage of their time applying for grants, which is a tedious process. One project we deployed to fix this process is a research ERP.
UAB is one of the few universities that has an enterprise system focused solely on creating a competitive advantage in applying for grants. This system automates about 60 percent of the process, since 60 percent of the application is pulling in information from tables and multiple ERP systems. This was one big way we were able to empower their success instead of treating them like expensive typists.
Another small change we made was with our password policy. Before, faculty was required to generate a complex, eight-character password that changed every 90 days. Universities don’t run on a 90-day schedule; we run on semesters and years. Ultimately, we removed password expirations so they’re good indefinitely.
We also had instances in which faculty and researchers were exceeding their email storage quota. We’d have to stop them and say, “Oh, I know you’re trying to solve Parkinson’s disease, but please stop doing that for a moment because you need to manage your storage.”
We moved to unlimited email within my first six months here, and three months later we moved to unlimited storage. In the last few years, our research endeavors increased by around 10 percent. That’s big money – we’re bringing in about $500 million right now in research grants, and we’re growing our capacity to bring in more.
All of these examples demonstrate how focused we are on revenue generation; it’s a critical component of what we do as an IT organization. It’s not someone else’s job, it’s our job.
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