As colleges and universities nationwide face a coming enrollment crisis, Westmont College is pioneering tech solutions specifically for the higher education industry
With the pool of traditional college-age enrollments about to take a precipitous decline in the next few years as a result of declining birth rates, leaders in higher education have been strategizing how to handle the impact of this shift in the education industry.
Schools in some parts of the country are anticipating a 30% decline in high school graduation rates. The demographic shift will emerge in 2027 and is expected to last for at least a decade. The consequences will be challenging for many institutions, and potentially disastrous for smaller, tuition dependent educational institutions unable to survive extreme funding shortfalls.
These coming shortfalls will necessitate cost cutting, streamlining, and innovation. Westmont College took this problem and turned into an opportunity. Ranked in the top tier of National Liberal Arts Colleges in 2022 by U.S. News and World Report and similarly lauded by the Wall Street Journal, Santa Barbara Calif.-based Westmont College is a four-year residential institution with an enrollment cap of 1,200 students. With hearts and minds trained on the future, they’ve been planning for the crisis for several years. They are applying dynamic technology solutions to the challenge and showing other colleges how they can benefit from them.
Vice President for College Advancement and Chief Information Officer Reed Sheard, Ed.D, is in charge of fundraising, alumni relations and parent relations along with technology for this innovative Christian college. Under his aegis, Westmont created the Center for Applied Technology and the Center for Applied Technology Lab, or CATlab, to develop novel modern technology solutions geared to lowering the costs for the college helping ensure Westmont is more affordable to future generations of students.
Applying his expertise as a business CIO, Sheard first introduced cloud-based services to Westmont more than a decade ago to assist with fundraising. At the time, the country was mired in the 2008 economic downturn, as Westmont prepared to launch a nationwide fundraising campaign. The impact of the financial crisis meant that to get to 80% of their desired goals, they would have to reach 3.5 times more supporters.
“I realized we needed customer research management (CRM) to manage all of the constituent information so we could keep track of the work.” Sheard turned to his on-premises ERP supplier for a solution. They didn’t have one. However, they could do the necessary exploration and roadmapping for a cool $1 million. It would take 18 months to build and would take 2.5 years to fully implement.
Never mind the price tag – Sheard had 93 days launch a fundraising campaign.
In the corporate roles that preceded his tenure, Sheard used a cloud-based CRM from Salesforce.
In looking for affordable alternatives for Westmont, he discovered that Salesforce had a free nonprofit starter kit with software as well as a handful of licenses.
Using cloud-based services brought a nimbleness and a cost factor that was ideal for their needs, so he took a risk and stepped away from the high price solutions. Instead, he launched a successful campaign using the free version of the software and the team raised 81% of Westmont’s fundraising goal.
“I learned a ton through the practical application of technology to solve problems,” he said. “This type of learning holds transformative capabilities for our staff and our students.” Thus the Center and CATLab were born, designed to provide professional level digital apprenticeships to Westmont students while creating new tools and technologies on a shoestring. “We hired just a small group of students one summer to work on a module for fundraising inside Salesforce and they blew me away. I discovered by creating a context for innovation both staff and students could create in ways that mattered for the college.”
Working with digitally fluent students allowed Sheard to discover how he had been trained in IT was no longer effective in the digital age. “The way students learn today is radically different from how I learned,” he explained. “It was collaborative. There was a fearlessness about moving ahead into this adventure of building something that they didn't yet know how to build.”
The team developed a community-based approach to problem solving and invention that had practical implications. “They found a very nimble, quicker way of moving from beginning to completed project than in a more traditional model,” Sheard pointed out. “Their digital fluency includes a new way of learning that I found incredibly interesting and effective.”
The CATlab project also revealed that he’d underestimated the capabilities of his ambitious young team. “It was one of the best moments of my life, realizing that they were capable of so much more – because we had so much we needed to get done.”
In higher education, ERP has five areas of functionality: enrollment, advancement, general ledger, HR and payroll, and the student information system or SIS. One by one, Sheard’s team of students and outside IT specialists are rebuilding these areas in a cloud-based enterprise customer relationship management (CRM) framework in Salesforce.
The advancement and enrollment modules have been in service for several years; tens of thousands of funding gifts have gone through the advancement model. “I think we’ve built the best versions of these services in higher education,” Sheard said. The remaining modules are in various stages and are being built through the CATlab. “We're building intellectual property for our institution.”
The CATlab functions as an incubator, giving an extraordinary opportunity for students to develop real-world professional experience. Many students that worked in the CATlab have caught the IT bug and have gone on to very successful post-graduation careers.
The lab isn’t staffed with volunteers – students are paid $15.25 an hour to create what is shaping up to be industry-changing technology and tools. Currently, 28 students work in the CATlab, building software services that the college then uses in its everyday operations. “It’s been an extraordinary experiment,” he said. “Really good ideas can happen even at small schools like mine.”
Westmont hopes that their revolutionary model can be used by other institutions to help cushion the coming enrollment decline and solve other challenges that surely lie ahead. Sheard’s message to the higher education industry is practical, yet profound. “Come up with good ideas, find your smart people, equip and empower them, and then get after the work. You can really, in a short period of time, start to make a real difference for your institution,” he advised.
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