How A Customized Data Management Tool Can Drive Enrollment At Historically Black Colleges

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In the early 2000s, I worked as a policy advisor to the House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce. My issue portfolio included federal policies that supported the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), authorized under Title III of the Higher Education Act. In addition to considering requests to add institutions to the statutorily named list of eligible campuses, our policy team worked diligently to ensure that HBCUs could use federal funds to address critical needs on their campuses. One of the authorized uses of funds allowed HBCUs to strengthen their academic, administrative and fiscal capabilities. Of course, anecdotal evidence pointed to the ways in which our nation’s HBCUs were in dire need of resources, but also needed to leverage funds to bring technologies to campus that would help them recruit, retain and graduate Black learners.

Fast forward nearly 20 years. Interest in and national focus around HBCUs has grown from learners and policy influencers. Many HBCUs have seen a rise in applications. As such, they have seen an increased need for tools that will help them not only capitalize on the growing interest from prospective students, but also ensure that they have the technologies to meet the demand of a new generation of learners.

In collaboration with 10 HBCUs, the Partnership for Education Advancement (Ed Advancement) has built and implemented a customer relationship management platform – or CRM – that will help HBCUs build on this momentum. It will help them reach more prospective students and support them from interest to application to graduation. A new white paper, authored by my research colleagues at Whiteboard Advisors and released this week by Ed Advancement, offers insights into how CRMs can support the digital transformation of HBCUs. Additionally, the research shows the ways in which the tool supports the broader mission of HBCUs and the anticipated outcomes for participating institutions.

I talked with Jim Runcie, the CEO and co-founder of Ed Advancement, about the organization, its mission and the latest tool to help HBCUs meet the needs of their students.

Alison Griffin: Tell me about the history of the Partnership for Ed Advancement. What is your mission and what are the challenges you are seeking to address?

Jim Runcie: From a young age, I understood the importance of education. It was a value that my parents instilled in my siblings and me. For my parents, education was the pathway to success. And, as a first-generation high school and college graduate, I realize why they prioritized education: It leads to greater opportunities, including higher-earning employment and an enhanced quality of life.

The promise of education was true for me, and it should be true for all young people, particularly students of color as well as first-generation and low-income students. Ed Advancement’s mission is to create a more equitable society by supporting social mobility through higher education. We believe that, by investing in HBCUs to create opportunities for underrepresented students who are first-generation and low-income, we can meaningfully advance social mobility for students and families.

Griffin: Ed Advancement is using a range of approaches – some of which provide more direct support to individual institutions than others – to support HBCUs. What is the reason for the different approaches?

Runcie: From the beginning, our team recognized the value of working closely with a small group of institutions, developing scalable solutions that could support a broader network of institutions, and prioritizing knowledge-sharing to further the impact of our efforts. And we believe that, by building relationships with a core group of partner HBCUs on a variety of projects across functional areas, we can more quickly develop solutions that may benefit a broader network of schools.

Each institution is unique, so our engagement with the colleges is highly individualized and nuanced. At the same time, there is untapped potential for the network of HBCUs that have come together to share learnings and resources. We have schools engaged in multi-year efforts to advance their student outcomes, and we are also working with a group of schools to fine-tune implementation and program models – such is the case of HBCU Dx.

Griffin: Tell me more about HBCU Dx. How was the tool conceptualized, and what does it do?

Runcie: HBCU Dx is a partnership initiative created by Ed Advancement to bring HBCUs together as leaders in developing a shared network model for a CRM solution. The core CRM developed by Ed Advancement is built once and then replicated across HBCUs for individual adoption and implementation. The initiative includes implementation, shared learnings in a community of practice, and a pathway to constant iteration and improvement through the core CRM.

Griffin: Why is this custom-built approach important to HBCUs, and why is it better than an off-the-shelf tool?

Runcie: Higher ed institutions, particularly those without resources for customization, are pushed into one-size-fits-all solutions. Too often, the unspoken assumption seems to be that what is good enough for highly resourced institutions should be good enough for everyone else.

Ed Advancement engaged in a needs assessment with a cohort of HBCUs and found that a CRM that could be built for their needs would support their enrollment goals. Nationally, selective institutions’ focus has been bolstering selectivity – in essence, keeping students out. In contrast, HBCUs have focused on creating opportunities for students who have been left out.

For a variety of reasons, the market doesn’t incentivize the creation of low-cost, purpose-built, financially sustainable tools for HBCUs and other mission-oriented institutions. Ed Advancement is committed to changing that for our partners.

Griffin: Have you seen any early impacts – and what are the ultimate outcomes HBCU Dx is driving toward?

Runcie: While it’s too early to confirm the full magnitude of the impact on enrollment goals for our partner HBCUs, our institutions have confirmed that the CRM has improved operational efficiencies, such as releasing admission decisions more quickly. Improving enrollment management will support long-term sustainability for our partner institutions and allow them to advance opportunities for significantly more underrepresented students.

The initiative is ultimately about improving the student experience and journey at HBCUs. Through HBCU Dx, we can close gaps in student outreach and recruitment that exist between HBCUs, other minority-serving institutions and better-resourced institutions. Closing that gap could yield dividends for institutions and contribute significantly to the upward social mobility of Black Americans.

Griffin: If you were to give advice to other nonprofit leaders who are supporting HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions, what would you say, based on your work?

Runcie: The foundation of our work has been building relationships with our partner institutions in which we listen twice as much as we talk. Our HBCUs are true partners in the design and execution of the work, which is meaningful for campus adoption and meeting shared goals.

The white paper leans on the knowledge and promising practices shared by six partner institutions: Alabama State University, Florida A&M University, Norfolk State University, South Carolina State University, Texas Southern University and Tuskegee University. In total, Ed Advancement works collaboratively with 24 partner institutions and their leadership teams to design and deliver strategies and solutions.

Griffin: Where does HBCU Dx go from here? What are you excited to see next?

Runcie: Our work to implement HBCU Dx has highlighted additional opportunities to improve campus systems to drive strategic decision-making. Establishing data accessibility and transparency will enhance these institutions and bring attention to their historic and strategic significance to Black Americans.



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