How Higher Education Can Turn Students into Lifelong Donors

Digital tools can help colleges and universities attract the right people, keep them enrolled and engage with them after they've graduated.
November 17, 2014
By David Metnick  |  Contributor
David Metnick is a managing director for Accenture in North America.

Colleges and universities urgently need to find better ways to engage students, especially those most likely to become lifelong donors in an era of diminishing resources. To unlock such potential, higher-education institutions do not have to look far: The key lies within the wealth of data they already hold on students past, present and future.

Adopting a holistic approach to student engagement that integrates information about students and maximizes digital tools and technologies will enhance higher education performance by attracting more prospects, creating a positive experience to better retain current students, and building lifelong connections with those students as they become alumni and donors. Here are some steps colleges can take to achieve these goals:

Increase student enrollment without spending more: Universities with the highest enrollment growth tend to have strong endowments -- evidence that engaged alumni are part of a virtuous recruiting circle that can include mentoring and internships as well as financial support. Former students are more likely to continue to support a school that continually offers value throughout their lives.

The University of Dallas, for example, has leveraged analytics to improve the quality of its inquiry and applicant pools, predict which students will enroll, and drive a double-digit increase in enrollment numbers. To do so, the university employed a predictive-modeling tool using past enrollment data to predict future enrollment results, focusing efforts on prospective students who were more likely to enroll, ranking enrollment prospects by desired characteristics and reducing the use of vital and costly resources while saving time and effort by focusing the activities of admissions staff.

Retain students: It all starts with a high-value college education, and digital tools can help schools improve their educational performance significantly. Schools should consolidate previously fragmented student data into a single point of access for both students and staff, creating just the sort of swift and seamless service that increases student engagement and encourages them to contribute to their alma maters after graduation.

Schools such as Drexel University and Indiana University provide a single service center for common student inquiries around finance and class registration while routing more complex questions to specific, expert departments. Other schools are using holistic data pictures of each student to enable the more proactive (and early) academic interventions that can help identify those at risk of dropping out. Data collected by Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio, between 2005 and 2011, for example, suggests that students using such case-management systems are five times more likely to stay the course and graduate than those without access to these services.

Universities also can position students for post-college success by leveraging digital tools to help them find good jobs. Using such tools to build links with local communities and leading employers, they can help students understand how their skills might meet business needs and better match them with potential jobs. The Virginia Community College System's Virginia Education Wizard, for example, is an interactive tool that helps students navigate complex educational choices, including how to choose a career that aligns with their aspirations and interests.

Reinforce alumni engagement: Alumni play an important role in the financial well-being of universities. Graduates are more willing to support their schools when they continues to offer value throughout the alumni's lives. Leading institutions are offering career support, lifelong learning opportunities and digital means to customize their engagement and interactions with alumni.

Sophisticated relationship management and analytic tools also can help institutions identify potential donors and develop them into regular high-value supporters. These tools also can evaluate the effectiveness of alumni-engagement activities and track ongoing interactions with alumni. The University of South Dakota implemented an analytics tool to help identify alumni with ultra-high net worth. The tool incorporates a broad array of asset information, demographic characteristics, statistical analysis and known giving patterns. As a result, financial donations were boosted by $17 million -- $2 million more than anticipated -- within 12 months.

With more and more jobs requiring education beyond a high-school diploma, numbers like those should be eye-openers for higher-education institutions looking for ways to build the endowments they need to build the workforce the nation needs.