Ellucian Live Takeaways: Challenges in higher ed are high, but so is appetite for innovation in higher ed pros

Technology only matters if it changes outcomes – and one of the main reasons students leave university studies is lack of finances, Ellucian CEO Laura Ipsen said in her Ellucian Live keynote. The desire to change that outcome was clear in the vision Ipsen laid out for Ellucian’s SIS technology to the 5,000 attendees gathered in New Orleans for the first fully in-person version of the annual user event since 2019.

Tackling these major issues in higher ed takes big ideas – and Ellucian is there. In her keynote, Ipsen touched on plans to redesign solutions to center on student financial health, and connect data across the entire student lifecycle from “K-20” - kindergarten through higher education. To keep ahead of “the relentless pace of digital transformation,” Ipsen stressed the importance of delivering technology that is open and interoperable. Seamless integration and workflows, high levels of security, and a 360 view of the student are all crucial.

And what was clear in New Orleans was that Ellucian users are eager to embrace innovation – as active champions and creators of it themselves. They fully understand higher ed is in a state of transformation, that innovation at every angle is critical, and change management is key to this endeavor. Sessions and hallways at the New Orleans Ernest N. Morial Conference Center were jam-packed with Ellucian users from 25 different countries eager to learn about everything from how to simplify the administration of FAFSA and Pell grants, to moving their entire SIS to the cloud. This marked the first Ellucian event for some 2,000 attendees.

But conversations with attendees and sessions revealed familiar challenges and roadblocks, including:

  • Decreasing revenue due to student enrollment and retention
  • Finding funding for people and projects
  • Handling the jobs left vacant by retirements and resignations that won’t be refilled, without putting unrealistic expectations on staff to increase job scope
  • Convincing all important stakeholders of the value of innovating with technology – and just keeping pace with technology that quite literally seems to change daily
  • Implementing change management around processes and technologies that have in some cases been in use for more than a decade
  • Underlining it all - how to fight inflationary pressures without raising tuition fees

The asks of education professionals continue to be high – discover solutions, implement, ensure adoption and then move quickly enough to keep up with whatever comes next. What’s encouraging is that the schools, Ellucian and partners are coming up with real solutions to free up and empower administration and teams who work with students. When it comes to tackling affordability issues, for instance, automation and analytics allow for more time spent not only helping students, but really understanding the root causes of their financial struggles. This enables schools to put scaffolding in place that helps individuals, while also providing insight to build processes that scale to many more students.

“We need to think about how we offer affordability to students in different ways, not only for domestic students, but international students as well,” Flywire CTO David King said in an innovation session at Ellucian Live. He pointed to enabling technologies to that end, such as Flywire’s work around easy to use APIs that aggregate and display student and financial information in a clear and concise way.

Here are a few of the conference’s key takeaways:

  • Institutions are looking at new ways to ensure student retention. With student retention a priority for every school, different departments across campuses are now measuring success based on it. University of Bridgeport CFO Bill Guerreo, during a session hosted by Syntellis, talked about how student retention is now a significant financial metric for his department – and encouraged other financial leaders to consider its critical importance, and to examine it on a semester by semester basis. For its part, the University of Bridgeport has been able to achieve flat enrollment – particularly impressive when you consider 60% of the student body is international.
  • A focus on technology integration is helping schools gain operational efficiencies. As institutions upgrade Ellucian products and look to migrate to Ellucian Banner and Colleague SaaS, ensuring seamless integration with third-party software and the system of record is key. To that end, Flywire was named 2022 Ellucian Partner of the Year for Integration Excellence. Together with the Ellucian team, Flywire has been collaborating and working hard to deliver continuous innovation through an enhanced integration and customer experience that improves the outcomes for both institutions and students alike. According to recent Flywire research, 97% of IT leaders at institutions say tight integration with an ERP is one of the most important considerations when working with a vendor. This certainly rang true throughout the conference.
  • IT is championing innovation and working closer with leaders across campus. Conversations during a breakfast with Flywire and IT leaders from a range of institutions spanning large public universities to small community colleges revealed that getting varying departments and IT aligned takes work, but strides are being made. IT leaders are embracing their roles as active champions of innovation, and putting things in place – such as active roadmap planning and leading check-ins across departments - to break down silos.
  • Easing the experience of international students. International students are very important to higher ed – and even Malcolm Gladwell, the event’s marquee keynote, marveled that education is really the only major international field, and how rich international students and higher ed professionals make it. To that end, delivering front-end technology that matches the experience enjoyed by domestic students is important - especially when it comes to essential activities like providing payment plans and collecting on past-due tuition.
  • Higher ed pros are resilient and have big hearts. Inflation is impacting salaries and operating costs, and schools are doing everything they can to find savings that don’t involve increasing tuition amidst inflation. Some schools are creating entirely new models. At Paul Quinn College, for instance, its entire education model is geared toward ensuring skills needed for the changing world of work. At the network of urban work colleges, studies match with work experience and resulting income helps ensure that students graduate with relevant skills and no debt.
  • Students are adapting and innovating themselves. As the Tulane University Marching Band finished a rousing number on the opening day of the conference, a few seniors in the band stepped out to tell the crowd of 5,000 about their post-graduation plans. Each boasted stellar academic credentials, and would embark on different paths – go right to work, take a gap year to volunteer, or gain work experience before applying for advanced degrees. These are the same students that have been through COVID, survived remote learning, and are adapting and thriving.

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