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What Are the Surprising Advantages of Process Automation for Higher Education?

Chris Williams

Higher education is one of the dominant drivers of prosperity, growth performance, and competitiveness in both national and global economies. In fact, studies show that the more universities in a country, the faster its economic growth. This is because universities not only provide necessary skills training to the next generation of professionals but also provide a vibrant research environment that produces valuable innovations. These innovations can help improve the quality of life for all and set countries apart on the global stage. 

But sadly, the health of the higher education sector today is rather bleak. Reputable bodies are warning of a crisis for US colleges, with more than 500 colleges showing signs of financial stress across multiple areas. 

Faced with these unprecedented challenges, higher education institutions must take deliberate action to weather the storm and come out on top. For most, this will mean leveraging automation in ways that can save time and money in critical organizational functions. With this in mind, let's dive into how automation can save many universities from failure.

The State of Higher Education Today

Just how bad is the current state of higher education today? Well, it's not a promising picture. 

Undergraduate enrollment was falling before the pandemic, with students increasingly questioning the return on investment of a college degree. However, remote learning and skyrocketing tuition costs during the pandemic have plummeted enrollment. Research estimates the COVID-19 pandemic has cost colleges and universities more than $120 billion. And today, the number of undergraduate students enrolled in colleges is down 9.4% compared to 2020. 

These enrollment declines, coupled with underfunding (and deep cuts in state funding), are hitting the higher education system hard. Several years after the pandemic, colleges face significant instability and insecurity. Many institutions are raising tuition costs to combat this dangerous predicament, essentially passing the problem onto the students. 

So, how do colleges and universities come out to the other end of this crisis? How do they continue to survive and thrive at a time when higher education seems more unappealing than ever? Reducing costs will prove vital to the long-term success of many institutions.

Automation Use Cases In Higher Education

Advances in automation technology have paved the way for an increasing number of processes to be automated. And one of the key benefits of automation is its cost-cutting ability. Applied intelligently, automation can reduce employee hours, streamline operations to cut costly waste, and reduce expensive errors. 

Robotic process automation (RPA) specifically, garners a lot of attention in the automation space, and with good reason. RPA is relatively cheap and easy to install, and increasingly accessible. It's also platform-independent (you can install it anywhere), scalable, and increasingly intelligent. In simple words, it's a high-impact but low-cost solution to cutting costs and saving time. 

But in what specific areas can we apply automation to improve higher education facilities today? Let's take a look. 

Enhancing Recruitment and Marketing 

Every year, universities and colleges create new and innovative ways to recruit students through digital marketing. Of course, the goal here is to stand out from the competition, so aspiring students choose their university over others. A vital aspect of this is social media marketing. 

Universities increasingly focus on connecting with potential students in the online spaces they frequent—for example, running campaigns on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The key here is to cultivate a unique look and deliver authentic content. The audience has to know what being a student at that university looks like and what being an alumnus can mean for their future. 

So, how can automation help with social media marketing? In numerous ways. For example, RPA can help with data management; organizing, and structuring marketing data for future analysis. By doing this, universities can gain valuable insights into which student personas are the most interested in attending their university. RPA bots can also extract useful information for new and unique marketing campaigns. For example, the bot might extract specific course information, career prospect information, and social event information to target specific student profiles. Finally, automation can generate, schedule, and track multiple marketing campaigns at once. 

On the recruitment side of things, RPA can help with various activities, including student sourcing and screening; collecting, organizing, and processing student information and storing it in the university systems; and providing automated application instructions. Critically, deploying RPA in student recruiting can help reduce or eliminate (often unconscious) biases in the recruitment process. 

Chatbots can also be invaluable here. Chatbots allow colleges to remain in touch with potential students outside of working hours. This can be critical because potential students may try to narrow their list of prospective colleges by answering key questions. 

If a college takes too long to answer a question, or worse, doesn't answer the question at all because it gets lost along the way, the student may strike the institution off the list. Universities can deploy chatbots to answer simple questions about the enrollment process, student life, course details, and so on. And crucially, chatbots save vast amounts of time for employees. 

Universities and colleges can also leverage other compelling technologies to boost enrollment, like 3D tours. Virtual tours allow potential students to immerse themselves in what day-to-day life at the university is like. 3D tours engage students in a way that words and photos cannot because they provide a visceral sense of life at the college. 

Enrollment Document Processing 

The University of Melbourne, Australia's second-oldest university, is an excellent example of RPA in action. The university set out to overhaul its administrative processes with RPA, putting a particular focus on multi-step processes that required manual data entry and the processing of several documents. For example, they targeted processes like student application forms, essay submission and management, referrals, and transcripts. As a result, the university estimated a saving of 10,000 hours of manual work and $7 million in overhead costs by deploying RPA.

And critically, this deliberate investment in RPA helped the University of Melbourne respond quickly to new crises coming their way. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the university launched a new needs-based emergency support fund to help struggling students stay enrolled. This scheme could have quickly overwhelmed the admin staff and computer systems in a less dynamic and technologically mobilized university. But not at the University of Melbourne.  

The university developed modular bots based on automation requests in under two days. The result? They saved more than 4,500 hours of processing time and boosted the number of payments processed by 300% in two short weeks. 

Different organizations take different approaches to implementing RPA. For example, some start with the most complex (and costly/time-consuming) processes, while others start small and scale up as they build confidence. But critically, almost all organizations quickly realize that they have much more automatable processes than they initially thought. Anything rules-based and repeatable can be automated, and universities of every size have a ton of these processes. 

Post Enrollment Communication 

While getting students enrolled is a top priority for higher education institutions, nurturing students once they start college is also critical. If students feel disengaged and left behind, they might drop out, further jeopardizing the institution's future. The key here is to leverage automation to support internal communication structures that help students thrive. Here are just some of the ways automation can help in this area:

  • Scheduling meetings: Students may need one-on-one contact with various staff throughout the college. Having a system in place to schedule, reschedule, and remind students of appointments can ensure that students get the help they need in a timely manner. Automated appointment scheduling also reduces the administrative burden on higher education employees. RPA bots can integrate with employee calendars to find a suitable time for both parties. 
  • Event management: RPA can handle the back-office event management processes like registering attendees, sending invites and follow-up information, and providing e-tickets. 
  • Clubs and Sports: RPA bots can send out important information about upcoming club and sports events and recruitment drives. It can also track participation in these events to gain valuable insights into the social health of the college. 
  • Financial aid: RPA can automate many of the processes involved in processing financial aid. For example, the bot can ensure students meet the necessary qualifying criteria by scanning the documents for key text. Bots can also store, organize, and pre-authorize applications and schedule the release of funds. 
  • Counseling: Healthcare chatbots can provide essential emotional support to students or assist them in talking to a live agent or in booking counseling appointments. 

Final Thoughts

Universities and colleges must adapt to current technological trends if they want to remain competitive in this increasingly hostile climate. This means investing in high-impact, high-ROI technology like automation. The colleges that have already embarked on their automation journeys are reaping the benefits. On the other hand, the ones slow to adapt risk being left behind and facing further financial hardship.

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