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Buyers Guide

Last Updated: March 16, 2023

Customer relationship management (CRM) software is central to modern business. It helps maintain and organize all of a company's information on its relationships with customers and is the foundation for creating more valuable relationships.

But what about higher education institutions (HEIs)? They aren't "businesses" in the normal sense of the word. HEIs have a range of relationship types—with prospective students, enrolled students and graduates—that don't fit any of the standard business world's molds. So what exactly is higher education CRM software, and how are colleges and universities using it? Read on to find out!

What Is Higher Education CRM Software?

How Is CRM Different From Other Higher Education Software?

Common Features of Higher Education CRM Software

Key Considerations for Purchasing Higher Education CRM Software

What Is Higher Education CRM Software?

Higher Education CRM software, and CRM software in general, serves one overarching goal: to create more valuable customer relationships. This includes making existing relationships more valuable as well as creating new relationships to in turn create value.

In the business world, more value usually means simply more money. But few schools are entirely profit-driven, so what exactly does "creating value" really mean in the context of an HEI? It can mean:

  • Attracting new students and increasing enrollment

  • Increasing student engagement in school activities

  • Growing community involvement with school programs

  • Strengthening relationships with alumni and faculty

  • Improving relationships with donors and alumni

These are some of the broader goals of higher education CRM software. We'll discuss them, and the specific CRM applications used to meet them, in more detail below. Before doing that, however, it will be helpful to first distinguish CRM from the other software platforms used by institutions for higher learning.

How Is CRM Different From Other Higher Education Software?

There's no shortage of software designed for HEIs. Traditionally, the most common type used by learning institutions is called school administration software. Another commonly used term is "student information system." These systems are designed to manage the mission-critical aspects of school administration, such as:

  • The application process

  • Class enrollment and scheduling

  • Tuition invoicing and billing

  • Class attendance and student grading

  • Class credit and graduation requirements

  • Student and parent contact information


Example screenshots of student-facing portals in STARS school management system

As you can see, school administration software focuses on the nuts-and-bolts activities of school administration. It operates in relatively black-and-white contexts where, for example, a student is either enrolled or is not; a bill is either paid or is not; and classes are either attended or not.

Contrast this with HEI CRM software, which operates in the much larger and much less black-and-white areas of school administration. It can help schools in the following areas:

  • Finding and attracting applicants from different pools and groups

  • Improving course offerings to increase retainment and better meet student needs

  • Strengthening student and alumni relations to improve fundraising

  • Clearly communicating a school's mission statement and benefit to the community

Put another way, school administration software and HEI CRM systems are both used to manage information. While school administration software uses that information to facilitate the school's daily operations, HEI CRM uses it to improve relationships while working toward a school's larger strategic goals, such as those listed above.

Common Features of Higher Education CRM Software

Speaking very generally, most HEIs seek CRM software to improve their recruitment programs, improve communication (with students, parents, donors and the general public) and improve fundraising efforts by strengthening relationships with alumni.

To meet these goals, HEI CRM systems help with data collection and analysis and the launching and management of campaigns that are based on that data analysis. Features and applications that are commonly built into HEI CRM systems can include:

Email marketing

Automate email campaigns, measure their performance and iteratively improve them based on data from previous campaigns.

Recruit management

These tools manage the entire pipeline of new applicants and recruits, automating many of the steps in these lengthy processes.

Data integration tools

These apps help integrate data from other systems (e.g., school management and student information systems) to improve the CRM and vice versa.

Social media apps

Social media monitoring apps help school administrators keep track of relevant online discussions and help coordinate the school's responses.

Contact information management

A core app in all CRM platforms, these databases ensure schools use the right details when reaching out to applicants, students and other interested parties.

Personalized communications

Personalization tools help automate the above (and other) activities by helping schools customize communications based on a recipient's current status or success of previous communications.

While CRM as a type of software has been around for decades, only in the past five or so years have vendors begun tailoring it to the specific needs of higher education institutions. It's a relatively young market, and offerings vary greatly between vendors. HEIs looking for a system that includes CRM capabilities along with other features might be interested in higher education ERP systems.

Give our advisors a call at (844) 687-6771 if you need help determining which vendors offer which specific applications.

Key Considerations for Purchasing Higher Education CRM Software

Adoption: Single department or entire school? One lesson learned from the world of business is that CRM systems work best (and return the most value) when they're used by all of a company's customer-facing departments. Before a school begins the selection process, it should first have a clear understanding of how the system will be used across campus, not only in one isolated department.

Deployment. Cloud or on-premise? CRM software is typically offered as a cloud-deployed (aka Software-as-a-Service or SaaS) or as an on-premise solution. With cloud software, the school subscribes to the platform and the vendor manages everything on the back end. With on-premise software, schools typically pay a one-time licensing fee but then manage the installation on their own servers.

Integration. Integrated or stand-alone? As discussed above, most colleges and universities already use multiple different systems of software. Before settling on a new CRM system, the school should determine what degree of integration it needs with existing systems. This determination should be made with help from the school's IT staff.