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Why You Need a CRM for Higher Education: 5 Things to Consider When Choosing the Best System

Like those that are built for businesses, CRMs for higher education enable universities to streamline their communications and track and report on an individual’s journey within the institution. This leads to a more engaged student and alumni body, better understanding across teams and, eventually, increased ROI.

Yet, with so many options out there, what do those responsible for selecting a CRM need to look out for prior to implementation?

What is a CRM for higher education?

Customer relationship management (CRM) is a type of software that acts as a communication aid for teams and individuals. At higher education institutions, a CRM stores data and organizes it in a way that enables users to streamline admissions, target their marketing campaigns, and track results at the other end.

emBecause the CRM system contains a unified record of all contact information, activities, and attributes for each individual, users can ultimately provide students, alumni, and donors the best possible service, from their initial inquiry at the start of their application journey to graduation – and beyond.

Higher education is becoming increasingly competitive and globalized. Naturally, the focus on the quality of digital communication has intensified.

It’s safe to say that students have high expectations when it comes to the ways in which their institutions engage with them. This is not surprising, considering the average 16-24 year old spends around two hours and 26 minutes engaging with online platforms such as social media on a daily basis.

To stay ahead of the game, universities need to drive value at every stage of the student lifecycle. If not, they run the risk of losing prospects to more astute institutions that better cater to their students’ expectations. CRMs help universities manage communications with students before they enroll, during their tenure, and after they graduate.

These days, the use of CRMs in higher education is widespread: a study conducted by Ovum in 2013 revealed that 90% of universities claimed to use one – a figure that is undoubtedly higher now.

Technology is the key to engaging with stakeholders on a meaningful level in order to drive engagement, and in turn, applications, enrollments, and even donations.

“Higher education customers are demanding more attention and immediate service – that is, “Internet time.” Proactive institutions are now adjusting their Customer Relationship Management practices by refocusing their efforts externally. Because of the need to concentrate more on customers, many institutions are once again turning to technology – this time to customer relationship management (CRM) software.” 

From A Vision for Higher Education by Gary B. Grant and Greg Anderson.

The Saïd Foundation is a recent example of how a CRM can act as a catalyst for improvement by increasing applications and driving results. The foundation provides postgraduate scholarship awards and supports students with disabilities, as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by providing them with access to a high-quality education and better care.

Before making their application process digital via the adoption of a CRM, applicants had to download and physically print a PDF form. They then had to submit it with supporting documents to a local representative – a time-consuming task for all involved!

Since streamlining their process through a CRM, applications to the institution have increased dramatically by 62%. Processing time has been cut by 20% – a win all around.

% change of using CRM

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The few institutions that aren’t using CRMs yet are likely to be relying on archaic or simple software systems, like Excel spreadsheets. Although these methods are useful, they are not sufficient.

Unlike spreadsheets, a CRM system has been expertly designed to manage student leads and relationships by tracking communication and commentary relating to an individual. This makes it easy to share information and collaborate on projects and action tasks.

Modern CRMs for higher education also provide new tools for universities to utilize ‘big data’ to gain more insight into the behavior of applicants, students, alumni, and donors.

Top benefits of using a CRM for higher education

When it comes to selecting the right CRM, it helps to keep the following benefits in mind. It might also be helpful to order them in terms of priority and need for your specific organization.


A quality CRM for higher education will enable the university to streamline their communication efforts across the entire student lifecycle through easy data segmentation and automation, saving on time-consuming administrative and operational tasks.

In other words, a CRM acts as a single source of truth, containing both contact details and communication history.


Historically, gathering data and inputting it into a report was something of an arduous and time-consuming task. Inbuilt reporting systems mean individuals and departments can do away with spreadsheets and access reports instantaneously. This will allow them to make informed changes to strategy more quickly.

Saving time

Time freed up on admin tasks can be channeled into creating targeted and meaningful content. Automated email marketing campaigns can do wonders to boost engagement. They can be scheduled for different stages of the admissions process and segmented according to things like academic subject and level of study.


Messages in the form of emails and calendar invites delivered in a consistent, timely way can help universities to drive academic results as well as donations. Regular communication helps the university to establish itself at the forefront of the stakeholder’s mind, pre and post-graduation!


Conventional marketing wisdom says consumers have to engage with a brand’s marketing message at least seven times before they commit to purchasing a product. Similar buying behaviors are exhibited in students when looking for the best higher education institution for their needs.

With the correct tool, a university can build and implement an excellent student recruitment campaign. Having access to data highlighting the most (and least) engaged applicants can help the admissions team target the right candidate at exactly the right time, ensuring the best applicants reach enrollment.


The ability to see academic and personal interests together with the engagement level of candidates, allows recruitment and admissions teams to reach out with relevant content. This content will be directly in line with each candidate’s needs. As a result, the relationship with each individual becomes a more personalized and a higher level of trust is built.

Updates and messages of support can also support the wellbeing of students, especially at stressful times in the academic year like during exams.


A CRM will contain valuable data on individuals that can be utilized to nurture prospects into applicants,  applicants into students, students to graduates and eventually, graduates to alumni!


CRMs help universities track how prospective students initially find them. Did they find them by visiting the website, a well-placed ad on Google or from a specific marketing campaign, social-media oriented or otherwise? This enables the marketing department to determine where the largest scope return on investment is and where there is room for improvement.

flow chart of How CRMs are used

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What to look out for when purchasing a CRM for higher education

Institutions looking to adopt a CRM face two choices: to build a system in-house or purchase an off-the-shelf (SaaS) product from a software provider. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. It really depends on the university’s requirements and whether or not they have the know-how and manpower to build it themselves.

Universities that opt to build their own CRM often choose to do so as it allows them to customize features and functionalities according to their unique requirements. However, it’s important to note that further down the line the complexity of the software can present difficulties in terms of scope and development.

More often, the right decision will be to buy a license for a pre-built CRM. Different types of CRM systems are available on the market and given that each institution has its own unique identity, one size certainly doesn’t fit all.

In order to be a discerning buyer, it helps to understand the vocabulary surrounding the market and to be able to distinguish between the different systems.

To get you started, here are 5 key considerations as you decide whether to build or buy and narrow down your options between providers:  

1.Unified & Integrated

Despite the verbiage, this type of CRM is typically not what you would call a ‘uniform’ offering. Different elements are developed separately and then joined together, which can be time-consuming and somewhat complex to build, maintain, and use. The end result can sometimes feel makeshift and lacking in consistency.

2. Converged

A converged CRM, on the other hand, offers an ‘all in one’ solution, tying all the features and functionalities together in one tidy software system. Student recruitment, admissions, marketing and communications systems are integrated into one streamlined program.

A converged CRM will also provide consistency in terms of usability and design, making it easy for teams to use and get to grips with.

3. Adaptability and cost-effectiveness

It can often be difficult for university IT departments to build software as complex as a SaaS application and it can be an incredibly time-consuming endeavor. In a lot of instances, home-grown solutions are comprised of open-source software components integrated together.

Although this can initially seem like a cost-effective approach, the end result runs the risk of lacking the depth and adaptability of a professional software system and may have to be replaced by one in the future.  

You need to understand whether your IT team is capable of being dedicated full-time to such a project–otherwise, it may not reach your business goals on-time and on budget.

Those who choose to build a solution in-house have to start from scratch. SaaS providers, on the other hand, don’t have this problem. The SaaS providers product has been developed in-line with the proposed requirements by a team of experienced professionals who will adapt it in line with any changes.

Consider the cost of having a dedicated team that will design and maintain a custom solution for your university. You must also consider the cost of ownership, infrastructure costs, and opportunity costs of having your IT team unavailable for other projects. Compare this versus the turnkey cost of a SaaS CRM that will upgrade and incorporate the best practices from all higher education institutions they work with.

4. Capacity and project management

SaaS providers already have the staff and project management expertise required to prepare a solution fit for purpose. Universities will struggle to assemble a workforce as knowledgeable and experienced.

Even producing a project roadmap and managing complex databases can prove difficult for small, inexperienced teams, and countless other challenges will occur during the course of development.

5. Growth and scale

Universities evolve at rapid rates from both operational and marketing perspectives. The software they use needs to be adapted to fit with such changes.

For in-house solutions, this presents more complexity in the development process. A common problem occurs when staff members who initially develop the solution move on and existing staff have to reverse-engineer the software.

Conversely, SaaS providers are used to change. As part of a license agreement, SaaS providers implement product updates with new features on a monthly or even weekly basis. Many are also open to customizing their product according to the users’ needs and openly welcome suggestions for future developments.

At the end of the day, every university operates in its own unique way. Choosing a CRM in line with the academic, recruitment, marketing and future goals of the institution is important.

Research is vital! It’s a good idea to read reviews, try demos, and speak with a consultant before making a final decision. Include multiple team members in the brainstorming, testing, and decision-making process, as they will be the ones ultimately using and improving it!

This piece was written by FULL FABRIC . FULL FABRIC provides an all-in-one CRM for higher education, created by a group of higher ed professionals, technologists, designers marketers and entrepreneurs on a mission to improve student relationship management. You can start a conversation with them on Twitter @fullfabric.

Kate Tattersfield

Kate Tattersfield is a former teacher turned content creator at FULL FABRIC, specializing in writing for the education sector.

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