Insights — Public-Private Partnerships, Empathy & AI

Public-Private Partnerships, Empathy & AI

Thought leadership / January 31, 2021
Malachi Koop
Malachi Koop

Over the past several years, public-private partnerships (P3s) have become increasingly common in higher ed. Like most P3s around the country, their focus is usually related to infrastructure, much like the oft-cited P3 at Ohio State University, or more recent examples such as the University of Kentucky, the University of Iowa, and the largest P3 ever completed in the United States — the University of California-Merced

In the wake of COVID-19 and mounting revenue pressures, P3s will likely become even more commonplace as institutions seek to accomplish capital projects with alternative sources of financing while mitigating risk and preserving their balance sheets. Now, P3s are inherently misunderstood, usually as a result of stakeholder (mis)management and the common misconception that public-private partnerships are essentially the privatization of public goods. But that's an article for a different day. 

There's a new P3 that I'm excited about, mostly because it uses technology to solve very real problems in higher ed. Because, let's be honest, there's a propensity in EdTech to invent problems to solve because education is an enormously large, relatively untapped market.

First announced last fall, this P3 is between the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) and the technology company AdmitHub and their product, ADVi. THECB launched 60x30tx in 2015 with the mission to equip 60% of Texas young adults (25-34) with a postsecondary certificate or degree by 2030. Teaming up with AdmitHub and using ADVi will help to improve persistence and retention within these population groups. 

So, what's ADVi? 

ADVi is an empathetic conversational chatbot that uses AI to help students deal with various college-related issues 24/7. Things like completing FAFSAs, finding and registering for classes, and making deposits. If students need assistance beyond the capabilities of the AI chatbot, there are advisers to assist students. AdmitHub partnered with CommonApp last year to assist students in completing their college applications, it's in use at many colleges and universities around the country, and it's delivered meaningful results — in one case at Georgia State University improving retention by 22%

As a general rule, I roll my eyes whenever I hear the word "chatbot," but ADVi has helped institutions achieve better registration rates, improved rates of deposits, and ultimately, improved retention and persistence in its student body. Leading with empathetic communications has proven to be especially helpful for low-income and first-generation students, who may not be familiar with all of the protocols and processes necessary to complete these tasks. 

This comes at a crucial time for higher ed. The issues of retention and persistence were critical to nearly every institution in America before COVID; in its wake, addressing these issues has only become more of an imperative. The national graduation rate is a paltry 57%*, public perception around higher ed continues to decline, and issues of access and affordability have never been more pressing than they are now. Still, new Common App data indicate that while overall application numbers are up for the Fall of 2021, applications from low-income and first-generation students are cratering. 

*Actually, that's the six-year national graduation rate. The four-year national graduation rate is 33%. 

Empathetic communications are nothing new, certainly not to higher ed marketers. But what we can and should take away from this is how the relatively simple step of kindly and responsively assisting students navigate the bureaucracy and myriad of forms, policies, systems, and deadlines that come with attending college made such a substantive difference to actually retaining them as students. It's worth pointing out that ADVi doesn't change those processes; it just helps bring more clarity and understanding to the processes themselves.

Juxtapose that against the reality that, according to our most recent CMO Study, only 48% of higher ed marketers are even involved in retention efforts. Said another way, it's very difficult to design empathetic communications to improve student retention if your communication professionals aren't even working on the problem. 

When I first started writing this article, I was planning to dive deep into the role of design thinking and its credo — start with empathy — as a reminder that the solutions we seek are available to us if we're just willing to do the hard, often nebulous, work of listening with an open mind to those whose problems we are trying to solve. 

But the more that I thought about this, the more I realized that the problem was much deeper than designing more empathetic communications. In Terry Flannery's new book, "How to Market A University," she reminds us early and often that marketing strategy is institutional strategy. And I worry that when people read that, they interpret it as saying "marketing strategy is part of our institutional strategy," or, worse, "part of our institutional strategy includes marketing." Those fears are not without merit: In the same CMO Study referenced earlier, we found that 1 in 5 of the senior-most marketers at their respective institutions weren't even able to identify their own marketing budget. How someone could be tasked with the enormous role of leading marketing and communications for any college or university in America and not even be empowered with knowing — let alone controlling — their own budget indicates the enormous hill higher ed marketing still has to climb. 

And consider for a moment any other industry that would allow a system designed to purchase and use a product to become so confusing that you could reduce your churn just by improving communications without even fixing the problem. In any other industry, the product marketing team would be fired, and that the root of the problem would be solved, let alone addressed. But all too often in higher ed, the CMO isn't even in the room for those conversations. And there is no product marketing team to speak of. 

My point is not to be over reductionistic and imply that all these problems wouldn't exist if higher ed CMOs were in the room. Nor is it to minimize the incredible work that AdmitHub is doing to solve important problems. Because the challenges facing our industry are only deepening — both in their size & complexity. The looming demographic cliff will look like a speed bump in comparison to the continued digitization of our economy.

But all of these challenges also create enormous opportunities to innovate and think critically about the role our industry plays in advancing our society. And sometimes those opportunities will look like first-of-its-kind public-private partnerships and sometimes they'll look like using innovative tech startups leveraging AI to remove barriers and improve access for the most vulnerable student populations. But sometimes it may just require looking internally to see if there are antiquated systems and ways of thinking that prevent us from not only doing our best work, but having our best people work on those problems.

Malachi is the Director of Marketing at SimpsonScarborough. An MBA Candidate at Georgetown University, he shares our conviction in the transformative power of higher education to eradicate poverty and help solve some of the world's most challenging problems. Outside of work you can find he and his wife chasing around their two little ones, Campbell & Gideon, and their two Wheaten Terriers. Learn more about Malachi and the rest of our team here

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