Research: Customer Relationship Management in Higher Ed

Customer relationship management is a critical component of an institution’s enrollment operations process. Increased competition and tightening budgets have led to a growing need for efficient and effective customer relationship management systems. Many education providers have developed external partnerships to meet this need. Helix Education and the University Professional and Continuing Education Association (UPCEA) have partnered on a study of continuing education metrics to examine the enrollment operations and customer relationship management strategies of various education providers. This research comes as part of a larger effort on the data-driven state of higher ed decision making.

With student conversion being one of the primary drivers of enrollment operations, identifying the most effective actions in an education provider’s enrollment funnel is crucial. In this study, more than one-third of respondents indicated that the action with the highest conversion rate is phone communication with an enrollment representative. In response to this metric, education providers should ensure that their teams have the necessary resources and training to quickly and effectively respond to inquiries by phone. Understanding this may allow them to use their enrollment operation’s resources more efficiently to increase conversion rates.


Helix and UPCEA partnered to provide a clear understanding of the current status of enrollment operations. The survey was produced and conducted in February and March 2016. While 480 individuals participated in the survey, 391 qualified under the following study categories: enrollment marketing, enrollment operations, retention operations, online program management, program development, and data/analytics.

Study Demographics/Survey Profile
A majority of the education professionals who responded to the survey identified themselves as having leadership roles, with 62% indicating titles of program director or manager, or dean or other leader. Only 32 of the respondents consider themselves to be enrollment leaders. Of the 480 individuals surveyed, 391 qualified under the following study categories:

  • Program development: 151
  • Online program management: 88
  • Enrollment marketing: 74
  • Enrollment operations: 32
  • Data/Analytics: 38
  • Retention operations: 8

When referencing the joint Helix and UPCEA study, 32 individuals in enrollment operations qualified and participated in questions related to enrollment operations. All figures and data cited as 2016 Helix Survey on the following pages pertain to these 32 education professionals.

Summary of Key Findings:

  • A significant portion of education providers (77%) are currently leveraging an external customer relationship management (CRM) system to help manage their enrollment operations.
  • The activity with the highest conversion in the respondent’s enrollment funnel is telephone communication with an enrollment representative (36%).
  • Eighty-eight percent of respondents reported their ability to contact an outbound inquiry within one day.

An enrollment funnel is a system utilized by higher education institutions to convert prospective students into enrolled students and is characterized by a series of actions necessitated to make that conversion. The sequence begins with the identification of prospective students, marketing efforts aimed at targeting those prospects, inbound inquiries of prospects, completed applications, admissions, deposits, enrollments, and first-class starts. A conversion rate is calculated by determining the percentage of inquiries that results in student enrollments and ultimate starts. Institutions can use their conversion rates to predict future enrollment outcomes and set realistic targets.
Understanding CRM usage in higher education is pivotal to understanding the activities and measurement of institutional enrollment funnels. One traditional function of a CRM is to collect data produced throughout the enrollment funnel to help track conversion rates. More robust CRMs will continue to track student success throughout their academic career and beyond.

Seventy-seven percent of survey respondents indicated that they are currently leveraging a CRM system to help manage their enrollment operations. The most-used CRM’s included Salesforce and Hobsons at 30% and 22% respectively. CRM’s are having a major impact on enrollment operations throughout higher education as more and more institutions partner with CRM providers to assist with all facets of the student-customer life cycle.

Respondents were asked which activity within their enrollment funnel resulted in the highest conversion rate. Interestingly, they identified telephone communication with an enrollment representative as having the highest conversion rate among students in the enrollment process at 36%—twice as high as completing an application. Given that CRM systems tend to rely heavily on virtual communication with prospective students (e-mail, text, websites, social media), it is important not to discount the positive impact and personal touch of speaking with an enrollment specialist. Education providers should ensure that appropriate resources are dedicated to training on enrollment representative phone communication as it is one of the most impactful activities in the enrollment funnel.

With telephone communication being a vital activity in the enrollment funnel, the speed with which enrollment representatives contact an outbound inquiry is important. Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated that they contact an outbound inquiry within three minutes, 26% indicated four minutes to an hour, and 27% indicated longer than an hour but within the same day. Response time is key in customer relations, and this data shows a focus on prompt response time to outbound inquiries among education providers as indicated by 88% responding within one day. It would be informative to further drill down to determine which of these contact windows has the highest impact on conversion rates.


View full Leading by Gut or Data: The Data-Driven State of Higher Education Decision Making paper here.

Danielle Caldwell

Danielle Caldwell is the Content Marketing Manager at Helix Education. Prior to her work with Helix, Danielle served as a full-time faculty member with Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program in Salt Lake City. Danielle brings nearly a decade of experience in research, communication, and higher education, and she currently still teaches graduate courses in organizational communication and research methods as an adjunct professor at Westminster College.