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Alabama State University is trading in its low-tech motorcycle for a shiny new Cadillac. And Freddie Williams, Jr., the assistant vice president of admissions and recruitment, is very excited about it. 

The Cadillac, in Williams’s metaphor, is new software that will change how the university communicates with and keeps track of students. It’s called a Customer Relationship Management system and is the same technology that sends a reminder text or email if an online shopper leaves something in their cart without buying it. 

In higher education, this software can be used to communicate with prospective students, remind students of outstanding requirements during the application and enrollment processes, and later, help ensure that they are progressing toward graduation in the most efficient way.

Alabama State, a historically Black university, is not the first to upgrade. An estimated 50 percent of colleges already use this technology in some capacity, but many believe the uptake is lower among HBCUs because they often have much smaller endowments and receive less government funding, and the technology isn’t free.

With the new technology, Williams is hoping Alabama State will be able to compete better with colleges that upgraded long ago, and prevent its enrollment numbers from dipping any more than necessary with the expected demographic cliff.

Colleges that already had this CRM technology could send dozens of digital communications to prospective students, while colleges without it scrambled to manually send out a few printed letters and emails in the same time period. 

Williams said this left students thinking, “Well, we didn’t hear from you and we got all this information from them. So we decided to go with them.”

Related: College students predicted to fall by more than 15% after the year 2025 

Alabama State is one of six HBCUs getting a CRM upgrade as part of a grant program through the Partnership for Education Advancement, a nonprofit organization that supports colleges that serve students who are the first in their families to go to college or come from low-income backgrounds. The grant is paying for software from a company called Slate and related costs for the first two years. The prices vary depending on how many students apply using the systems, so each college is receiving between $130,000 and $288,000 to cover the tech costs, according to a report by the Partnership for Education Advancement. 

But it’s not just about the money. Ed Advancement, as it’s known for short, will also provide tech support to help with the implementation, Jim Runcie, the CEO said, because coordinating across various departments at a college can be difficult. 

“You also need leadership to be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this, it’s going to create a little bit of friction, but it’s going to really help us in the long run,’” Runcie said.  

“We were able to function with the bare minimum, but of course it wasn’t as the other schools were doing. And so we were really losing ground because we weren’t able to play with the big guys.”

Freddie Williams, Jr., assistant vice president of student affairs, enrollment management, admissions and recruitment, Alabama State University

For some colleges in the group of six, the CRM technology is entirely new. Others, like Norfolk State in Virginia, had previously tried out software from other companies, but still needed an upgrade. 

Juan Alexander, associate vice president for enrollment management at Norfolk State, said that this software has made the application process smoother and more efficient for prospective students. Right now, Norfolk State is only taking advantage of the CRM for admissions, he said, but in the future, the college may start using the aspects of the software that are designed to help with retention. 

Georgia State University has been using similar software for more than a decade, said Allison Calhoun-Brown, the senior vice president for student success. She said automating simple communication and problem-solving has freed up the people who work at the university to help students tackle the more complicated challenges they encounter.

“HBCUs do amazing work,” even without CRM tools, she said, “because they’re so intentional about supporting students.

“What this allows them to do is, in some ways, increase that intentionality,” she added. “Even if you have a good model, it will still improve the service and make it more efficient if you implement it wholeheartedly.”

Related: Predictive analytics are boosting college graduation rates, but do they also invade privacy and reinforce racial inequities? 

The other HBCUs receiving a grant for a CRM upgrade are Florida A&M University, South Carolina State University, Texas Southern University and Tuskegee University.

Alexander Clark, the CEO and founder of Slate, said it’s important for colleges to make sure everyone on campus works together to implement the software, because “you get out of it what you put in.”

The support from the other colleges and Ed Advancement acts as a “centralized brain trust” by bringing together people with different expertise, and helping the HBCUs to make the most of the software, Clark said. It could be an especially helpful strategy at schools that have been historically underfunded and tighter on resources.

Williams, who is also in charge of enrollment management and student success at Alabama State, said that his university and many other HBCUs have always been good at doing the best they could with the few resources they had.

“We were able to function with the bare minimum, but of course it wasn’t as the other schools were doing, he said. “And so we were really losing ground because we weren’t able to play with the big guys.”

Now, he’s excited about learning how to drive the fancy new Cadillac, or how to best take advantage of the CRM technology. But he said he’s not letting go of all of his old-school tactics. 

Even as he talked about how the new system can send text messages and emails and track whether students have opened them, he had two thick manila folders full of letters waiting to be signed sitting on his desk. 

“People still like to receive them and I sign them because I’m old-fashioned that way,” he said. “But the good news is that they don’t have to wait for you to sign a stack of letters. They’ll get an instant communication stating that you’ve been admitted electronically, and then they’ll get the follow-up official letter with an official signature on there as well.”

This story about technology at HBCUs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter. 

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