Cornell’s unique CMS/CRM solution unifies the student experience

The Ivy League university knit together Drupal and Salesforce to create a university-wide system of engagement centered on the student experience.

Cornell’s unique CMS/CRM solution unifies the student experience

As an Ivy League institution, Cornell University’s main mission is to “educate the next generation of global citizens and promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community.”

A lofty purpose, and one the university found increasingly difficult to quantify and measure. Cornell enrolls more than 20,000 students and offers thousands of co-curricular opportunities, such as study abroad, research, fellowships, engaged learning, and professional development. But students struggled to find and apply for these programs, and administrators found it difficult to promote these opportunities, manage applicants and measure participation and impact.

The issue? Each program was housed with its own website, application, marketing, program management and tracking tools. So Cornell’s IT department decided to remake its stack, with a shift in emphasis on the student as customer.

“If we were an enterprise, we’d have twenty thousand high-paying ‘customers’ here — and there’s no company in the world that would have this kind of customer base and not want to engage with them to understand their experience,” says Rebecca Joffrey, IT innovation officer at Cornell.

Enterprise best practices suggest using customer experience and engagement tools to quantify and measure experience and impact, but that technology isn’t widely used in higher education, says Vicky Mikula, assistant director of commercial and collaboration applications at Cornell.

“In higher ed, there’s kind of a missing layer of technology — we have really good systems of record, really good enterprise management applications, but we don’t have the kind of tools enterprises use to measure and orchestrate movement for our ‘customers’ — the students — along these paths,” Mikula says.

The Steering Committee decided to build a single, university-wide “system of engagement” that would make it easier for students to find and apply for programs while also making it easier for administrators and advisers to promote programs, manage applicants and measure impact. The centerpiece of that effort, the Cornell Student Experience Initiative, is a new website,, that invites students to “find your opportunity.” The project earned Cornell a CIO 100 Award in IT Excellence.

A winning combination

Cornell’s student experience website is driven on the front end by a Drupal content management system (CMS) paired with Salesforce customer relationship management (CRM) tools behind the scenes. As students navigate Cornell’s offerings, back-end data helps advisers engage, provide support and resources, and understand the impact these programs have on students’ success.

Prior to the makeover, Cornell relied on a proliferation of disparate systems, scattered FileMaker and Excel spreadsheets and siloed data for each program. “We recognized the need to be in one system, to do away with all the independent tech floating around out there and to drive down costs,” Joffrey says.

By combining a CMS and CRM, Cornell has created a powerful system of engagement, Joffrey adds. Drupal’s flexibility enabled Cornell to build custom layouts and offer suggested content to students based on their interactions with the website at a given moment. Salesforce CRM tools, on the other hand, link up data about students from a variety of sources, including the website, email, meetings, and marketing efforts, enabling staff members to manage interactions with students based on who they are and what they do as they move through an experience over time.

Getting buy-in for the unique solution, however, was a challenge.

“It wasn’t like we suggested CMS and CRM and people were like, ‘Yeah! Let’s go!’” says Mikula. “[Joffrey] had to do a lot of education and convince a lot of people that this was the right decision.”

Another challenge was bringing teams together that hadn’t worked together in the past, says Mikula. To create the two facets of the solution, IT established two project teams, comprised of a cross-functional mix of subject matter experts, pilot “customers” and technical leads consisting of hundreds of people across Cornell’s colleges and departments. One team designed the Student Experience website. The other built the advising platform. Once the core assets were built, the teams came together to connect them, which was no easy task. With the help of outside vendors, Cornell knit together the overall “system of engagement,” a process that required expertise that the vendor community didn’t have.

“We had a tech lead who was an expert in CRM, and we used our internal web team to manage the CMS side of things. But we also realized we had to find a technical staffing agency with the understanding and tech savvy to work with an implementation that was less common than what they normally did,” says Joffrey. “We had to get just the right blend of marketing, content, design, data architecture, and the CRM side — and most agencies don’t do that well.”

Igniting interest

Cornell’s platform comprises three main components. An “opportunities marketplace” enables students to find and apply to any available co-curricular opportunity. The website currently offers 700 opportunities, a number that will increase significantly over the next year, according to Cornell.

The second component is an advising platform that enables advisors to manage students’ needs throughout their academic journey, including outreach and support for co-curricular experiences. Among other advising functions, the platform enables program administrators to set up applications to their programs, manage applicants, automate communications, and support on-boarding and off-boarding.

The platform also offers analytics tools administrators can use to monitor metrics of program participation and student success. Because all student data is in the system, it’s possible to get a full understanding of the impact programs have on various student populations, including those who don’t participate.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that is driving an increase in applications to programs, Mikula says. For example, a research center that sponsors internships in oceanography, food security and other areas of “planetary health” reported a 300 percent increase in applications in the past year.

“Not much at Cornell has gotten as much alignment as this. The way we know something is a success is demand, and we cannot keep up with the demand around discovery and potential for these programs,” she says. “People in various departments are asking us, ‘Can Salesforce do this? Or that? Or this other thing in my department?’ and it’s driving further conversations around the university.”

Besides achieving the academic and co-curricular goals, Cornell’s centralized system of engagement is also saving money by reducing technical debt through retirement of legacy websites, custom applications, and third-party point solutions, Joffrey says. A comparison of the cost to build a new website from scratch versus extending the Student Experience platform’s capabilities shows the university will save approximately $15,000 for each program that uses the central solution.

“Three programs went live in March resulting in an immediate savings of $45,000. Others will follow,” Mikula says.

Universities are under constant pressure to do more with less and to create and maintain a stellar student experience, Joffrey says. This kind of technology solution can enable improvements in fundraising, equal access, health and well-being while at the same time increasing efficiency and cutting IT costs — it’s a win-win.

“These kinds of solutions for engagement and measurement are incredibly important. If you want to move the needle, there’s no way to do so sticking with the very-specific, limited functionality, business-specific solutions that are currently making up ‘ed tech,’” she says. “Universities really need to get creative and combine those things with best-in-class, back-end tech that can deliver the kinds of engagement and analytics that can deliver a great experience.”

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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