In 2021, enrollment in post-baccalaureate degrees at U.S. universities increased by 5% over the previous year. A leap matched by the growth that had taken place gradually over the previous decade, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Slate, Salesforce and Element451 have become major players in this space, each with unique pros and cons, according to higher ed users.
Slate is “the popular product,” according to Kittie Pain, director of graduate admissions at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. However, it was never intended for graduate admissions use.
“We do a lot of fitting square pegs into round holes,” Pain noted.
One of Slate’s biggest issues, according to Pain, is its tendency to suddenly roll out major updates that break previously functioning tools. In one instance last year, Kutztown worked with a Slate consultant to set up a suite of features, only for the whole ecosystem of tools to break down when Slate updated.
“Nothing should be set and forget,” Pain said, but when a great deal of time has been invested in setup, losing everything can feel like a waste.
Pain said the problem is compounded when customer service at Slate is lacking. Slate’s customer support directs to videos, message boards and other information libraries, rather than providing direct assistance.
“If you can’t find it on your own, you’re encouraged to put in a ticket, but you’re not connected to a specific sales representative via your Slate account,” she said.
This same issue also impacts admissions at the undergraduate level, according to Ryan Killilea, associate director of admissions at William Peace University.
“I think the biggest pro and con of Slate is that the designers are always making updates to the system to make it better,” said Killilea. It may be an advantage, in that it becomes a little more user-friendly with each update. However, as Killilea noted, “It is a con because something might change in Slate and you might not know why or how or where that change happened until you discover it on your own.”
Not everyone shares Pain’s Slate-related woes, however.
“During my time using Slate, I was fortunate to have excellent technical support from an internal partner, which greatly enhanced my experience with the platform,” said Matthew Bowersox, director of marketing and communications at the College of Charleston’s graduate school. However, Bowersox added that Slate does generally rely on its community of users for technical support, rather than providing more direct assistance.
Tech support issues or not, users tended to profess a positive overall experience with the platform.
“The big pro is that everything is in one place—previously, we had to collect our own materials from applicants, and the program staff spent a lot of time just sorting and organizing materials,” said Jim Michnowicz, head of the department of world languages and cultures at North Carolina State University. “Now that all goes through slate, and you can just hop in and assign applications to readers, etc.”
Slate’s strengths also include, for example, the ability to track when emails are opened, how many times, and what links within the emails are clicked on to see what interests potential applicants, Pain said.
In one instance, users at Kutztown were able to see that the last email in a set of four was consistently being ignored. The team was able to move it to a different part of the email chain, boosting engagement, according to Pain.
Meanwhile, Salesforce provides a promising alternative for higher ed professionals.
“Being a larger and more robust company, [Salesforce] logically has a more extensive support system for general users,” said Bowersox. “Slate’s strength lies in its specialization in admissions, setting it apart from Salesforce in terms of tailored support for customization in this specific area.”
A representative at West Virginia University could not be reached for comment. However, the university’s website explains the institution uses the tool to “analyze the effectiveness of marketing strategies and scale up to meet the needs of all colleges and campuses” and “create more personalized and effective interactions” with applicants at all levels.
Likewise, Kent State University employs Salesforce’s TargetX for graduate admissions. The institution cites the application’s mobile-friendly application layouts and the ability to invite recommenders to submit their letters from within the application.
In addition, Salesforce provides an App Exchange, in which users can connect other apps to the CRM, allowing it to communicate with the university’s marketing software.
“I am still evaluating which platform better suits my needs in admissions,” Bowersox said. “While I am still adapting to using Salesforce […] I believe [it] can currently offer a superior and more seamless customer experience for prospective students.”
He added that Salesforce could further improve its functionality by “implementing features related to email automation and prospect engagement.”
“Moreover, I would seek to incorporate a content strategy to effectively integrate blog pieces into our communications,” said Bowersox. “Challenges arise when using plug-ins that leverage specific tools, and the training offered by Salesforce does not always address the unique niche requirements of admissions professionals like myself.”
After having used both Slate and Salesforce, Muhlenberg College made the switch to Element451, another popular CRM, in 2022.
“We decided to search for a new solution in the summer of 2022 after sitting down and running some numbers on just how much customization we needed to build our instance of Slate to where we needed it to be,” said Shane Baglini, senior director of marketing and recruitment at Muhlenberg and Volt contributor. “We needed a platform that, above all else, was user-friendly for our advisors and other folks and gave us the marketing capabilities we needed, like plug-and-play landing pages, advanced automation and a full-scale admissions application,” he said.
Element451 is especially good at measuring spend, an invaluable tool for graduate programs with more limited funding, according to Pain.
“What Element451 is doing is really smart,” said Baglini. “They’re making a product that is taking the admissions and enrollment functions that Slate does well, providing that functionality out of the box, and offering a suite of tools for higher ed marketers like me in one solution.”
Element451 doesn’t appear to share the same customer support issues that sometimes impact Slate and Salesforce’s usability, according to Baglini.
“Coming from a platform that was largely community-support-based, it’s been very refreshing,” he said. “There has not been a time when I have not gotten the support I needed.”
The platform also boasts superior usability, according to Baglini.
“For those that might have a bit more of a learning curve, the onboarding, implementation, and ongoing support is unmatched,” he said. “There aren’t many cons, though I would say as a relatively new product in the space, there are a lot of features I know they’re working on that will take the product to even the next level.”
Strategies for Implementation
When it comes to setting up a newly selected CRM, regardless of brand, the users emphasized the necessity of having a plan.
“Develop a comprehensive implementation plan and consult with other institutions that have recently adopted the same system to learn from their experiences and address potential pitfalls proactively,” said Bowersox.
Having a dedicated CRM expert in the admissions department is advisable whenever possible. “Make sure you have the availability to have someone work with the institution who is an expert, or working to be an expert, of the CRM,” said William Peace University’s Killlea. “There is nothing more difficult when you are flying in the dark without an expert in the CRM.”
“It’s beneficial to have an experienced marketing professional with CRM experience working within the school,” Bowersox agreed. A CRM expert working alongside an admissions professional will maximize the CRM’s capabilities and features, he said.
“Make sure you receive onboarding and training, and hold your own training,” said Baglini. “A good third-party solution offers onboarding and training options as part of the new contract. If it doesn’t, consider it a major red flag.”
Additionally, as onboarding sessions offered by vendors are necessarily limited, teams should be prepared to set up their own internal training sessions.
Other major CRMs in the higher ed space include Ellucian’s Recruit, which was used by 80% of higher ed institutions in North Carolina alone as of 2020 according to a press release, HubSpot offers a free alternative to paid CRMs that features a four-step onboarding plan for prospective students, and FullFabric’s Foundation, which has a strong international presence.
On this, the experts agree: what matters most is not picking the shiniest product, but rather the one most suited to the needs of one’s department.
“Seek out what will work best for you and your office structure and needs,” said Pain. “There are many valuable products out there that fit the needs of graduate enrollment and the size/scope of your particular office.”
Editor’s note: Volt attempted to contact Slate to discuss the customer relations concerns indicated by the interviewees. Numerous attempts over an extended period resulted in no response from the company.
Joshua Aelick is a graduate student in the MFA in Creative Writing at North Carolina State University and studied German and creative writing as an undergraduate. Joshua has previously reported on the air cargo industry at Air Cargo Next and Cargo Facts and has poetry forthcoming in Sinking City.
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