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How the University of Kentucky uses data to stay ahead of higher education trends

For those in higher education, the start of a new decade has meant the rise of a number of unexpected — and substantial — challenges in their industry.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic upended life as we knew it, necessitating immediate closings and the temporary suspension of in-person education on a massive scale. Colleges and universities around the world suddenly had to find ways to fulfill their obligations to more than 1 billion students, all while operating remotely.

Then, the long-term ramifications came into focus: Higher ed institutions had to forge a new path forward, one through the (relatively) short-term challenges of COVID-19 and into the long-term challenges of coming generations. These challenges, though, are also opportunities — whether it comes to the overall technological flexibility enabled by the cloud, the increased availability of data analytics to inform operational decision making, or the general ubiquity of technology across students’ lives.

To embrace these challenges and capitalize on these opportunities, higher ed leaders must consider a few key questions: What will it look like to meet the needs of students going forward? How can you embrace new technologies to build the university of the future? And, above all else, how can you continue to provide quality education and excellent student experiences along the way?

Higher Ed, White and Blue  

The mission of the University of Kentucky, based in Lexington, Ky., has long been to educate, research, innovate, heal and serve. But fulfilling that mission in a post-COVID world looks quite different than it did when the land-grant university was founded over 155 years ago. That’s why university president Eli Capilouto announced Kentucky’s Path Forward initiative in late 2021: to identify and implement new ways to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, and to continue the university’s tradition of providing high-quality education.

“We looked at our operations and tech procurement, and it wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Barry Swanson, chief procurement officer for the University of Kentucky.

The university, said Executive Director of Enterprise Applications Adam Recktenwald, needed a more flexible system, one that would simultaneously support and lead his team as they adapted to a new operating model.

“Efficiency and effectiveness are first,” he said, “and that comes back to one thing: how well the systems work and integrate.”

Going Wild(cat) About Student Experience

As the university evolves, cost control must be a significant consideration. For instance, leadership knew it needed a better way of managing expenses related to housing, which is typically one of the largest cost centers for universities. However, they wanted to make sure they balanced any minimizing of the housing budget with the continual provision of high-quality housing that creates great student experiences (a huge factor in recruitment and revenue).

Making the best decisions about operations, expenses and student experiences required a greater reliance on data. The University of Kentucky team realized they’d need technology capable of analyzing the massive volumes of information they could collect so that they could better inform vital, forward-thinking decisions.

“Follow the leader can be all-too-common in higher ed,” Recktenwald said. “So, knowing our stance and knowing the effects of our decisions is extremely important.”

Iterating and Innovating

As decades-long SAP users, the University of Kentucky team knew the value of technology in helping to meet its challenges. Since deploying its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system in 2004, the university has always taken an iterative approach to digitizing processes.

So, when it was time to move its IT environment forward again to address the new COVID-19-related challenges, the University of Kentucky chose SAP, this time implementing SAP Ariba Catalog and SAP Ariba Commerce Automation. Transitioning to this SAP cloud environment enabled the university to support remote work and connect with vendors and suppliers. It also streamlined operations and increased visibility into operations, costs and student success factors.  

One of the biggest impacts SAP Ariba has had on the University of Kentucky is access to data insights. “With SAP Ariba, we’re using data to make decisions,” Recktenwald said. “We want to make every dollar count. That means operating efficiently, getting the best pricing from vendors and getting the best contracts.  This efficiency allows us to focus on making sure we provide a high-quality education and life-changing student experiences.”

“The generations of students coming into the University of Kentucky have expectations that are a lot different than five to 10 years ago,” Recktenwald said. “They want a high-quality education that’s remote-enabled. Students want to be able to study at home with technology. But putting everything solely online isn’t the answer. A stellar residential experience is a big part of college. The people you meet, the experiences you have, that’s such a big part of it. We’ve really learned that over and over, especially during COVID-19. There’s a big difference between training and true education. That’s the gap we want to fill.”

Cloud is the Path Forward

Recktenwald pointed out that high-quality education depends on operational efficiencies, a focus on student success, and data-based decision making. All three require support from technology.

“Systems today really are far more complex, but they’re also far more capable,” he said. “Even internal custom projects are born in the cloud. At this point, cloud is just the way of life.”

Additionally, cloud solutions are positioning the University of Kentucky for the future of the business side of higher education as well. “Every scenario we’ve been involved with regarding vendors in the last 4-8 years has had a big cloud component,” Recktenwald said.

ResearchandMarkets.com research confirms that higher education is sold on cloud. Analysts are predicting a phenomenal 22% CAGR in the higher education cloud computing market from 2020 through 2027.

Because cloud solutions not only enable remote work and learning, they offer greater flexibility to adapt to change in an uncertain time. And they ensure colleges and universities will be able to continue delivering the exceptional, life-changing experiences they are committed to providing.


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