The COVID-19 pandemic’s negative effects are hitting almost every sector, and higher education is no exception. Many colleges and universities are scrambling to reconfigure classes and have been forced to utilize overwhelmed video platforms and digital learning tools, for example. Student admission and onboarding processes may have seen some of the most significant changes, however, as many campuses have forgone in-person check-ins for remote, digital solutions to avoid viral transmission risks.
Finalizing attendance at U.S. universities entails everything from accepting students’ applications to approving housing and student aid details — activities that have traditionally been conducted on campus. The pandemic’s effects are reverberating throughout the process, however, and colleges completing the majority of new student onboarding must use remote, digital tools that enable them to secure students’ private details, including their addresses, financial data and health information. Fraudsters’ attacks on universities’ systems have become more frequent in recent years, revealing just how critical it is for universities to bolster their cybersecurity amid the push to remote learning.
The following Deep Dive explores the pandemic’s effects on colleges’ student onboarding processes as well as how these digital shifts are altering educational institutions’ overall handling of data. It also analyzes how these moves could change admissions and onboarding processes in the future.
The College Digital Onboarding Challenge
Universities working to enroll thousands of new students online face many of the same challenges that currently plague financial institutions (FIs) and insurance firms: They are struggling to keep out bad actors while managing surges in digital interactions. Record numbers of students are signing up for online classes, with Arizona State University reporting a 17 percent increase in the number of individuals who took summer courses this year, for example. This marks a notable shift from previous years. One 2018 study estimated that just 20 percent of U.S. college students took a single online class that year, and 66 percent of the nation’s graduating high school seniors stated in December 2019 that they would prefer to have all of their courses on campus.
Numerous American universities are therefore tentatively reopening for on-site classes, although some have already run into challenges related to the health crisis. The pandemic has largely forced incoming college students to accomplish many of their onboarding activities digitally, however. Universities often complete aspects of enrollment during orientation weeks at their schools, such as having students visit bursars’ offices to finalize financial aid details or pick up physical identification cards to access campus facilities. Adjusting these final onboarding steps for digital completion represents a larger challenge for higher education entities, however, as many are simply not set up to do so.
Digital onboarding has also created various issues for universities, prompting them to reexamine their cybersecurity protocols. Universities are not typically seen as top targets for fraud, with one 2019 study finding that attacks on higher education institutions constituted just 7.2 percent of all breaches reported during that year. Colleges’ security officials are reporting increases in phishing schemes and other fraud forms as staff and students move online, however, meaning cybersecurity should be key to these institutions as they prepare to welcome new classes digitally.
Cybersecurity Class Is In Session
Universities must quickly and seamlessly finalize enrollment, but they are behind the cybersecurity curve when compared to banks or insurance firms, as they must now work to differentiate between legitimate students and fraudsters without face-to-face meetings. Colleges typically spend less than FIs on their digital security or technology innovations, with one 2018 study finding that universities invest an average of about 4.4 percent of their annual budgets on IT development. It also found that most universities lacked full-time staff dedicated solely to maintaining their cybersecurity systems.
This leaves universities’ systems and students vulnerable to fraudsters, who could be looking for personal details they can leverage for identity theft schemes or seeking access to proprietary university research. The FBI has already warned the country’s higher education institutions about fraudsters’ attempts to steal research regarding COVID-19, for example. Phishing schemes aimed at incoming students are also becoming more problematic for many U.S. institutions.
Universities looking to onboard students as well as offer virtual classes and resources must therefore ensure their cybersecurity measures are up to the task. Accomplishing these activities at scale requires access to systems that can swiftly handle and verify large data volumes. Universities will also need to consider onboarding a primarily digital process for many years, which will shift schools’ relationships with students from the start. How universities respond to and approach new student onboarding and enrollment procedures will shape the space for decades to come.