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What is Digital Transformation?

August 3, 2020

As your institution takes steps toward digital transformation, the IT department is most likely completely on board. Digital Transformation is heavily tech-focused after all. New, powerful software with impressive automation functionality opens exciting doors for IT projects. However, not all folks on campus share the same sentiment toward learning how to use a new system.

Take a look at figure one.

Figure 1. How well DX is understood and supported by different institutional groups
Figure 1. How well DX is understood and supported by different institutional groups

According to data from EDUCAUSE, faculty members are the least likely to be supportive of Digital Transformation. However, more than 50% of faculty don’t understand digital transformation or are not aware of it. Why would they buy into a digital transformation initiative if they don’t know what it is? How could they buy into something they’ve never heard of?

If you’re having trouble getting faculty or staff on board when it comes to digital transformation, win their hearts over in 30 seconds or less with the following information. 

What is Digital Transformation?

Start with some quick education. 

Ed Clarck, CIO and Chief Digital Officer at the University of St. Thomas said this, “Digital transformation means transforming an organization's core business to better meet customer needs by leveraging technology and data.”

Read that statement again. 

Who are the customers? First and foremost, it is the students. Customers can also include alumni, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders like donors and the community surrounding the institution. 

Why does Digital Transformation Matter?

The goals of higher education digital transformation, outlined by Peter Sondergaard, vice president at Gartner, Inc., are as follows:

  • Enhanced competitiveness
  • Higher profitability
  • Better customer experience
  • Greater agility

If your institution can accomplish each of those goals, it will see higher enrollment and increased impact within the community it serves. If your institution does not achieve those goals, it could lead to lower enrollment and budget cuts. 

Let’s cut to the chase with some facts.

Digital Transformation Data

Digital transformation is a student-centered endeavor. Of institutions currently engaged in digital transformation, 87% said that "improving the student experience" was driving their planning and investment. Additionally, the healthy majority of institutions are already moving toward digital transformation in some way; over 80% of institutions are exploring, developing, or already engaging in digital transformation initiatives. 

Institutions must focus on pivoting to better cater to their changing student body. 

The student population is different in age and race than it was 20 years ago. In 2019, 27% of undergraduates were over the age of 24. In 2015, 45% of undergraduates in the U.S identified as a race or ethnicity other than White, compared to 26% in 1995. Undergrads are older and ethnically more diverse, and just one byproduct is that more students have part- or full-time jobs. A digitally transformed institution might be able to help these students with software that displays how many courses in a program are offered online. Working students might be able to graduate faster by taking more of their course load online.   

Students have growing expectations of their university experience. In 2025, we’ll see the first class of students who’ve never lived in a world where the iPhone didn’t exist. Already, incoming freshmen are digital natives and expect their institution’s software to look and feel like the other technology in their life such as social media, online shopping, and entertainment streaming services. However, as you well know, the majority of student-facing institutional software is not as user friendly as Netflix. Digital transformation technology in this arena might be a digital form-filling software like Kuali Build that looks sleek and is intuitive to use. 

Institutions are also competing for the growing market of online students. The online education industry is predicted to hit $319 billion by 2025. In 2019, it was at $187 billion. Students can turn to online certifications from bootcamps and other online learning providers. 

Without a transformation, traditional institutions will not be able to serve the changing student population or compete in the online learning market.  


In summary, digital transformation is the adaptation of institutions to the technological world in which we live. Transformation makes institutions more competitive. Digitally progressive institutions will provide a better student experience which leads to higher graduation rates and increased student enrollment and success. Digital transformation supports the mission of higher education institutions—to teach—as well as the bottom line. 

In this overly simplified version of digital transformation, it’s easy to see just how important digital transformation is. If it picks up any more steam over the next few years, which experts expect, we could see some very impressive results from forward-thinking institutions and some saddening closures. 

We hope this helps you convey the importance of DX on your campus. Looking for a deeper dive into DX? Check out Higher Education’s Guide to Digital Transformation to learn about DX trends and modern examples colleges and universities.


Higher Ed's Guide to Digital Transformation
Davidson College  Launches DX Initiative
COVID is pushing DX into Hyperspeed

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