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How Saint Mary’s University Transformed Enrollment Planning in a Virtual World

November 13, 2020 Evan Webster  
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A new semester is usually an exciting time for staff and students in the higher education community, but the global pandemic made things a little different in 2020—and especially so for on-campus finance teams. 

Universities had to deal with tuition revenue shortfalls after incoming students deferred and international students withdrew. On top of that, the bottom-line impact of a hybrid or fully virtual learning model left finance leaders wondering: Are we ready to take on these challenges?

Saint Mary’s University (SMU) in Halifax, Nova Scotia is one institution that was ready. Darrell Rooney, SMU’s Senior Director of Financial Services, has been optimizing finance-led planning processes with Vena since 2015. Prior to that, offline spreadsheet work meant it would take three whole days to produce a basic financial statement. But now Darrell’s team runs ad-hoc reports in minutes—and that’s been instrumental in helping them navigate this enrollment disruption and adjust to a virtual campus successfully.

In this blog post, we’ll walk you through three finance-led processes that Darrell and his team used to power agile enrollment planning at SMU:

  1. Maximizing faculty engagement with integrated budgeting and reporting templates
  2. Agile forecasting and scenario modeling based on real-time student registration data
  3. KPI tracking with dashboards as enrollment trends evolve

Learn more about how SMU adapted quickly to unique enrollment scenarios by watching “Powering Data-Driven Enrollment Planning” at

Maximizing Faculty Engagement With Integrated Budgeting and Reporting Templates

Keeping stakeholders engaged throughout the university’s planning process used to be one of Darrell’s biggest challenges at SMU. Everyone submitted their expense reports in a different format, department heads didn’t usually refresh their budgets between school years, and the finance team couldn’t drill down into account-level details when needed. At a school with 1,500 unique accounts, 230 departments and 1,300 programs, Darrell just couldn’t simplify planning data for budget owners, executives or the board. As a result, budgeting was always a static annual process, and even if someone did manage to identify opportunities for improvement, there was no room for flexibility once the yearly plan was finalized. 

SMU solved this problem by implementing Vena’s central cloud database with one connected template for all budgeting and reporting activities. Contributors across the university can now work from the same numbers and recast their budgets throughout the year, with far more visibility into what their cross-functional colleagues are planning. Darrell has even color-coded the templates so folks can spot variances more easily—which is just one of the many benefits of Vena’s native Excel interface. 

The new format has encouraged stakeholders to really take ownership of their budgets and to work more closely with finance when funding requirements change. That level of transparency has been crucial for enrollment planning during the pandemic because now Darrell doesn’t need to dig through offline spreadsheets to determine:

  • Which department or faculty is getting hit the hardest from an enrollment standpoint
  • Where cuts can be made to the OpEx budget without compromising the educational experience for students  
  • Opportunities to support recruitment efforts with funds that were previously allocated elsewhere
  • The financial resources needed to shift to a virtual learning model 

Instead of forcing Darrell’s team to plan from the top down, all of SMU’s stakeholders are working together to lead the school forward. It’s even helped them identify bits of funding that weren’t being spent properly—a nice boost for the finance team at a time when every dollar counts.

Read Darrell’s customer story to learn more about SMU’s transformation with Vena’s Complete Planning solution.

Agile Forecasting and Scenario Modeling Based on Real-Time Student Registration Data

Another one of Darrell’s challenges was the inability to map course registrations back to revenue at the faculty and course level. He always had high-level tuition figures, but there was no easy way to determine if individual registrations were in the business or science department, for example, or if the tuition values were for domestic or international students. At the time, all of that data was siloed in Ellucian Banner, the university’s ERP.

This made it difficult to reliably forecast enrollment revenue and to support the strategic planning process with regular what-if analysis. SMU wouldn’t have a clear picture of enrollment revenue until September, making it tough to allocate resources proactively ahead of the school year.

SMU connected the dots by integrating Vena with Banner and automatically mapping registrations back to tuition dollars in their database. Today, instead of waiting until registration closes to deliver insights for the upcoming year, Darrell just clicks the refresh button on his enrollment forecast in Vena. Real-time registration figures flow in right from Banner, enabling the finance team to make predictions based on their analysis of historical trends. They can also drill down into faculties and courses from the forecast template, so stakeholders always know how each department is performing.

But what about when everything they thought they knew about enrollment changes? What happens when international students—who account for 50% of SMU’s undergraduate tuition revenue—defer their registrations indefinitely? That’s what Darrell was dealing with when the pandemic broke out in March.

With Vena’s intuitive scenario modeling engine, Darrell was able to quickly adjust enrollment assumptions and model best-case, worst-case and other unique revenue situations. Darrell can now answer “what-if” questions instantly and help the school’s executives reallocate resources as needed. 

Learn how agile forecasting and scenario modeling can help you build stronger business plans in times of change.

Using Dashboards To Track Key Enrollment KPIs 

Even though all of SMU’s planning data was now accessible in one source of truth—with up-to-date budgets, forecasts and scenario models available at everyone’s fingertips—Darrell still had to figure out how to turn those numbers into narratives. After all, many of SMU’s executives aren’t experts in finance and don’t like reading spreadsheets to gather the information they need. That’s why Darrell leverages data storytelling with dashboards to more easily communicate enrollment trends and keep his leaders in the loop.

Dashboarding became a priority right at the start of the pandemic, when the demand for real-time insights was top of mind for SMU’s board. Darrell was able to build a simple enrollment dashboard with Vena that included easy-to-read graphs visualizing the following KPIs:

  • New student registrations per week
  • New registrations by faculty/department
  • New tuition revenue by faculty/department

Darrell also uses the dashboarding function to display important operations metrics such as:

  • Month-over-month expenses, with a focus on employee salaries and benefits
  • Cash flow
  • The value of student accounts receivables

Darrell presents these dashboard to his executives during a weekly meeting, which has been critical for helping SMU’s leaders plan confidently through the pandemic. Now Darrell can actually show SMU’s decision makers: 

  • How new virtual learning models affect which courses students are taking
  • If the drop off in enrollment is significant or not as bad as they thought
  • What options to boost enrollment in departments to balance the big salary bill

These are the stories Darrell has been able to bring to life with Vena. 

Want to see our dashboarding capabilities in action? Check out this video to learn more about Vena’s Power BI Connector.

Looking Ahead With Data-Driven Enrollment Planning 

It’s been a rough stretch for colleges and universities, but it’s certainly been a lot easier for agile finance teams like SMU’s. As enrollment trends in higher education continue to evolve, it’s important for other finance teams to follow Darrell’s lead, reinvent their planning processes and embrace the power of automation. Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that circumstances can change in an instant.  

Data-driven enrollment planning is a great way to kickstart your journey—and if you adopt the three processes above, you’ll always be ready to respond to any enrollment scenario that comes your way. 

Request a demo today and transform your growth journey with Vena.

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