Big data has reached college admissions. Even college admissions departments are using customer-relations management systems (CRM) to track data on prospective students and organize information.
Slate is a customer-relations management system, or CRM, which many colleges use to track data about prospective students and serve them customized information. As Eric Hoover explains, “Many admissions offices of all stripes rely on Slate for just about everything they do. Enrolling a freshman class requires relentless grunt work, and the system automates a great deal of it. An admissions officer who’s about to visit a high school can use Slate to send a text message to the cellphones of 20 prospective applicants there all at once.”
A Tech Whiz Is Conquering College Admissions. It Takes Charm, Innovation, and Dancing Sharks.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
by Eric Hoover
Alexander Clark, a boyish entrepreneur with a puffy crown of brown hair, waits backstage for his cue. He hears the eager crowd, packed into a dark theater. Lights flash, music pulses. When he finally appears, people whoop and applaud. He feels the love through his Tyvek coveralls. Yes, the man of the hour is wearing a Hazmat suit.
Though most conferences cause drowsiness, this one stokes wonder and wide-eyed belief — belief in Clark’s growing empire. Forget his official title: CEO of Technolutions Inc. Among users of Slate, his uberpopular software system, Clark is a guru, a legend. One fan calls him “the Wizard of Oz for geeks.” His product is a fast-growing giant. It has changed the way admissions offices mine data, make decisions, and communicate with students. And it has spawned a subculture some members lovingly call a cult.
Each summer, Technolutions’ clients gather here for the Slate Innovation Summit, where enthusiasm flows and surprises are guaranteed. On this June morning, Blue Man Group kicks off the opening session. After three members of the avant-garde troupe do their paint-splattering, pipe-hammering routine, Clark joins them onstage for a well-rehearsed bit. The blue-faced weirdos help remove his Hazmat outfit. They groom him with a comb and hair dryer before taking a lint-roller to his black suit and blasting him with mouth spray. All primped, Clark poses triumphantly with the trio. Then he spreads his arms wide: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Chicago!” Everyone goes nuts.
This unlikely showman, intense yet prone to giggling, might seem like just another eccentric tech czar. Yet in a world of aloof chief executives, Clark, 36, is accessible, a tangible presence in the lives of his clients. To know him is to know the realm of data-driven strategists and back-office staff members who turn the wheels of the modern admissions process. Slate, many of them say, makes those wheels spin more efficiently. This high-power tool symbolizes how the profession is evolving in the cyberage.
What is Slate? Technically, it’s a customer-relations management system, or CRM, which many colleges use to track data about prospective students and serve them customized information. Imagine a big virtual file cabinet full of such data, with a built-in brain that tells you how to act on it, responding to students’ interests and behaviors.
Many admissions offices of all stripes rely on Slate for just about everything they do. Enrolling a freshman class requires relentless grunt work, and the system automates a great deal of it. An admissions officer who’s about to visit a high school can use Slate to send a text message to the cellphones of 20 prospective applicants there all at once.
This year, a record 2,500 Slate users have flocked to the summit to learn, mingle, and get down at tonight’s reception. As Clark roams the convention-center stage, a giant high-definition screen behind him displays the logos of the “Slate family” — more than 800 colleges worldwide. Last year, the system, transmitted 1.6 billion emails, seven- million text messages, 8.5 million new applications. After relaying those stats, Clark gives everyone what they’re waiting for.
Technolutions has never increased its rates, which vary according to the size of a college’s applicant pool. All the new Slate features introduced each year don’t add to the system’s cost.
Today, to the crowd’s amazement, Clark unveils exactly 100. For over an hour, he speaks breathlessly, describing each new wrinkle, one by one, as demos flash on the screen. With his wild, wavy locks and high-voltage manner, he looks like a young Beethoven on Red Bull.
By new-feature No. 77, some listeners seem overwhelmed; a few leave early. Yet many are riveted. One woman cheers and pumps her fist after hearing that Slate will now include artificial-intelligence chatbots that can answer students’ frequently asked questions online. Embedding weather forecasts in communications about on-campus events? That capability leaves many folks gaping in awe. The audience hits peak OMG, though, with the happy news that Slate, at long last, will enable “configurable joins.”
Configurable joins? Don’t worry, many people here can explain it to you. Just be sure to ask them before the party starts. After that, things get weird.
Alexander Clark isn’t here right now, and yet he’s everywhere. During lunch in a vast ballroom, Slate-o-philes trade stories about the system and its creator. Several recall times when the CEO handled their tech-support tickets himself. Many have selfies with Clark stored on their iPhones.
Sure, admissions offices use many other CRMs, such as Salesforce and TargetX, but only Slate seems to inspire this kind of love. Many people here buy Slate gear — T-shirts, umbrellas — over at the Slate Store booth, where some parents are sad to learn that there are no Slate baby onesies for sale. When strangers introduce themselves, they ask, “What year are you?” Translation: How long has your college been using Slate? Newbies receive a warm welcome.
Chris Browning first encountered Slate in 2012. At the time, he was a rookie admissions officer at Washington and Lee University, which was seeking a new CRM. Technolutions has never had a sales team; Clark got on the phone with the admissions office to make the pitch and answer questions. “He had a different outlook — it was refreshing,” Browning recalls. He describes Clark as a genius who’s approachable.
Slate is approachable, too. As Browning learned after Washington and Lee adopted the system, it doesn’t require a team of computer geeks to run; the tool is designed to be intuitive, empowering even those poor souls who can’t write code. That allowed a guy who had majored in history and political science to dive right in.
Soon, Browning was hooked. The more he learned about Slate, the more he wanted to know. At night, he taught himself SQL, a programming language that helped him further customize the system’s features, to use it in more-sophisticated ways. Before long, his deep knowledge of the platform made him a valuable commodity. It helped him get a job at another college, then another.
The age of CRMs has put a new cast of tech-savvy experts at the core of admissions work. As Slate’s popularity keeps growing, Slate know-how has become an increasingly sought-after skill. Some colleges now hire full-time Slate administrators. In many admissions offices, staff members who once played supporting roles have become stars.
Browning, 29, now works at DePaul University, which pays Technolutions a total of $110,000 annually to use Slate for both graduate and undergraduate admissions. He oversees eight employees as director of recruitment systems and technology. “Slate got me here,” he says. When he’s not using Slate, he’s talking about it. When he’s not talking about it, he’s visiting an online forum where users seek advice, share fixes, and make friends.
Each year, Browning looks forward to the conference as if it were a vacation. This afternoon, he will help lead a panel on enhancing online portals for admitted students (by adding checklists, social-media feeds, and sign-up options for attending classes at orientation). It’s one of about 30 sessions today at which Slate users will discuss strategies for tackling all kinds of challenges.
All day long, there will be a lot of learning, sharing, and here’s-how-we-used-Slate-to-do-this-ing. Then there will be dinner, dancing, and a chance to talk to Clark face to face.
“It’s so exciting,” says Browning over the chatter of the equally excited. “Alexander just wants everyone to have a good time.”
Alexander Clark does, indeed, want everyone to have a good time. He grew up singing, dancing, and putting on puppet shows with his mother, Victoria Clark, who taught theater. “He didn’t watch cartoons,” she says. “All day long, he was just doing theatrics, wanting to entertain.”
Two years ago, in an homage to the electronic-music duo Daft Punk, Clark showed up at the Slate reception wearing a replica of one of the group’s robotic LED helmets. Last year, there was a nautical/pirate theme. For this evening, he has cooked up a special event. It, too, calls for a costume.
The hard drive in Clark’s head stores memories of interesting artifacts. Here’s the typewriter he requested from Santa Claus when he was 3, the gift that got his fingers moving across a keyboard.
Here’s Chip Rogers, Computer Whiz, the book that let Clark use his own desktop to solve a mystery, inspiring him to start programming in first grade.
And here are the lines of code for the first student-information system he built, for his middle school, in Jackson, Miss., which used it to track grades and absences.
From the start, Clark loved the instant gratification of programming, how a string of code could bring something to life on a screen. That wasn’t the only appeal. “Technology has always been a bit of a retreat: It does exactly what it’s told to do,” he says. “Human beings require greater thought, greater energy, because they have a lot of ambiguity and unpredictability.”
Would you believe that he founded his company as a scrawny seventh grader?
Strolling through the convention center, Clark exudes a childlike energy. He greets acquaintances with a high-volume “hello!” Back in his 20s, he considered his youth a liability, which made him apprehensive about in-person meetings with potential clients. “I didn’t want the fact that I looked like I was 12 to get in the way,” he says.
Now graying, Clark has a wife and two young children. They live near New Haven, Conn., where the Technolutions sign atop the company’s downtown headquarters lights up at night. From his 15th-floor office, he can see Yale University, his alma mater.
Clark majored in English because he didn’t want to pigeonhole himself as a computer guy. Yet even as he devoured Shakespeare, his tech hobby gave him a purpose and an identity. As a freshman, in 2000, he built an interactive portal for students called Yale Station. Its popularity granted him rock-star status. He was always welcome at parties, where students eagerly posed for pictures they hoped would end up in the site’s oft-clicked photo galleries.
Months later, Clark found himself in a meeting with administrators who were anxious about the very thing they had enlisted him to do: Build a system allowing Yale to release admissions decisions through an online portal, something no other college had yet tried. Way back in the paper-and-postage world, it all seemed risky. What if something went haywire? “It was terrifying,” says James G. Nondorf, who then worked in Yale’s admissions office. He recalls nervous deans pelting Clark with questions: Can it do this? Can you make it look like that?
Absorbing their input, Clark coded each request on the spot and showed them the results on a screen. That put them at ease, Nondorf says: “In the end, people were laughing and joking. They were confident about working with this kid, because he isn’t just a listener, he’s an interacter.” The rollout of online notifications went smoothly, and soon colleges were spreading the joy and pain of decision day via the web.
Clark later took some advice from Nondorf, now vice president for enrollment and student advancement at the University of Chicago: “He told me, ‘You’re either growing or you’re dying. There’s no such thing as the status quo.’”
Sure enough, a tech company that stops growing, or innovating, risks extinction. Yet the release of 100 new features today isn’t just about the bells and whistles themselves. Their dramatic unveiling also expresses one of the company’s core values: “excite and amaze,” an imperative Clark takes seriously.
His theatrical streak and his drive go hand in hand. Alex Williams, who worked as a senior program manager at Slate for three years, recalls Clark’s fondness for engaging colleagues in epic oyster-eating competitions, (together, six contestants once downed 500 in two minutes). “He’s incredibly competitive,” says Williams, now vice president for marketing integration at RHB, a higher-ed consulting group. “He wants to be the first person to do everything, or to do it better than someone else.” And Clark wants his clients’ jaws to drop right through the floor.
Especially at his party. This afternoon, Clark surveys the ballroom, where crews are setting up for tonight’s social amid a clatter of plates and utensils. High up in a cherry picker, a man installs lights on a scaffolding. Below, workers assemble a wooden dance floor. “Excuse me!” says a guy maneuvering a dolly loaded with beer past Clark, who’s gazing at the glowing four-panel video screen overhead.
Delegating, it seems, isn’t Clark’s strong suit. Jacob Mattison, senior software engineer, is often impressed by how his boss has a hand in just about everything Technolutions does, which impresses him. Yet that also seems to worry him a bit: “I’ve joked with him, ‘What happens if you’re in a skiing accident?’”
Technolutions employees swarm him with questions about last-minute details. Then someone hands Clark a purple concoction, a sample of this year’s signature cocktail, which he helped create. “The Slatest Booze” — a play on the name of the company’s newsletter, The Slatest News — includes tequila, créme de violette, and blueberries. Clark takes a sip as a colleague awaits his approval. “Oh,” he says, “that’s coming around nicely!” Tonight’s batch is big enough to fill well over 5,000 glasses.
Later, some guests will joke aloud about drinking the Kool-Aid.
Connection: People crave it, but can’t always find it. Though Clark says he didn’t set out to create a community, he sensed early on that, in the lonely wilderness of higher ed, people with similar interests and talents were seeking kinship, some kind of forum. So he built one.
Fun is the glue. Tonight’s five-hour reception is Burning Man for geeks. There’s no nudity, just two Slate employees in full-body shark costumes, holdovers from last year’s summit. There are no drugs, just platters of mint-chocolate brownies and Lemonhead parfait. The open bars are well stocked.
People are still buzzing about the “configurable joins” feature, which will allow users to combine just about any data point with another, meaning an admissions officer can easily pull up a list of, say, college counselors, the names of incoming students associated with each counselor’s high school, the median grade-point average for those students, the most-popular extracurricular activities of those students, and the total number of those students’ siblings still in high school. Cool, right?
This evening’s main event is the first-ever Slate Showdown, a head-to-head test of Slate knowledge. On a raised stage that resembles a boxing ring, teams representing several colleges huddle over computers, cranking out code. Each round comes with a specific task that team members must complete while racing the clock. “That guy there is the greatest of all time,” one earnest spectator says, pointing to someone on the stage. As time ticks away, people chant and cheer as if a touchdown were imminent.
In the end, judges declare Yale’s team the winner, which is awkward because the prize turns out to be an all-expenses-paid trip to … New Haven. Nonetheless, confetti rains, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” plays. Clark — wearing a blue hooded “Slate” boxing robe over his tuxedo — emerges from the darkness. He hands the winning team a gleaming championship belt bearing Slate’s logo. Then he bellows into his headset-mike: “Let’s get this party starrrted!”
Nearby, a bartender shakes his head and chuckles. “Man, you guys really are nerds,” he says, handing someone a vodka and soda.
“Oh, yeah,” a 20-something replies. “It’s a total nerd-fest, man!”
After a while, all this hoopla invites skepticism, if not wariness. “Every year, it’s like we all get to relive Alexander’s prom,” one enrollment official says. Another explains that he doesn’t invite colleagues to the event, for fear it would freak them out.
A few users here say they like Slate just fine, but that it’s, um, just a CRM. A couple say that as Slate has attracted more colleges, the wait for some technical fixes has grown longer. All day, an anonymous Twitter account called Snarky Slate trolls the the summit, griping about service-request delays and mocking “the Alexander worship”; the account’s avatar is Mr. Kool-Aid.
Nick Georgoudiou, director of admissions for the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College, understands the skepticism. He’s suspicious of big corporations, which tend to operate at a remove from their customers. Yet Georgoudiou says Slate, which has fewer than 60 employees, is different.
Many of the new features the company introduces (like chatbots this year) are inspired by clients’ suggestions, which it regularly solicits. That, Georgoudiou says, gives users a feeling of ownership over the final product. He finds that inspiring. A while back, he used a 3-D printer to make pairs of paper brass knuckles that spelled out “Technolutions,” which he mailed to the company — a gift to the employees he considers friends.
Out on the terrace overlooking Lake Michigan, a Jumbotron shows a pair of conference-goers gleefully butchering an oldies song on the karaoke stage. Georgoudiou gazes at the revelry Clark has made possible. “Maybe this is all feeding his ego, but at the same time, he’s really investing in the users,” he says. “People appreciate the amount of time and effort put into this event, which loses money.”
He’s right: The $595 registration fee doesn’t come close to covering it all. Yet as Clark sees it, this expensive fun keeps Technolutions from becoming stodgy.
As twilight comes, a band plays covers. Gen-Xers share the dance floor with millennials and the two swaying sharks. These true believers are excited and amazed. And they’re counting down the minutes to the communal ritual known as Slate After Dark.
This big bash is possible only because colleges and prospective students desperately want to find out more about each other. Yet connecting, meaningfully, is often difficult for everyone involved. How does one party know what the other is really like, or if they’re a good fit?
Technology has long helped answer such questions, at least superficially. In middle school, long before Facebook, Clark wrote a “compatibility matchmaking” program to help his classmates find their soulmates. He created a multiple-choice questionnaire, which he distributed to fellow students. After feeding the data into a computer, the program calculated the five best matches for each respondent, based on his or her interests and characteristics. He printed each student’s results on a dot-matrix printer, and sold the individualized reports for 50 cents.
A CRM aids the matchmaking exercise known as enrolling a class. “It helps us understand what information a student is asking for, and to get that to them in time and sequence,” says Bill Mortimer, director of enrollment at Beloit College, who wears a button that says “data geek” to tonight’s reception.
Slate allows an admissions office to see which emails students open, which web pages they visit, and how much time they spend there. (“I’m not a stalker,” one enrollment official here says, “but my CRM is!”) Ping, the platform’s analytics service, matches up everything a user does on a college’s website to other information in that user’s Slate record.
That data have helped Mortimer’s staff better understand that the pages students frequently visit as inquiries (such as athletics) often aren’t the same ones they tend to visit after applying. The takeaway: The content of some pages should speak to an audience that knows less about Beloit, while the content of other pages should speak to those who know a lot.
Call up any student’s file in Slate, and you’ll see a series of colored dots, each representing some form of engagement with the college. The student attended this college fair on this day, clicked on this email link at 1:13 a.m., five days later — it’s all right there. Many colleges fold measures of a student’s “demonstrated interest” into the statistical models they use to predict who will enroll. Those data points can inform decisions about who gets a viewbook or, on some campuses, who gets an admission offer.
In short, Slate is a communications tool, but also much more than that. A college can use it for good or evil, depending on your definition of each. Still, it’s worth remembering what even the most powerful CRM can’t do. It can’t persuade your trustees to raise the financial-aid budget and enroll more low-income students. It can’t persuade your president to stop obsessing over rankings. And it can’t fix all the things a 17-year-old might not like about your college.
But it can benefit applicants, Mortimer says. Beloit has used Slate’s visit-scheduling feature to give prospective students more options for customizing their experiences on the campus. Using an online form, they can select the day and time they want to come, the class they want to attend, the coach or faculty member they want to meet. Oh, and would they like lunch?
Besides empowering prospective students, Mortimer says, the feature has given Beloit a better glimpse of what students most want from their visits. This constant back-and-forth of information has come to define recruitment in the age of Amazon.
Slate’s many conveniences, many users say, free up time to concentrate on other aspects of admissions work, like getting to know all those teenagers a little bit better. “You may have all this great data in this great CRM,” Mortimer says, “but if you lose sight of the relationship-building part of the process, building true, authentic relationships, you’re not doing yourself any favors.”
In the Brave New World of admissions, though, what counts as authenticity is tricky. One new Slate feature will let users design handwritten note cards and send them to prospective students. That is: Note cards written by robots using old-fashioned pens, programmed to write unevenly, just like humans do.
So the love letters tomorrow’s applicants receive via Slate might express genuine sentiments. Yet they will be composed by machines in the name of efficiency.
Everyone is waiting for Clark to show up and blow their minds. It’s 10:13 p.m., and now that the reception is over, boisterous hordes of men and women wearing blue lanyards descend on the hotel bar. A weary waitress looks around with a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me expression.
At 10:18, people slow-clap in anticipation. When Clark finally arrives, they react as if he were Luke Skywalker handing out free beer. “Yeah, Slate! Wooo!” a woman in a homemade Slate hardhat yells. Amid applause, the CEO and two colleagues sit down at tables where laptops await them. Then, the show begins.
At this annual live-coding session, clients can request small changes they would like. Then, in most cases, the programmers — click, click, click — make it happen, right before their eyes. “Nirvana,” one admissions officer says.
One by one, Slate users take a seat across from Clark and his fellow programmers to explain their requests. Someone wants the field for “school credit hours” expanded to accept up to six characters. Done! Someone else wants floating edit/save buttons that stay in position as the page scrolls. No problem!
Clients queue up behind a crowd-control barrier. Tonight’s bouncer, a broad-shouldered Slate employee, makes sure no one cuts in line or gets too close to the coders. A big TV overhead allows spectators to see everything Clark is doing on his laptop. One man shoves people aside to get a better view.
Aida Pelton, admissions and recruiting coordinator at Saint Mary’s College of California’s Kalmanovitz School of Education, waits in line for over a half-hour before sitting down across from Clark. She can’t figure out how to get the spell-check feature to reveal suggested spellings of words when sending emails through Slate. This is an easy one. He shows her the simple right-click command to use in Windows.
They share a laugh. She thanks him. They fist-bump each other goodbye.
Clark, still dressed in a tuxedo, has bits of confetti in his hair. The coding party rolls right through midnight, 1 a.m., 2 a.m. He keeps fielding requests, keeps typing at light speed. Laughter erupts when a client who’s commandeered one of the shark costumes lines up, and soon Clark is conversing with a big blue fish.
The scene is strange and riveting. A boy with a bionic brain grew up doing things that most adults never could. Now a grown man with a thriving business gets to be the boy putting on a show again.
It’s more than that, though. For many people here, it’s a moment of connection, a chance to ask the creator of the tool that governs their professional lives a question: Would you please make it 0.1 percent better? And then he does.
Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.