The Art Of Higher Ed IT Services

Ferrilli’s long relationship with Pratt Institute represents the potential of IT as a tool to simplify the lives of college students

Since 2005, IT and services company Ferrilli has helped Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute revolutionize the way its students handle all the paperwork they’re given. Like those students, Pratt and Ferrilli never really stop learning.

According to Charles Mattiello, Pratt’s director of enterprise technology planning, the art school and Ferrilli are focused on an overarching initiative called onePratt. It includes everything from student information system upgrades to mobile support to custom workflow processes. The goal is to streamline all the paperwork and administrative tasks that students must handle so that they can focus on the classroom.

This is the kind of project that Ferrilli CEO Robert Ferrilli envisioned when he founded his company in 2003. “I would say Pratt is one of our most progressive customers, always looking to move beyond the traditional,” Ferrilli says. “They were the first to look at redesigning how students register. They were the first to tie in text messaging with their legacy enterprise resource planning system.”

Ferrilli says his firm’s long-term relationship with Pratt has created an ever-faster cycle of innovation. His and Pratt’s teams work so well together that they often come up with ideas without having to brainstorm. “Ideas bubble up from everywhere,” Ferrilli says.

One of the latest is hooking up the Pratt website to Alexa, Amazon’s voice-activated personal digital assistant. “This new voice assistant technology is becoming pretty mainstream now, and we want to be on the forefront,” Ferrilli says. “We’re bringing in students to try to find out what they would like to see from this technology.”

The project is still in the pilot stages, but Mattiello sees plenty of potential. His six-year-old daughter is already ordering music via Alexa. “We constantly have to look at our services from the perspective of today’s students and the kids who may apply in three years,” he says. “Asking the questions about what those kids will want keeps us current.”

Another part of onePratt is a text messaging program that lets students pay their tuition from their smartphones. Pratt and Ferrilli have already tested the power of text messaging.

“The first messaging campaign we did was about tuition waivers,” Mattiello says. “We sent a onePratt message—delivered via e-mail, via portal, and, to opted-in students, via SMS—to 4,600 students on a Friday at 5:00 p.m. We came in Monday morning and found 2,600 responses and a 40 percent action rate.”

Had Pratt reached out to students only via e-mail, the response and action rates would have been far lower. According to Mattiello, Pratt would have waited about three months for responses. Then, Pratt would be forced to negotiate its student health insurance bill including students who never responded and had since left the school. In this case, onePratt communications saved the school tens of thousands of dollars, and it also freed staff from administrative tasks and put them back in front of students.

Money is just part of the goal, though. Another is consolidating everything from communications to financial aid to registration through a single, easy-to-use interface for students.

“There are lots of tasks a student needs to complete in a semester at Pratt,” Ferrilli says. “We’re constantly giving them their next action steps. We’re creating individual to-do lists for them by leveraging the legacy systems. It streamlines the whole process.”

It also makes life much easier for many Pratt administrators. Mattiello recalls working with the student financial services on improving the way students apply for loans. The executive director told Mattiello that he was amazed Ferrilli and Pratt figured out how to authenticate both parents’ and students’ digital signatures.

“We really try to make it easier, especially as an art school with students from around the country who can’t easily get their parent’s signature,” Mattiello says. “We deliver whatever we can to keep students out of our administration offices and in the classroom.”

The Pratt admissions office has also benefited. Mattiello says admissions processes about fifty thousand documents a year for incoming fall classes. Now, it’s almost completely digital. The three and a half minutes admissions used to spend inputting student information into the system is down to just thirty seconds.

Going forward, the Pratt-Ferrilli relationship promises even more innovation. Mattiello says one of the most important things he’s learned from Ferrilli is not worrying about having everything perfect at a new program’s launch.

“When we approached projects like that, it took us two to three years to get something out,” he says. “Now we say, ‘Let’s get version one out. We know it’s not perfect, but it’s functional and it works. Version one will get us data and metrics we can use to get version two out.’”

Mattiello and Ferrilli proceed to tweak on the fly, almost always via SMS. Who knows? One day soon, they may exchange ideas via Alexa or virtual reality. If it helps them help Pratt students focus on their studies, they’ll give it a shot.