It Collaboration In Higher Education Is Key

By Carol L. Smith, CIO, DePauw University

Carol L. Smith, CIO, DePauw University

In higher education, work that focuses on teaching and learning, retention and graduation, and student outcomes after graduation is the heart of our mission. For colleges to successfully fulfill a vision focused on that student success they must invest in these core activities. Yet, concerns about rising price tags to run our institutions tug at our attention and threaten to pull us away from that focus. Institutions struggle to balance the dichotomy of providing transformative student learning experiences and delivering on student outcomes while managing the continuing increase of operating expenses and expectations of reducing costs to families.

Institutional expenses have expanded from long-established expenditures toward faculty and staff salaries, resourcing academic programs and research, funding students services and traditional university IT systems, and maintaining the physical campus, to the add-on price of new initiatives launched to support a culture of students and families who often judge the value of a college degree on its ability to generate an economic return (i.e., “Will my child be able to get a job when she graduates?”). As such, to better prepare students for post-graduation employment and careers, many institutions are investing in new programs around co-curricular experiences that amplify their students’ traditional coursework and research activities. Couple that with the reality of fixed or reduced budgets and staffing due to lower enrollments and shifting student demographics. As a result, more colleges than ever struggle to make ends meet, particularly private institutions with small endowments or those who are tuition-driven.

Thus, we face the challenge: Do more and be better, but simultaneously be more efficient, reduce expenses and lower costs. How does higher education cope with these worthy but contradictory goals and what does IT have to do with it?

I believe that one way is to leverage opportunities that are ripe for collaboration, where by working together institutions gain efficiencies that enable them to preserve energy and resources for focus on their core mission. Areas around IT solutions and service, particularly those related to administrative systems, are ripe for these collaborations.

"Maintaining and driving innovations around administrative systems is an area that is financially difficult for most small institutions"

Maintaining and driving innovations around administrative systems is an area that is financially difficult for most small institutions. Many campus CIOs hope to transition to Cloud- hosted solutions from on-premise environments to transform in areas of ERP systems, disaster recovery, and information security and to garner greater efficiencies and innovative system stabilities. Upgrading to next generation administrative platforms promises to give institutions new capabilities and more effective ways to do business. But current pricing models and costs of upgrading or transitioning to new platforms for small colleges on their own is often cost-prohibitive.

Simultaneously, other IT leaders face costly annual price increases on their existing ERP or administrative systems. For them, simply keeping up with those costs is all they can manage – forget about trying to afford ways to lead innovation across their institution. Sure, CIOs can think of solutions to these problems,

but increasingly at small colleges we cannot always solve them alone and nor should we.

Fortunately, models to support these types of collaborations are emerging. One such model is the Higher Education Systems and Services (HESS) Consortium (hessconsortium.org). HESS is a member-run organization that began as a grassroots partnership among a half-dozen CIOs and CFOs from small private institutions in the Midwest who wanted to find ways to address challenges like these, to find solutions for lowering costs and increasing collaboration in the areas of administrative systems and shared services.

Since its inception in late 2014, HESS has quickly grown to more than 130 small institutions and 10 affiliated state and regional partners across the U.S. Its software partners include the major higher education ERP developers, and HESS now has a strategic relationship with E&I Technology that brings additional resources and collaborative opportunities to its members.

The Consortium scaffolds collaborations amongst its members through an annual member meeting with key corporate partners, active constituent discussion lists, and software-based member cohort groups who work directly with software executives on industry-shaping discussions on campus needs, licensing, pricing and support issues. HESS gives these institutions a combined voice within the higher education market space to inform software developers about needs, reduce costs through group buying agreements, and simplify relationships between institutions and corporate partners. As a result, in the past year HESS, working with E&I, has successfully arranged a reduced pricing agreement with a key LMS vendor for its members and will soon finalize similar arrangements with multiple ERP corporate partners.

In addition to these pricing agreements, however, the heart of the HESS Consortium is the opportunities it provides for institutions to build alliances with one another and collaborate to develop innovative solutions for supporting administrative systems between their campuses. As an example, one working group is currently exploring partnerships to help them share expertise to transfer their individual on-premise administrative systems to a common Cloud-hosted PaaS environment, in tandem and together. And even more ideas like this seem possible.

Whether with support like that of the HESS Consortium or through partnerships cultivated through other organizations such EDUCAUSE, NACUBO, or regional consortia, collaborating in IT is critical for the success of our institutions. As CIOs and IT leaders in higher education, we should actively be searching for opportunities and partners for sharing IT work that is not culturally specific to our campuses, areas necessary for running the business of the college but that can benefit from standardized, shared platforms, methods, and even staffing. By combining our resources, in time, people, and expertise, leveraging the wisdom of collaborative partners to reduce complexity and expense of non-core IT functions can empower our institutions to focus more fully on the heart of higher education: creating a transformative student experience.

I firmly believe that we cannot do it alone, nor should we.

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