2018 Educause Top 10 Issues: #6 is Higher Education Affordability

The Top 10 Issues of 2018 for higher education technology were announced at October’s Educause conference in Philadelphia. Each year I share my thoughts on the issues, from #10 to #1. Feel free to review the most recent entry on #7 IT Staffing and Organizational Models here. And now, let’s move forward!


#6 Issue: Higher Education Affordability
Balancing and rightsizing IT priorities and budget to support IT-enabled institutional efficiencies and innovations in the context of institutional funding realities

I have an entire ‘take’ on the cost of higher education in general. The ROI, the dramatic increase in price tag over time in comparison to, say, a gallon of milk, the war of higher ed, the never-ending blog post on LinkedIn that talks about how the world is turning its collective back on higher ed (literally *just* got inboxed a notification on that one), and the like. I am choosing to focus this post on the Educause description of this issue instead – how do we do better to support better to serve better. A seemingly more simple approach that anyone in higher ed IT can improve upon quickly and meaningfully.

Let’s start backwards first. Institutional funding realities. Regardless of private or public status, most institutions rely in some way on public funds. Whether that be through operational dollars, capital dollars, student loans and beyond, the cycle of life in higher education is impacted by the increasingly decreasing local/state/federal government investment in education. With less of those funds coming in, institutions need to get creative in developing and meeting budgeted needs. Let’s face it, a university is a business in that services are rendered in exchange for knowledge at a cost and there is a cost to supporting that business exchange. If funding coming in decreases from one source, funding must increase from other sources (donors, students, alumni, and more).

How can IT possibly impact a university’s business bottom line? The answer is in the stated Educause issue. But first things first. IT historically has been the basement dwellers, keeping systems and networks running, right?We’ve spent the money. Lots of money on a bunch of stuff no one in leadership understands or care to. Thankfully most IT leaders have been ready to move way past that descriptor for quite awhile. Yes, we still need to ‘keep the lights on’, but over the past decade we’ve found ways to automate many processes and procedures resulting in system stability with a side of ability to reallocate and up-train some staff, empowering focus on more business-impacting paths.


How can IT possibly impact a university’s business bottom line? The answer is in the stated Educause issue.


IT-enabled Institutional Efficiencies and Innovations 
Think one deeply negotiated contract for laptops instead of multiple cross-campus competing contracts. Think digital signatures in lieu of shuffling papers from building to building in order to approve a department’s ability to purchase a mobile app for faculty use. Think about one instance of a faculty reporting system replacing several versions of similar-but-not same systems, some homegrown, some out-of-the-box, but none capturing the same information in a similar enough way to share and collaborate.

The only true roadblock to identifying and implementing collaborative, efficient and serious-time-saving solutions is people. That’s right, US, YOU, and THEM. Change is hard. I promise change management is harder. Within IT we’ve recognized that, embraced it and pivoted to be able to work on that piece of the puzzle. Somehow, some way, those acronym-laden tech gurus have oftentimes mastered the art of driving consensus. If they haven’t, that should be on the menu for the next year or so. With each and every institutional process we fine-tune, we have the opportunity to have a deep impact on…

Balancing and Rightsizing IT Priorities and Budget
Sure. Our budgets are still hog-tied (#GoHogs) a bit by past obligations. But as we fulfill and complete obligations of past decisions, IT teams have the privilege of creating a more balanced budget, mindful of CAMPUS needs (not just feeds and speeds) and responsive to institutional strategy and priorities. And that, to me, is exciting. As technology is the connective tissue to an entire campus, IT leadership has the ability to directly impact an institutions bottom line, path forward, future trajectory. This of course relies on reciprocal and genuine campus relationships, understanding the big picture and prioritizing overarching vision.


So how again does this impact higher education affordability?


It’s Simple 
If technology is the fabric, and we aggressively (yet charmingly) remove duplication of effort, negotiate large purchases (and small purchases of large things), drive consistency in system selection/purchasing/development/implementation/use/support, and pursue better ways to do all the things, we free up people, spend and management. This allows reallocation of talent, focus and time. That’s found money! And let’s say the found time of freed-up talent focuses on new innovations, we might even accidentally impact who comes to our campus, how long they stay and what they become after their time with us. As IT, we don’t expect for that rabbit trail to be followed, but we should all take pride in the possibility of that impact.

How to Fix

Is this a priority? It should be. Does your team have the ability to support these efforts? They should. For larger institutions, it’s a big ship to turn around. And the curve is wide and messy. But if you don’t turn that wheel at some point, you’re guaranteed to keep heading in the wrong direction – aka business as usual.


Next issue: Student-centered Institution, #5.

Link to all: https://er.educause.edu/articles/2018/1/top-10-it-issues-2018-the-remaking-of-higher-education