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Professional Opinion

Why higher ed needs vendors

Increasingly, colleges and universities, like their corporate counterparts, are being asked to do more with less. Vendors can play a key role in offering expertise, reducing workload, and saving money.
University Business, November 2013

The word “vendor” can bring about questionable connotations especially in higher education. One of the reasons for these sometimes-negative feelings is that vendors often bring change to an organization. And, frankly, change can be hard. But in today’s higher education marketplace, change is essential and so, too, are relationships with vendors.

Should a college or university create a digital infrastructure in-house to handle new online programs being offered to students or outsource the job to a software company? What about the pros/cons of operating your own bookstore, overseeing campus IT, maintaining a residence hall or even outsourcing your parking spaces?

Institutions such as Ohio State University, Birmingham-Southern College and Mansfield University have hired vendors and outsourced operations on a few of the above projects.

A major reason why colleges and universities turn to vendors is the financial bottom line. Increasingly colleges and universities, like their corporate counterparts, are being asked to do more with less. As such, vendors can play a key role on offering expertise or helping to reduce one’s workload.

The use of vendors by higher education leads to money savings, a higher quality product and, in the case of food service, affordable access to national brand names, according to Dr. Debra Townsley, president of William Peace University in Raleigh, NC.

“From my vantage point, I look at what we do best, and we are in the business of educating students,” said Townsley. “Then, I look at where others have stronger industry knowledge than we do: food service, maintenance, public safety, bookstore. When you outsource, you are handing that responsibility to a source for whom that is their business.”

Shaul Kuper, president and CEO at Destiny Solutions, a company that provides business software solutions for non-traditional divisions of leading higher education institutions, including Penn State’s World Campus, Stanford Center for Professional Development and eCornell, says that a vendor/client relationship can offer a clear value.

"Colleges and universities need to focus on their core competencies and strategic priorities. Even when it is feasible for the institution to manage everything themselves, they are left trying to create one-offs without any sort of economy of scale." said Kuper. "On the other hand, when a company specializes in a particular product or service, they bring the expertise needed to incorporate industry best practices and extremely high standards. Further, by spreading the cost amongst numerous clients, and learning and improving from each one, the institution ends up with a more cost effective and better quality product than could have been created in-house."

While vendors want to sell their product or service, most quality vendors are looking for the right fit. For many vendors, there is little upside—and a steep downside—to fostering a relationship with a client that will ultimately disappear quickly. Like most businesses, vendors like the idea of possible long-term partnerships with colleges and universities. Conversely, colleges and universities like the flexibility of moving in a different direction if situations change or relationships become soured.

Colleges and universities are always looking for ways to identify quality vendors in all areas. Many turn to industry-specific listserv or professional membership groups for the 411 on individual contractors. This magazine in 2010 launched a program called “Models of Efficiency” that highlights the efficiencies at schools across the country – with or without the help of vendors. The program was designed for colleges and universities to learn about best practices in any number of areas including admissions, facilities, financial aid and safety and security. Since the program’s launch, MOE has recognized more than 80 departments and some of the people and vendors that support them.

It’s no secret that higher education is in the midst of quite a change. More demands on time coupled with the possibility of hiring freezes means leaders need to solve institutional problems creatively. Vendors, in some cases, just might be that solution.

—Scott Willyerd is a freelance journalist based near Pittsburgh, PA.