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Moving past the breaking point

Colleges and universities are stretched to their limits; increasingly, more are turning to technology to gain back-office efficiencies and better serve students.
University Business, October 2013

Colleges and universities are at “the breaking point,” says John Halpin, vice president of strategic programs and advisory services for e.Republic. Located in Folsom, Calif., e.Republic is a parent company to several research and content organizations that follow the public sector.

“Universities can’t keep raising tuition. Higher education has been outpacing the economy for decades on inflation,” says Halpin. “At the same time, you have an infrastructure that’s demanding more. The consumer side is growing, with the cost structure staying the same or reducing. [In response,] you’re now starting to see leadership take on more of a business flavor and use technology to be a more effective institution.”

Matt Hamill, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), says he’s seeing the same. According to Hamill, colleges and universities have been attempting “for quite some time” to become more businesslike, and are increasingly turning to technology to gain efficiencies. These efforts have taken the form of delivering education online: outsourcing payroll, some HR functions, or other core services; and sharing services (via software or cloud technology) either between departments on the same campus or between institutions.

Of growing interest is the use of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) as a way for institutions of higher ed to achieve back-office efficiencies. Hamill says they are “absolutely hearing about this,” mentioning that more universities and colleges are looking at ways to move from paper-based to digital systems and to create accessible, centralized information repositories.

Many student services/financial aid departments, for example, have been enthusiastic adopters of digital technology—which has proven a real game-changer for them. “The way colleges and universities serve students has altered dramatically,” says Hamill. “From applying to tracking to receiving financial aid, most of that is now fairly automated and web-based. The financial aid services functions look a heck of a lot different now than they did a generation ago.”

Hamill says this movement is being driven in part by student expectations and that the trend toward using this type of technology is only going to accelerate, especially considering that a great many staff and faculty “are right in the thick” of the demand.

“Colleges and universities must be prepared to meet this demand,” he says. “The initial investment may be off-putting to some, especially when resources are scarce, but the efficiencies that can be gained could offset this, especially if the savings start accruing quickly.

“We’ve had schools that have made this calculation, that it will offset costs,” Hamill continues. “Increasingly, the schools that are looking at this see there are real savings and that it actually does allow them to do more with less.”