‘We’ll never have more money than we do today’

The chief information officer of a university, who was serving on a panel about the future of information technology in higher education, made this prophetic, frightening and probably accurate statement about funding: “We’ll never have more money than we do today.”

She was probably referencing the steep enrollment declines expected in 2025, but when you factor in the tail end of federal Covid relief funds being spent this year and colleges having depleted any surplus or rainy-day funds during the pandemic, it only makes the predication that much more likely. So, what are technologists to do? Are we part of the problem, or part of the solution?

It’s an investment not an expense

Funding is the lifeblood of instructional technology, and everyone knows technology isn’t cheap. Therefore, colleges do tend to allocate a considerable percentage of their budget to technology support these days. And yes, it is an investment not an expense! IT funding directly supports other areas of the institution in fulfillment of the academic mission. Imagine taking away all of the computers and trying to run a college. Imagine teaching without any technology. Picture a library with only books, no Internet resources or databases. For people my age or older, we don’t really have to imagine, we can remember. But it’s unthinkable for most of our students and many of our faculty and administrators.

This article is part of a biweekly series provided by the Instructional Technology Council, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

The total combined budgets of the areas that report to me – IT, audio/video, library and distance education – comprise approximately 10% of our entire college budget. And the people we serve – the college students and employees – are constantly asking for more: more services, more support, more help and faster response times. So, I’m always looking for an even bigger slice of the institutional budget, all while enrollment, and therefore the total budget, is shrinking. How can we right size our intuitional technology spending in the face of decreasing enrollments?

Spend, but never waste

I’m really good at spending other people’s money, but my goal is to never waste a penny. Here are three actionable suggestions to implement before 2025, when enrollments will really plummet, especially in the Northeast.

Inventory and assess all services with an ongoing cost. Reduce or eliminate those which are unused or duplicates. For example, our library had an institutional subscription to the digital edition of a major national newspaper, but we also had access to all of the articles in one of our databases. Admittedly, there was a slight delay (embargo) on the articles hitting the database, but it wasn’t bad, and cancelling the full subscription saved thousands.

Another example: we supported three different video conferencing solutions. IT supported two and the distance education department supported one. Of the three, one was provided “free” with our email system, one was “included” in a bundle with our learning management system, and one was a carefully selected, well-researched stand-alone that was more robust and full-featured than either of the others. We decided to unbundle the solution from our LMS on contract renewal. Like buying a burger and a drink without the fries, we may not save much, but there will be savings. More to the point, we won’t have to provide training and support, nor will our students have to guess which option their faculty will select for virtual meetings. Increasing student satisfaction while freeing up staff? Yes, please!

Check your full-time equivalent (FTE) bands. Make sure vendors are using the most current number. Negotiate when possible. Many software licenses and technology services sold to higher ed are based on institutional FTE and priced in fairly wide bands. That makes sense on the surface, but really, why should a school with an FTE of 5,001 pay the same as a school with 9,999 (assuming the band is 5,000 to 10,000)? Have you tried negotiating for smaller bands, a mid-year review or even a discount? Some vendors will even recognize that a university with an FTE of 5,000 and a community college with an FTE of 5,000 have very different financial resources and may offer special community college pricing.

Finally, and more to the point of this article, are the vendors using your most recent FTE number, or are they just grabbing a two-year-old number from IPEDS and running with it? As enrollments decline, be sure your vendors have the most recent and most accurate information available.

Exit strategy

Of course, we should be doing all of the above in good times and in bad. They’re relatively painless and just good practice. So how does that relate to the title of this commentary? Where’s the belt-tightening, right-sizing and being “part of the solution” as funding decreases? Well, sometimes you have to take a deep breath and make deep cuts, which brings me to my third suggestion: have an exit strategy.

We rarely ever launch a new technology initiative planning for failure or prepare to cancel our license or subscription but preparing for that is becoming my new normal. Usually, we’re excited to implement the new technology and are prepared for all of the improvements it will bring to our operations and the advancement of our mission. We’re worried about allocating enough resources to make the initiative a success and thinking about next steps and growth. I’ve always assumed if everything works out, the funding will always be available. But lately this line, which I include out of habit in all of my RFPs, has become more poignant: “Exit Strategy: if the college determines the need to discontinue using this product, what options exist for exporting data and collateral materials?”

More to the point, I’ve started seriously thinking about what we could do without. My initial reaction is that we need everything – after all, we never would have licensed it if we didn’t need it. But there are needs and then there are wants. It may be time to have some hard conversations. By prioritizing now, and figuring out our exit strategy for important (but not critical) licenses and subscriptions, we can be better prepared if the worst comes to pass.

In some cases, it might even be fairly painless, such as not upgrading a system to support more users if the number of users is declining or buying fewer projector bulbs if the projectors are seeing less use. Another one we’ve been discussing is returning our leased VoIP telephone handsets and relying on softphones using our laptops.

It’s important to put everything on the table and carefully consider our options. We haven’t fallen off of the enrollment cliff yet, but I want to be wearing a parachute when we do.

About the Author

Martin Hoffman
Dr. Martin A. Hoffman, Sr., is dean of learning resources and a senior adjunct faculty member for Rowan College at Burlington County in New Jersey. He is currently serving his third term on the board of directors of the Instructional Technology Council.