Follow the Money

It was some three decades ago, during the Watergate era, that Deep Throat told Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward he had to “follow the money” to understand the scandal. But long before Watergate, public policy professors and analysts knew that money reveals a lot about organizational behavior and institutional priorities.

Following the money that colleges and universities spend on computing and information technology has always been difficult. But years ago, the organization of computing into highly centralized academic and administrative units followed traditional, indeed rigid budget models that offered some opportunity to track core IT expenditures.

Today, however, computing and information technologies are ubiquitous across academe. Engineering and English professors exchange informed opinions about product preferences. Engineering and English departments also purchase lots of their own technology—computers, software, servers, and other stuff—often independent of the traditional “central” campus computing centers.

I’ve long maintained that we would need a small team of forensic accountants to know just how much any college really spends on computing and information technology. We might also need a team of forensic HR specialists to determine just how many people on campus are doing IT work—ranging from operations and management to systems, security, and user support.

But now we have a new resource from the EDUCAUSE Core Data Service to help us understand more about the structure and complexity of campus IT operations.

EDUCAUSE launched the Core Data Service to collect and provide benchmarking data about IT budgets, staffing, organizational structure, and related issues. The target audience was campus CIOs; indeed, since June, CIOs at institutions participating in the original survey had access to the data to create custom reports comparing their institutions to self-selected peer institutions in the Core Data Service database.

But the new EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Summary Report, out this month (www.educause.edu/coredata), presents these data to a larger audience audience—faculty, administrators, policy analysts, researchers, and others outside of campus IT offices who are interested in IT issues on their campuses and across the academic community.

Drawing on data from 561 U.S. colleges and universities and 65 universities outside the United Core Data Summary Report offers many interesting (and some will say surprising) insights into money and personnel matters affecting campus IT operations. For example, across all sectors of U.S. higher education, personnel expenditures account for about half of the budget of centralized campus IT organizations. In contrast, colleges generally spend about 80 percent of the total campus budget on personnel.

The report reveals that IT budgets vary dramatically across sectors, depending on how the budgets are measured. Research universities spend almost three times more on IT per FTE student than do community colleges. However, and somewhat surprisingly, when IT resources are measured in terms of FTE faculty expenditures, the variability is significantly less, shrinking to about 50 percent more per FTE faculty in research universities than in community colleges.

Another interesting number in the report involves the funding for professional development in IT organizations. Across all sectors, from community colleges to research universities, the FTE professional development expenditures are, as stated in the report, “surprisingly consistent” at about $1,000/FTE.

Less surprising is that the Core Data Report confirms with a number what many have known from experience: A significant portion of campus IT spending comes from the budgets of academic departments and operating units, including research labs. This “independent” money—independent of central IT operations and budgets—ranges from about 30 percent of total campus IT spending in research universities to about 10 percent in community colleges. In other words, academic departments and operating units spend a lot of their own money on information technology resources.

The new report also documents the degree of campus dependence on student workers in IT operations, particularly IT user support. Across all sectors, part-time student employees represent about half of the total FTE support personnel for instructional technology, user support services, and public help desks that serve students, faculty, and staff.

Finally, the report documents the age of—and rapidly aging—administrative software that remains a core component of the campus infrastructure. Across all sectors, large numbers of institutions remain dependent on student information systems and financial software developed or purchased more than a decade ago. This aging software was not designed for a Web-centric world and would seem ready for immediate replacement. However, the budget cuts and financial problems currently affecting most institutions will force many campuses to defer or delay replacement for a few more years.

The new EDUCAUSE Core Data Summary Report warrants a wide reading, and not just among individuals in the campus IT community. It provides both interesting and useful information. And future editions of the report will be even more valuable because of the emerging trend data.

As much of the campus discussion about money and technology is often based on sum ergo expertise, the EDUCAUSE Core Data Summary Report is an important contribution to better, more informed planning campus efforts. It should also help inform the continuing, informal hallway conversations and more formal policy discussions about a broad set of key IT issues that affect American colleges and universities.

[Editor’s note: Casey Green will co-anchor a special Ahead of the Curve broadcast session, “An Open Discussion About Open Source” from the Syllabus fall2003 conference in Cambridge, Mass. on December 8. For updates, visit www.syllabus.com.]

comments powered by Disqus