Data-Driven Decision Making

Dare To Share

Pressed for dollars and resources, smaller institutions of higher education are discovering that sharing software, data management, and expertise is key to DDD success.

TODAY, as difficult as it is for large institutions to keep software and hardware up-to-date, the challenge and expense of keeping up is only amplified for smaller colleges and universities. And in the area of data-driven decision-making, the challenge can be even greater. Because smaller schools are pressed for time and resources on nearly all fronts, the ability to afford the often high-end tools necessary to collect good data—and use those data effectively—can be all but out of reach for small, independent institutions. Such software can include sophisticated enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, online course management systems, and, of course, data warehouses. The expense of hiring and training staff who understand how to analyze and present data effectively can also be prohibitive to these institutions.

Debra Townsley

BECAUSE HER CONSORTIUM partners had already rolled out their ERP system, Nichols College President Debra Townsley could fast-track her setup, and save half the standard cost.

One solution to these challenges is the consortium or coalition, a little-discussed but hugely effective solution in which member schools (usually small, independent institutions) pool dollars and expertise to create a larger entity with greater purchasing power and increased ability to drive campuswide decision-making for its members. Although consortium members seldom allow other members access to their raw data, they do share software and expertise, and may also pool more general data that help them gauge how they are doing in comparison to other members. The returns from such arrangements, say consortium advocates, can be immense.

The ICE Schools Cometh

Through a consortium called the Independent College Enterprise, or ICE, seven colleges (five in West Virginia, one in Virginia, and one in Massachusetts) are sharing one ERP solution: Datatel Colleague. The result, according to several members of the coalition, is more efficient use of software, better data and analysis, and sharing of ideas and strategies even among institutions that might be considered competitors. One of the consortium’s founders and chief proponents is University of Charleston (WV) President Edwin Welch. Pooling resources across the seven schools, he firmly believes, has yielded both an excellent return on investment, and a sharing of expertise that has enabled much better decision-making at his college.

ICE, which is incorporated in West Virginia under a 501(c)(3) non-profit tax designation, requires that the president of each member college serve on its board as a director. The organization (whose directors meet three times a year), employs an executive director and staff, located at the University of Charleston (where the consortium’s ERP system is physically housed); the member colleges’ CTOs and CFOs make up various advisory groups. Members agree that the benefits of the consortium have been extraordinary, and not just on the cost-saving front, although that alone has been significant.

“We have to learn to cooperate, or die,” says Steve Markwood, bluntly. Markwood is president of Alderson- Broaddus College (WV), an 800-student institution; he is a vocal advocate of the use of consortia and coalitions among small independent colleges and universities. Indeed, A-B College, as it is known, now belongs to several, including ICE, of which it was a founding member.

The newest ICE member is Nichols College, located in Dudley, MA. According to Nichols President Debra Townsley, the college’s ERP implementation has moved forward on an aggressive 18- month rollout schedule, partly because of the experience of other ICE consortium members. “We set up our [ERP] system to look similar to that of other members; plus, we had [the input of] all the consortium schools that had already done it.” The college’s payroll staff, for instance, worked with staff members from other ICE consortium schools to roll out like portions of the ERP software. Without the consortium, Townsley says, “we just wouldn’t have had access to that kind of expertise.”

Significant Cost Savings

Although Welch and Townsley declined to state exact costs, they maintain that sharing Datatel software through ICE has resulted in big savings for their schools, both in the cost of the initial software investment, and on a yearly basis. Welch reports that his university’s total cost of administrative computing last year was nearly identical to what the Datatel system alone would have cost the institution, had it not been a member of the consortium. “That means personnel were free, paper was free, upgrades were free, and hardware was free,” he says. “For me, that makes very vivid what kinds of savings are involved in having seven schools decide to cooperate.” And he observes that A-B College would have initially spent over a million dollars on Datatel without the partnership. Markwood estimates that via the consortium, his school spent less than a third of that in initial costs (see “Convincing the Board,” page 47 of our magazine).

With the ICE Consortium, we now have the data at hand. So, when we do want to query something, we have confidence that the data are in the system. — Edwin Welch, University of Charleston

As for the Nichols College implementation, without the consortium the expense probably would have been “double what we ended up paying through ICE” for the same software, says Townsley. What’s more, the school’s ongoing annual cost is significantly reduced, and “the breadth and depth of experience we get” is invaluable, she adds.

The ICE venture, in fact, wasn’t a nobrainer, Markwood recalls; it required a leap of faith. “I’ve never entered into a venture quite like that. It was a real learning curve for me,” he admits. “But we learned that we could trust each other; that we could give up things for the common good and that it would work out well for all of us. It’s very, very difficult for a small individual institution to make large computer purchases or things of that nature,” he adds. “But if we learn to do them together, we can.”

Team Cooperation

Three of the seven schools in the ICE consortium are located within 30 miles of each other, and several of the group’s members vie for the same students. But members insist that competition simply isn’t a problem: The data most at risk for these institutions involve donors and incoming students, but that information isn’t shared by the ICE schools. According to Markwood, “All of the separate institutional data are fire-walled, for one thing. So I can’t look at [a member school’s] admissions data or development files, even if I want to.”

As for strategic insight gleaned from the venture, members say that they’ve found the consortium hugely helpful. “ICE has been fantastic to work with,” Townsley says. “The other presidents have a real commitment to doing this and are very collegial.”

In fact, says Welch, “One of the things that came out of the [venture] was serendipitous: Because all the registrars were working together on the same tool, they learned from one another—somebody has figured out a way to do this, or someone has solved that problem. There have been some very real benefits.” He notes that all the individual institutions involved “would tell you that they’ve been able to help one another in very significant ways.”

One benefit that Markwood specifically cites is that of “teams” that have formed across school boundaries— teams in which registrars, admissions directors, development directors, and other administrators share knowledge. He explains: “These teams have developed their own networks [of people], so when, for instance, a registrar has an issue or question about using a software application, he or she can call another registrar at a member school and ask, ‘Have you ever dealt with this problem? How did you handle it?’”

From this benefit, too, there was an unintended by-product, says Markwood: The consortium was able to identify cores of expertise (such as financial aid or payroll proficiency) at each school. “We never would have been able to secure that level of expertise on a campus the size of 800 students,” he says. But because of ICE, he points out, the university now has a campus tantamount to almost 6,000 students.

Bigger Pools, Better Conclusions

Accordingly, another consortium benefit lies in the competitive advantage of having larger pools of data to work with, in order to come to critical decisions such as how much financial aid to offer students. “The greater the analyses of incoming students,” says Welch, “the better able you are to determine how much aid you need to give them in order to get them to come.” That means, “The smarter you are, the better you’re able to compete,” he says plainly.

Data-Driven Decision-Making

TOGETHER, THE ICCOC schools serve 10,000 online seats each semester; the consortium not only saves them money, but also supplies them with staff and expertise for data-driven decision-making.

As an example of the kind of analysis that the shared ERP system makes possible, Welch cites athletic financial aid data. Because his school now had access to such a sophisticated ERP system, administrators could collect information from the various databases in the system and analyze it in ways they were never able to previously. The analysis yielded information on the grade-point averages of each and every team at the university, along with financial aid costs per team, test scores, as well as the grade-point averages of every entering player. In the end, Welch says, “We discovered which team was recruiting smarter students, how well they were doing when they were here, and more.” He says the university has used that same method to examine resource allocation in order to compare details about student-faculty ratios and faculty loads, including how many of the students in a given class are associated with that class’s major, how many come from another major, and so on.

Still, one thing that his institution doesn’t yet do, he admits, is use data in a proactive way to identify trends and patterns. He attributes this not to a lack of data, but to a lack of staff trained to analyze the information. “That’s a weakness in smaller institutions,” he says. “We just don’t have full-time IT and information research staffs.” At least with ICE, Welch says, the data are available. The challenge, going forward, will be to analyze the data quickly, and then take appropriate action. “With ICE,” he says, “we now have the data at hand. So, when we do want to query something, we have some confidence that the data are in the system.”

Online Programs Partner for Power

In Iowa, however, another consortium of schools has succeeded in getting to the proactive analyze-and-act stage. The Iowa Community College Online Consortium (ICCOC) is a voluntary partnership among seven (mostly small rural institutions) of Iowa’s 15 community colleges. Although the Iowa Community College System educates thousands of students annually, the schools’ various online degree programs do not necessarily have the technology purchasing clout and ability to store, access, and analyze data that large physical institutions may have. Together, however, the ICCOC schools serve some 10,000 online seats each semester. Formed in 1999, this consortium has been hugely successful in saving members money and enabling resource-sharing—including the staff and expertise to help ICCOC members make timely data-driven decisions.

Importantly, the consortium has an oversight committee that serves as its governing board and policymaking body. Each college assigns individual representatives, with the chief academic officer usually the ranking member for each college. Distance learning coordinators from various member schools, as well as one or more of the consortium’s five staff members, also attend oversight meetings.

You put all seven Iowa Community Colleges in a room and there’s give and take such as, ‘What we can do to this course?,’ It’s phenomenal to watch them interact without competing. — Rhonda McElroy, ICCOC

The group’s main objective in forming, according to ICCOC Director Steve Rheinschmidt, was to offer online degrees in an across-the-state, coordinated effort. Toward that end, the Iowa consortium shares an eLearning management platform from eCollege. Yet, because of the success it has had since its formation, the consortium also has begun to share other software and services (one example: online tutoring software from Smarthinking).

Convincing the Board

Determined to get a consortium effort off the ground or join an existing group? Heed these words of wisdom.

THE CHALLENGE OF FORMING a consortium in higher education is considerable, according to Edwin Welch, president of the University of Charleston (WV). “There are dramatic impediments to schools doing this,” he observes, adding, “I’ve heard presidents say, ‘I’m not going to impose that on my people; they want their own shop.’Well, that decision is costing those schools hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” When discussing the issue with private college presidents across the country,Welch discovered that the hesitation often comes down to dollars and cents, and qualms about sharing systems and data. To counter the apprehension, he suggests emphasizing cost savings first. “Presidents get motivated by saving dollars,” he points out. “They’re trying to balance the budget, particularly in small schools where they don’t have a lot of money.”

Second, he advises, highlight the richness of resources available through sharing software, and point to the experience and advice of other small institutions facing many of the exact same challenges and opportunities.

Third, he adds, “Debunk the myth about security and sharing, and the concerns about losing control or allowing another school to take advantage of you.”

What if you can’t get other regional institutions interested?

One reason that Nichols College, located in Massachusetts, is the only New England school in the Independent College Enterprise consortium (other ICE schools are largely West Virginia institutions) is that “We couldn’t find anybody in our region who would do it with us,” says Nichols President Debra Townsley. Other colleges in her region objected to the fact that the shared technology wouldn’t necessarily be housed on campus (the ICE ERP system, along with consortium staff, is located on the University of Charleston campus). However, multinational corporations commonly locate hardware and software off-site, Townsley points out.

The schools in her region also exhibited a tendency to defer the software-sharing decision to their IT departments. “That can be fatal,” she warns, pointing to the fact that the IT department isn’t where such an institutionally strategic judgment should be made. Instead, she urges, push the consortium issue up the rungs to the president’s office, since that’s where such a far-reaching initiative needs to originate. The president, Townsley explains, “has the macro view and, additionally, can overcome any turf issues.”

As for the “loss-of-control” issue, Townsley claims it simply hasn’t been one for her institution. Software-sharing arrangements (AKA time-shares) “have been around for decades in corporations,” she points out. “It’s just not a model higher ed has been familiar with.”

Alderson-Broaddus College (WV) President Steve Markwood agrees with Welch that “selling” the board of trustees is best approached by pointing out dollar savings. He convinced his own institution’s trustees of the wisdom of forming the ICE coalition and sharing a Datatel ERP system by focusing not only on the initial expense, but on future set-aside costs. Regarding the ERP system, he told the board that “Every time we buy a piece of software, every time we buy a piece of hardware, every time we decide to upgrade, that [cost] will be shared.” In the five years that his institution has been a member of the coalition, Markwood estimates the college has saved “in excess of $300,000,” in addition to the $650,000-plus savings incurred by sharing the original purchase price of the ERP system—not incidental savings for an 800-student college.

The colleges share both course content and instructors. But although the consortium’s staff, located throughout the state, coordinates the member schools’ online programs, Rheinschmidt explains, ICCOC does not hire instructors. (Because the colleges in the consortium offer the online degrees, each school serves as the employer of record for its online instructors.) Online courses across the state are filled with prospective students through an agreedupon formula in which priority is given to the college originating the course. It’s an efficient model that populates courses well, regardless of which school is offering them and where they are being offered, Rheinschmidt says. It allows small, rural colleges to offer courses they couldn’t fill otherwise.

This is one reason why the consortium member colleges—some of which could conceivably compete for online students—are more inclined to cooperate, not compete, say the consortium participants. In fact, when the member schools’ CAOs and distance learning directors meet, it is with the utmost sense of cooperation, reports Student Services Concierge Rhonda McElroy, a consortium staff member. “You put all seven colleges in a room and they work very well together. There’s give and take such as, ‘What can we do to this course?’ or, ‘Why don’t you take that course and we’ll wait for the next one down the road….’ It’s a great group to work with,” says McElroy. “It’s phenomenal to watch [the schools] interact without competing.”

Finding Trends and Patterns

As concierge, McElroy aids the member schools by providing individual institutional data on student success rates and retention figures. She also collects and analyzes data regarding how online learners at consortium schools are doing as a whole; she then compares these data with individual consortium member institutions. “At the end of the term, I give each college its individual report,” she explains. “I also give everyone the overall composite of the consortium,” she explains. In this way, while not seeing other individual member schools’ data, an institution can compare its progress in serving online students against data indicating overall consortium progress.

The comparative data, McElroy says, can answer member school questions such as, “Are we efficiently communicating with students? Are there some gaps that we need to investigate? Are there resources we need to develop? Are students getting what they need in order to be successful?” If not, says the concierge, schools can determine, for instance, what they can do to make sure the appropriate student services are in place online so that distance education students can be just as successful as oncampus students.

The power of allowing colleges to share data collection and comparison in a consortium becomes especially apparent at times, says Rheinschmidt. For example, smaller schools often confess that they can’t compare their online education data with face-to-face education data, simply because they are not yet able to collect and analyze online ed data that are of the same depth or quality as traditional institutional data. But, the consortium director observes, “We’ve had many people comment that the value of the data that they receive [through the consortium] for online courses and programs is actually better than what is currently available on campus. They simply may not have the time and resources to be able to collect the same types of data [individually].”

The sophistication of data collection and comparison has also grown since the consortium was launched. Initially, says Rheinschmidt, the consortium members examined data from precourse demographic surveys and course surveys, as well as reports from the online help desk (regarding student issues and concerns). But, he explains, the consortium is now using data in more sophisticated ways, such as for uncovering and examining trends. One example: Based on consortium data, the member colleges are discerning an interesting pattern regarding student age. “When we started six years ago,” Rheinschmidt says, “1 percent of our students were 17 or younger, which [generally] means they’re still in high school. Today, 8 percent of our enrollments are 17 years and younger.”

Based on that information, the director says, “we’re able to start making some determinations and decisions; we’re able to ask questions like, ‘Okay, we have more high school students enrolling. How can we better facilitate communication [with them]?’” One solution to that challenge, for example, has been to set up an online advising module, since the data reveal that the first college course many students are taking is through the online system, rather than via face-to-face instruction.

Consortium Outlook: Expanding

Those who belong to a successful consortium generally predict a robust future for the paradigm, even though the movement has been a bit slow to take root. Yet growth is inevitable if only because as funds get tighter, the banding together to share software and expertise addresses at least one of the toughest challenges small colleges and universities face today: remaining competitive in the face of a growing need for the same sort of highend software tools that larger institutions can more easily afford to deploy. “I think you’re going to see a lot more of this from the small private colleges,” A-B College’s Markwood says flatly. “They don’t have the capital, or they don’t have the breadth of expertise within their staff and faculty to do certain things. But when we form teams and collaborations with other schools, [we] have more money to spend and more experts to help us.” In short: We have power.

::WEBEXTRA :: Get your roadmap to successful BI/DW in the session, “BI and Data Warehousing: Powering Better Decisions in Higher Ed” at Campus Technology 2007 in Washington, DC, July 30-Aug. 2. :: Banding together for technology purchasing power.

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