Technology & the Community College

The Right Spend

The Right SpendTrying to get the biggest bang for your IT bucks? Check with your peers: Herein, community college technologists share their top 6 secrets for getting the most out of what they buy.

When it comes to getting the most out IT, the majority of two-year schools face very real challenges. For starters, community college budgets are generally smaller than those of most four-year schools. Then, of course, there's the issue of refresh: Because students come and go every two years, there's the expectation that schools will continually invest in the latest and greatest technologies. This one-two punch creates a true conundrum for many of the nation's feeder schools. No wonder both community college tech administrators and their users feel frustrated at times.

But the challenge needn't be insurmountable. A number of community colleges, including Santa Rosa Junior College (CA) and Macomb Community College (MI), have managed solid, highly cost-effective technology deployments simply by putting an eye to getting the most out of every dollar they spend. We asked tech officials at these schools and IT leaders at other community colleges just how they get the biggest bang out of their IT bucks. Here are their six top tips.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, Media Services Manager Russ Bowden says vendor "shootouts" help the school compare and contrast tech offerings. An added benefit: "Even if vendors do poorly, they might sharpen their pencils nexttime and really blow us away."

1) Run a ‘Bake-Off'

"Shop Around" may be old advice, but it's sage. Administrators at community colleges and other two-year schools need to avoid the temptation to rush into "competitive edge" tech purchases. The savviest community college tech execs advise: Thoroughly evaluate a good number of technologies before you elect to spend precious cash. Many technologists call these trials "bake-offs," since they invite vendors to come in and present their wares for sampling.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, technologists are so focused on the opportunity to compare and contrast market offerings, they prefer to call their tech trials "shootouts," and they hold a few of them each year. Russ Bowden, manager of media services, says the specifics of each shootout are different, but the format is the same: After a formal request for proposals process and grilling a handful of vendors on certain aspects of functionality, an evaluation committee comprised of technologists and faculty members gives each product a formal grade.

Bowden says his department tabulates these grades and invites the three highest scorers to bid for 30 or 40 machines at a time. Invariably, the committee then selects the cheapest of the best, and sticks with that particular model until a manufacturer discontinues it. (If a model becomes outdated technologically, the committee decides whether to replace it on a case-by-case basis.) After each shootout, Bowden posts committee evaluations on the Santa Rosa website for other schools to use in their decision-making processes. Vendors also can assess this information to see where they went wrong.

"We're all about openness and letting people see what technology we've chosen and why we've selected it," he says, noting that the shootout data are available free of charge. An additional benefit, he adds: "Even if vendors do poorly, they might sharpen their pencils next time and really blow us away."

The technologists at Montgomery County Community College (PA) host similar events once or twice a purchasing cycle. Celeste Schwartz, the school's vice president of IT, says that when she and her team invite vendors onto campus to show off the functionality of particular technologies, they also require that the presentations address four other areas the team has determined to be of critical importance with regard to IT expenditures:

  • How well the product integrates with enterprise systems (if applicable)
  • Upfront implementation and development costs
  • The potential for end users to become self-sufficient (in other words, do training costs need to be factored in?)
  • The impact on process efficiencies and customer service

"While it is often difficult to get an apples-to-apples comparison, this review does provide a basis for cost analysis," she says. "We always try to obtain a fair analysis of [potential user] satisfaction as well as an inside view of the institutional ramifications during product deployment."

The Right Spend

WHEN TECHNOLOGISTS AT NORTHAMPTON Community College invested in a web conferencing solution for the school's distance education programs, they quickly built a new online tutoring program around the technology effectively killing two birds with one stone.

2) Collaborate With Other Schools

Sometimes the best information about technology purchases and the efficiency of certain products can be gleaned from the experiences of other institutions. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to turn to national organizations that serve as repositories for institutional knowledge from a variety of schools across the country (see "For More Information"). Another option is to look for similar advice on the regional level, from organizations that service a smaller niche.

At Coffeyville Community College (KS), Dean of Technology Bill Strecker has taken this approach, regularly turning to a group of eight community colleges in Kansas for input and insight on IT. The group meets quarterly to share best practices about experiences with particular technologies. Occasionally, when certain schools are interested in purchasing the same kind of hardware, Strecker says member institutions band together for greater purchasing power and a lower price.

"We don't have any real margin for error," he says, adding that his budget for technology purchases is about $250,000 per year. "When you know you have only that one opportunity to do it correctly, relying on other schools for help in decision-making and even purchasing can be a big help."

Other schools stretch their IT dollars by collaborating with fellow institutions in different ways. At Genesee Community College (NY), for example, officials use a few different surveys to gauge student and faculty opinions on technology purchases already made each year. One of the surveys catalogs opinions from students throughout the State University of New York system. Another survey, widely used in the community college sphere, is the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, which culls opinions on specific types of technology in use, from students at more than 75 two-year schools across the US.

Larene Hoelcle, vice president of human resources and planning at Genesee, says survey results enable her to catalog user feedback in categories such as ease of use, efficiency, and overall value to the learning experience. When it's time to make purchasing decisions, Hoelcle and Stuart Steiner, the college's president, review students' reactions to previous tech purchases, to make sure they're spending the school's IT budget on technologies that fulfill user requests for improvement.

"By using these surveys, we can see what is working at other schools in New York State and peer institutions across the country," Hoelcle says. "Because we have only 6,500 students, the broader perspective [those surveys provide] always helps us make the toughest choices about technology investments."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

IN THE WORLD of two-year schools, the best place to get additional information on maximizing expenditures is the American Association of Community Colleges. This group's membership represents 95 percent of all accredited two-year community, junior, and technical colleges in the US.

Other good resources include the Center for Community College Policy, the Council for the Study of Community Colleges, and the Community College Research Center, which is affiliated with Columbia University (NY).

Finally, the Community College National Center for Community Engagement at Mesa Community College (AZ) offers service learning and civic engagement resources for community colleges of every shape and size.

3) Standardize

Another good way to get the most out of every dollar is to standardize on one technology across the school. This approach enables schools to buy hardware (and certain software licenses) in bulk, which usually creates an economy of scale and lowers per-unit pricing across the board. It also cuts down on administrative expenditures, since buying one type of equipment simplifies every step of the purchase from product research to data entry, implementation, and maintenance.

Such is the strategy at Cape Cod Community College (MA). There, technology officials refresh one-fifth of their 1,000 computers once every five years (each year, a five-year refresh comes up for one-fifth of the machines), and they purchase all of their computers from Dell to receive a discount. According to Dan Gallagher, executive director of IT, this discount is fairly significant: Normally, the price per desktop would be upwards of $1,300 apiece, but by buying in bulk, the school pays $1,000 per machine-numbers that really add up as the 200 computers refreshed at each go-round generate a $60,000 savings. Over time, the savings on the machines can ring in at over a quarter of a million dollars.

Gallagher says the standardization effort has impacted the school's bottom line in other areas, too. For starters, because the school has so many of the same machines and a strong relationship with Dell, it has created enhanced bargaining power with other vendors-an advantage that is hard to quantify. Cape Cod also has saved big bucks on support and training: Because Gallagher and other IT directors haven't had to train staff on multiple systems, support costs have dropped exponentially.

"Standardization reduces complexity and by reducing complexity, you gain efficiency," he says. Gallagher adds that the initiative hasn't been without controversy, noting that standardizing on PCs hasn't exactly made Mac supporters on campus happy. "But no program is going to please all users all of the time," he maintains.

Macomb Community College CIO Mike Zimmerman has instituted a rigorous master-plan-based matrix of requirements to be applied before the purchasing committee signs off on IT purchases. "It helps us make sure we're spending money in the right areas. And if we have a product that is strong in all the things that don't really matter, it appropriately stays at the bottom of our list."

4) Avoid Job Creep

Another way to get the most out of every dollar spent on technology is to make sure that each and every tech purchasing project is in line with a series of objectives and goals that were established before the project even began. At many two-year schools, because budgets are so small, technologists insist that pressing needs have forced them to abandon bestcase scenario planning in favor of a more reactive ("knee-jerk") approach. Still, for savvy technology administrators at many four-year institutions, proactive project management has become second-nature.

One two-year school that routinely plans in a strategic manner is Macomb Community College, where Mike Zimmerman, CIO and executive director for communications and information technology, sees to it that every technology expenditure ties back to a master plan. Zimmerman hails from the automotive industry, where the intelligent use of metrics is a common practice. In that vein, he has implemented a rigorous matrix of requirements for members of Macomb's purchasing committee to apply before they sign off on IT purchases.

Required metric examination on this matrix includes looking at categories such as ease of use, scalability, and cost. During product evaluation, members of the purchasing committee rank each requirement on a scale of one to five (five being most important). Later, as committee members evaluate similar products, they rate each product on a scale of one to three (three is best) for the degree to which it fulfills each requirement. In the end, rating and requirement numbers are multiplied and added together, and the tool with the highest score wins.

"The process helps us make sure we're spending money in the right areas," Zimmerman explains. "This way, if we have a product that is strong in all the things that don't really matter, it appropriately stays at the bottom of our list."

The Right Spend

FOR SANTA BARBARA CITY COLLEGE, purchasing a new technology rather than expanding an existing one saved money. Whereas additional staff would have to be found, hired, and trained to support the expansion, the new purchase eliminated those needs.

5) Calculate Management Costs

Before investing in a particular technology, it's important to consider unseen operational costs: Crunch some numbers and determine exactly how much the technology is going to cost to operate over time, say the pundits. With some products, this process can be as simple as calculating monthly service or maintenance fees and amortizing them over the course of a year. With other products, the equation can be more complex, and may require IT directors to factor in the cost of hiring full-time employees.

Such was the case last year at Santa Barbara City College (CA), where in September 2007, administrators were in the market for new document management software. At first, Paul Bishop, VP for information technology, looked into expanding the college's Novell implementation to include an individual folder for every student. When he did the math though, Bishop realized this approach would require him to hire at least one additional systems administrator at a salary of somewhere around $75,000 per year.

This salary, coupled with the price of the technology itself, forced Bishop to seek out more cost-effective alternatives: One of them was a customizable content management software solution from Xythos. Bishop says the solution was so easy to install and manage that he was able to have one of his existing systems administrators handle it for only an additional five hours each month. By juggling job responsibilities among other staffers, he has been able to integrate the new system without bringing on another SA- and even without paying overtime to existing staff.

"We often have money available for buying technology in any given year, but to make an ongoing commitment to find, hire, and train additional staff is a little harder to do," he explains. "This way, we were able to add a new technology without having to add more personnel. The value in that is irrefutable."

6) Improvise

Perhaps the best way for two-year colleges to stretch IT expenditures is for innovative technologists to get creative about the ways in which they implement particular tools on campus. In some cases, this might mean purchasing an older technology and tweaking it to serve new and exciting purposes. In other instances, it can mean using one technology to take the place of many and meet a variety of needs across a number of different disciplines.

Technologists at Northampton Community College (PA) learned this first-hand after signing up for web conferencing technology from Elluminate. The school originally purchased the vendor's Elluminate Live! product to provide a synchronous video component to existing distance education programs. But according to Kelvin Bentley, director of distance learning, the school quickly built a new online tutoring program around the technology, as well.

Bentley points out that if Northampton had purchased a separate product to power the online tutoring, it could have spent two or three times as much. Instead, he says, the school basically used the Elluminate product to "kill two birds with one stone." All told, after spending $21,000 for an unlimited seat license of the product in November 2006, college officials recently reupped by forking over $27,500 for use of the technology until September 2009.

"We bought [the product] hoping we could find a way to get the most out of the money we spent," says Bentley. "Today, considering that we're using one technology for two distinctly different purposes, I'd say we've managed to accomplish our goal pretty well."

::WEBEXTRAS ::
IT funding roundtable: Four intrepid campus tech leaders share how they balance dollars and demand. Learn how some community college administrators are utilizing technology to serve and retain their commuting students.

Matt Villano, senior contributing editor of this publication, is based in Healdsburg, CA.

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