Budgets | Feature

Testing Times, Tested Tools

State budget cuts are hammering higher education. CT looks at three public schools that are using proven IT tools to help weather the storm.


Illustration by La Fleur Studio

While some reports suggest that IT budgets are stabilizing after their two-year free fall, you just have to pick up a newspaper to know that tough times still lie ahead for higher education. As state governors grapple with their budgets for 2012, public universities and colleges are facing some of the deepest funding cuts in memory. To make matters worse, most of the federal stimulus funds, which have helped dull the pain so far, will have been spent by June.

It seems almost inevitable that IT departments are going to be asked to tighten their belts again. But just how many notches are left in those belts? Virtualization? Check. Server consolidation? Done that. IT teams have hacked, sliced, and squeezed the tech budget six ways to Sunday. While there is no silver bullet for the current budget travails, some of IT's most trusted weapons may be worth another look. Here, CT highlights three public institutions that are using tried and tested IT tools to deliver big returns, for almost no money down.

Building BI Into Decision-Making
The Cuts: In the past decade, Miami University (OH) has seen funding from state appropriations drop 5 percent. Under Gov. John Kasich's proposed biennial budget for 2011-2013, overall spending on higher education in Ohio would drop a further 10.5 percent, although these cuts would be ameliorated by slight rises in spending for instruction.

None of these reductions has come out of the blue, so Miami U has had time to position the school for leaner times. Since 2009, the three-campus operation has reduced its annual budget by $32 million, a cut of 7 percent in its core spending. In the view of university administrators, though, it's not enough.

According to Beverly Thomas, associate VP of finance and associate treasurer, last year the university president set up a task force to "think about the university's strategic priorities going forward and to recommend long-range budget solutions." The goal, she says, was a "general realignment of the university's priorities." Working through the summer, the task force developed a 55-page report with 35 separate recommendations intended to generate savings of $41 million over a five-year period.

One Solution: Turning those recommendations into a reality--and actually reducing costs--is a more difficult proposition. The task becomes easier, though, when administrators have access to quality information and effective analysis. And thanks to a campus pilot project, the university is now looking to the proven benefits of BI to generate that analysis.

The pilot kicked off in 2009, when Thomas recruited the IT organization to participate in a project to evaluate the financial viability of the school's summer academic programs. "It was a nice confluence of priorities," she explains. "We were searching for a way to make the summer session more successful financially. At the same time we were looking for a pilot project that would give us a real-life learning experience for business intelligence."

The university had plenty of data about its summer courses. "We could go to the accounting system to get revenue and expense; we could go to the registration system to track enrollment; and we could go to the financial aid system for the costs of student aid," explains Thomas. "But we couldn't get a holistic view that pulled all those data points together so we could analyze the underlying business model."

Miami U didn't have the budget to buy a BI tool, so the IT group decided to build one. A team of about 15 people from across multiple areas met weekly to work on the project.

Armed with an Oracle enterprise license for its database, the institution tapped Oracle Warehouse Builder, which provides basic extract-transform-load features. IT also found an unused license for Microsoft SQL Server. "We extracted data from Banner, built dimensional models using Oracle Warehouse Builder, ported the Oracle model to SQL Server, and built cubes in there," explains Phyllis Wykoff, assistant director of the Business Intelligence Center.

Four months later, a preliminary BI tool was available, and the BI team began refreshing the summer session data daily to provide information to academic deans about registration, waivers, and enrollment.

"What we've been encouraging the academic deans to do is not necessarily focus course by course, but to look at their overall curriculum for the summer," notes Wykoff. By the second summer, the deans understood enough to be able to adjust their mix of courses to satisfy academic needs while still being financially viable.

The BI initiative exposed another aspect of the summer program that hadn't been apparent before: just how many fee waivers were being offered to graduate students over the summer. "Having that information has really facilitated broader conversations about our graduate fee waivers," Thomas says. "We have used the BI data to put the summer fee waivers in the overall context of the university's budget."

The success of the pilot helped sell Miami U on the value of BI to its strategic decision-making. Despite tight finances, the 2011 university budget allocated funding for data intelligence software, which the institution has decided will be Oracle Business Intelligence Suite Enterprise Edition. It also led to the creation of the Business Intelligence Center, for which Wykoff now works. "Having a real-life example of how we could use data to support decision-making helped the general university community understand the value of business intelligence," says Thomas. "It made it less theoretical."

The Big Budget Squeeze

All over the US, funding cuts are hitting state institutions hard. Here are a few examples:

California
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed cutting state support to both state university systems by $500 million each, and reducing funding to community colleges by $400 million.

Texas
In the proposed biennial budget before the Texas House of Representatives, nearly $772 million would be slashed from higher education; four community colleges would be closed; and $100 million would be cut from the University of Texas at Austin and from Texas A&M at College Station.

Wisconsin
Gov. Scott Walker's proposed biennial budget would cut state aid to the University of Wisconsin system by $250 million, with $125 million of those cuts coming at the flagship campus in Madison. In addition, technical colleges would face a reduction of $71.6 million in state aid.

Washington
University officials say that Gov. Christine Gregoire's proposed cuts of $447 million to higher education would result in tuition increases of 9 to 11 percent; the loss of 1,000 jobs; and 3,000 fewer in-state students accepted.

New York
As part of the proposed 2011-2012 executive budget, appropriations for higher education, including the State and City University of New York systems, would fall 10 percent.

Nevada
Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed cuts of $162 million for higher education over the next two years. According to officials with the Nevada System of Higher Education, the cuts will result in layoffs, large tuition increases, and the elimination of some programs. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is planning to cut several majors, including philosophy, economics, and arts.

Editor's Note: State budget figures were accurate as of press time but are likely to change.

Streamlining Portfolio Management
The Cuts: Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS, is projecting spending cuts of up to $13 million over the next three years. For the next fiscal year alone, the 21,000-student school is looking at a $6.2 million reduction ($1.2 million of which will be allocated toward new investments) even as student enrollment is on the rise--about 2.3 percent more students attended the college in fall 2010 than the year before.

One Solution: The IT department has turned to project and portfolio management (PPM) to streamline work, utilize its people most effectively, and do intelligent forecasting. Although the seeds for PPM were planted long ago, it was in 2009 that Johnson County adopted TeamDynamix, a project management tool designed specifically for higher ed.
For over a decade, the institution had been using a paper form for IT requests. In the beginning, people provided detailed information about the help they needed from the IT organization. As online communication became the norm, though, the level of detail dropped. "We started seeing seven-word sentences to describe what would be a two-year effort," recalls Sandra Warner, director of administrative computing services and deputy CIO. "What was lost in translation was how many resources would be required, not only in IT, but also from the functional area that made the request."

In an effort to formalize its processes, the college adopted the Project Management Institute's "body of knowledge" (PMBOK) and adapted it to its own culture. The college began sending employees for project management training. By the mid-2000s, Johnson County was starting to see a difference in outcomes between large projects that had project management and those that didn't. "The projects with project management had a higher success rate, so it created a demand for that," Warner says.

Projects come in four flavors, ranked from "A" to "D." The largest are "A" projects, which tend to encompass communication across the entire organization and last at least a year. A current implementation of voice over IP, a three-year initiative, falls into this category. "B" projects are cross-departmental, such as the implementation of a new document-imaging solution, and typically take six to 12 months to accomplish. Type "C" projects fall within a single department and may take up to six months. The smallest efforts, type "D," are four- to six-week projects that affect one person or a team within a department, such as a report modification. Currently, IT has about 500 projects in the pipeline.

Until recently, however, the details about these projects were maintained in a multitude of systems--help desk applications, SharePoint, FileMaker Pro, other databases, and spreadsheets. With the adoption of TeamDynamix, the system became the lone source of project data. "It's our one-stop shop," says Suzanne Henkle, project manager and senior systems specialist. "We can keep our documents in a briefcase. I can create issues. I can send out notifications. It keeps a log of all those things. I can go to that tool to see my project status very quickly. Then people in the project team can do the same thing. They don't have to know where I'm storing documents. They go to TeamDynamix and get a quick update on where we're at."

In December 2010, IT officially dropped the use of the paper forms. "Nobody has ever looked back," declares Henkle. "This has created a much nicer environment for people trying to do the work. With central reporting, we're able to see different perspectives, to see how projects are working or not moving forward. It helps us better analyze how we're spending our time."

Furthermore, adds Warner, the IT group is now better prepared to take on the challenge of working with reduced resources. For example, the team was able to adjust when budget cuts recently resulted in the loss of one staff position. "I don't know if we could have handled it as gracefully without these tools," Warner observes.

Virtual Recruiting
The Cuts: Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed slashing Pennsylvania appropriations for higher education by about 50 percent. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, it would be the largest one-time reduction in state funding in history. The cuts would amount to about $2,200 per student, says John Cavanaugh, chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. For Penn State, the budget plan for 2011-2012 includes $17.3 million in cuts through a 1 percent across-the-board reduction in departmental operating funds.

One Solution: Faced with ongoing budget cuts over several years, the College of Engineering at Penn State has attempted to eke out efficiencies wherever it can. On the recruiting front, those efforts are starting to pay off. The college, which enrolls about 8,300 undergraduates, has spent nearly two years figuring out how to use virtual meetings with a simple goal in mind: Convince more students to attend Penn State--and spend less doing it. In September 2009, a "SWAT team" started to evaluate every aspect of how new students are recruited, including examining survey results, assessing the admissions process and timeline, and analyzing data related to paid-accept rates and yield rates.

The review also studied on-campus events that were intended to woo new students. These events consume large amounts of staff and faculty time, yet the survey results showed that a third of all first-year students never actually visit Penn State before enrolling.

"That was an eye-opener for us," says Kimberly Baran, coordinator of Global Engineering Education at the college. "We spend a lot of time putting together the events on campus and assume that people will be able to come. We realized from the survey that a lot of students just looked at what information was available to them and made the decision that way."

The team also discovered that prospective students were swayed in their opinions by what they heard from the college's own students. "Hearing from other students made a big difference in helping them feel as if they could relate to what was going on here," notes Baran.

So the college began to experiment with virtual events, which allow student prospects who live far away to participate. In one of its first events, in 2010, the college staged a virtual event for students who had been accepted but who hadn't decided yet whether to attend. The college wanted to use the virtual meeting to close the deal.

"We used a web form for users to register, view the webcast, and submit questions," remembers Syed Karimushan, a database analyst and programmer for the college. "All of this happened in real time." The video was embedded on the college's Virtual Visit website using the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in. After the event, the college converted the video to MP4 (H.264) format and produced a closed-captioning version per Penn State requirements.

When recruiting events are held on campus, they generally involve around 20 faculty and staff. Each prospect picks a department and goes to meet with faculty and students there. The first virtual event required only six people. An academic adviser gave a short presentation and a couple of students talked about their experiences. After a break, two student ambassadors talked about each type of major and shared information about career opportunities. Students could send in questions to be answered during online sessions.

"That first one went pretty well," Baran recalls. "We didn't have any technical issues. But there weren't as many people attending as we'd hoped." About 80 accepted students participated. A post-event evaluation indicated that the setting looked too much like a sterile classroom. "This year we dressed up the room a little bit to make it look like a studio," notes Baran. The college also publicized the virtual event earlier and increased the number of student invitations. A year later, the virtual recruiting event drew more than 200 attendees.

At the same time, the college began updating its website to show some of the events taking place on campus, such as the Mr. Engineer pageant (run by its Society of Women Engineers) and the Rube Goldberg Machine Contest. It also encouraged student "ambassadors" to blog about their experiences. Much of that content is posted on the school's Facebook page, which the college promotes as a way for prospective students to see what's happening on campus.

The virtual outreach is paying off. From 2009 to 2010, applications were up nearly 9 percent; offers were up 5 percent; and enrollment was up 3 percent.

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