Community Colleges | Feature

More Students and More Cuts Mean Tough Choices

Community college CIOs share strategies for weathering the storm.

Whenever times are tough, someone always trots out the old saw, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." For many community colleges, though, it seems as if they're not even getting any lemons. Across the nation, student enrollment is exploding, while budgets are being slashed to the bone. It's not pretty out there.

A March 2010 report by the League for Innovation and the Campus Computing Project says it all: "Still Doing More With Less." In a survey of 128 community college campus presidents and district chancellors for the report, 94 percent of respondents said enrollment in their districts had increased, while 52 percent reported operating budget cuts.

"The community colleges are the canary in the coal mine," explains Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, who paints a dire picture of colleges' ability to support their faculty and burgeoning student bodies. "It's because the larder is bare. State funding is falling."

And those cuts are increasingly being felt in IT departments. Central IT services have been affected by budget cuts in 46.2 percent of community colleges, up from 38 percent in 2009, according to the 2010 Campus Computing Survey.

While their first impulse might be to lock themselves in a room and weep, community college CIOs across the country are having to find innovative ways to deal with the double whammy of increasing enrollment and state budget cuts. CT recently talked with four CIOs at two-year institutions to see how their institutions are coping.

Centralizing Services in Florida
Karl Herleman, CIO of Miami Dade College, knows all about doing more with less. In the last couple of years the college has lost approximately $45 million in state funding. "That's more than my entire IT budget," he notes. "We are 30 percent down in IT staff over the last few years. It is getting ridiculous, but I can't blame anyone. When we are looking at a possible 10 to 15 percent cut in state funding, it doesn't make sense to start hiring people."

Meanwhile, the eight-campus college has experienced an influx of more than 30,000 new students in just the last year.

Herleman has responded to the staff cuts in several ways. Prior to the economic meltdown, services such as web development and tech support were handled at the individual campuses. These functions have now been centralized. And, in an attempt to free additional employee bandwidth, Herleman is using FAQs on social media networks such as Facebook to help students resolve issues themselves, thereby reducing the number of calls to the help desk.

Perhaps his biggest headache, though, is an aging ERP system that was purchased through the Higher Ed Tech Group, a consortium of nine colleges. The ERP is a monolithic mainframe system with no business rules or workflows, no relational database, and it's weak in finance and HR, says Herleman. What's more, it takes a long time--and a lot of employee hours--to put changes in place. He believes that moving to a web front end would result in huge efficiency gains for all administrative staff.

Unfortunately, the same economic crisis that has decimated his staff is now thwarting his efforts to improve efficiency: The other schools in the consortium want to avoid the upfront costs involved in replacing the ERP.

In the interim, Herleman's team is taking a Band-Aid approach, hoping to improve the college's business systems by developing web-based management tools that operate on top of the current ERP system.

The procurement process is a prime example. "The system is very inefficient for purchasing," explains Herleman. "It takes several hops in approvals and the person approving has no access to original documents."

The new web-based tool automates how procurement documents are shifted from department to department, with greater transparency and visibility. "Increasing that visibility will save time and money," adds Herleman.

Rethinking Vendor Relationships in L.A.
It's in the nature of institutions to slip into comfortable routines that become unquestioned over time. In fact, it often takes a jolt--say, the train wreck of the world economy--to make institutions take a long, hard look at themselves. That's exactly what's happening at the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District, where CIO Jorge Mata recently faced the possibility that he would have to make seven-figure budget cuts.

In such a harsh budget environment, he also realized that he would have a tough time explaining why LACCD was paying more than other organizations for similar services. As a result, Mata challenged his staff to question their assumptions about--and relationships with--the district's vendors. "We are forced to balance our comfort level with existing vendor solutions with the business needs of our organization," Mata explains.

The vendor review is paying dividends. Instead of spending several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the storage area network, for instance, Mata decided to make a much smaller investment in the existing technology and simultaneously deploy more flexible and cost-effective new technology from a competing vendor.

In addition, the IT staff established new ways of provisioning storage that emphasized just-in-time principles vs. over-provisioning. "My team learned new skills, and the new technology allowed them to perform their jobs," Mata says.

And what of the district's budget? "Sure enough, I was asked to contribute funds to help balance the budget," says Mata, "and we were able to do that without having to take any drastic measures."

Going Virtual in Arizona
For Scottsdale Community College (AZ), squeezing dollars out of the state is becoming harder than finding water in the Arizona desert. "We are looking at the possibility of no longer receiving any state government funding," says Dustin Fennell, SCC's CIO. "That hasn't been announced yet, but the writing is on the wall. We have to be prepared for it."

If Fennell's fears are confirmed, SCC's policy of refreshing its hardware every few years is not going to be financially sustainable. That's why SCC is investing in virtualization as the key to future operations.

The school's web-based portal project, titled mySCC, launched in August 2008. It leverages desktop virtualization technology from Citrix to give students access to virtual desktops, applications, personal files, and network resources from any computer with internet access.

Fennell has already identified $250,000 in cost savings from the project, including extending the lifecycle of hardware and paring his staff of 34 down to 30.

"Rather than replace 25 workstations, I can spend half as much on servers in the data center," he says, "and the old PCs get better performance in that virtual environment."

With some of the cost savings, SCC's IT department has even been able to create a $50,000 innovation grant. Faculty members can apply to the IT department for grant funding to try out new innovations in the classroom. "We give out two $25,000 grants a year," Fennell says. "Right now, we have 36 English and journalism students using iPads and e-textbooks from McGraw-Hill in their courses."

Mining Business Intelligence in Ohio
The number of students at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, OH, has jumped 30 percent in the last three years, to around 26,000. The increase has put pressure on the school's IT department to accelerate its updating of technology in 300 classrooms and to bolster the learning management system for 6,000 students in online classes.

Kenneth Moore, the college's senior vice president and CIO, says business intelligence software from SAS has helped his IT group identify trends and do predictive modeling based on usage patterns and enrollment. In turn, this has helped the school in provisioning for data center expansion, call center staffing, and library computer availability.

"We look at how enrollment trends will impact hardware and look at peak CPU utilization and transaction rates to help determine what we need to purchase," explains Moore.

Clouding the Issue
All four of these CIOs say they are also considering software as a service and cloud offerings as a way to save their colleges money.

Traditionally, community colleges have been slow to move to hosted services, according to Green at the Campus Computing Project. "There's a sense they want to own a service and hold it, and an idea of keeping jobs in the community," he says. "But now the pressure related to costs is a catalyst to look for new ways to provide services for less money."

comments powered by Disqus