Education Trends

4 Key Tech Strategies for the Survival of the Small Liberal Arts College

In a recent study on the use of technology to reduce academic costs in liberal arts colleges, four distinct themes emerged: the strategic role of IT; the importance of data; the potential of alternative education delivery modes; and opportunities for institutional partnerships. Here's how IT leaders at these small colleges understand the future of their institutions.

crumbling academic building

Higher education is facing increasing pressures on multiple fronts. Rising tuition costs mean challenges around student debt, affordability and access; a focus on student employment outcomes requires more accountability and transparency; and technology brings both opportunity and change to the models of delivering an education. These issues are both threatening the status quo and encouraging new and timely conversations. Specifically for the small, private liberal arts college, additional pressures include a never-ending pricing and discounting war, potential reliance on net tuition revenue as a key source of financial stability, a battle for a diverse and full incoming class, and a direct threat from skeptics around the value of a liberal arts college. For colleges in New England in particular, demographics are proving challenging, with many colleges going after the same students.

In a recent research study, an information technology and academic leader at a small, private liberal arts college in New England examined how IT leaders at peer institutions throughout the region understand the use of technology as a strategy for reducing academic costs. In those semi-structured interviews, four key ideas emerged, suggesting opportunities for: assessing the position of IT in an organization and how that supports strategy; building out a data strategy on a campus and determining what to assess and measure; thinking through alternative delivery modes, such as online learning; and considering consortia and institutional partnerships. Here are those insights.

1) Positioning IT to Support Strategy

Across the board, participants in the survey discussed the importance of IT's role within the college. When IT has a strategic position, the department is able to make the most opportune and quality impact on serving the institutional mission. That position involves both where the department falls in the institutional organization chart and how the department is funded and prioritizes its resources (including both financial and human resources). When IT is aligned, thought through and connected to the larger institutional mission, the department can be more insightful and encompassing of institutional opportunities and outcomes.

This broad finding falls in line with literature in the field today. Research signals the unprecedented technological change that has been occurring for the last decade (plus) and the growing complexities therein. IT organizations are more than just infrastructure; the focus is now becoming more about leveraging infrastructure to support strategy and mission. The CIO position is no longer highly focused on technical issues, but has influence on the institution's mission-critical strategies, including supporting academic innovation.

For CIOs to truly serve the institutional mission — to go beyond technical issues or infrastructure — specific barriers must be overcome. Only 50 percent of the participants in this study said they have access, through reporting structure and organization, to the information and funding to play a prioritized role in their institution's overall strategy and mission. Participants who had a varying reporting structure, most directly in line with the president, had broader insights into the challenges and opportunities facing the college. They were also very vocal about the benefits of their strategic position and recognized it as a statement of importance. Some of the participants emphasized the need to be willing to restructure their teams to make this work happen, including merging with other teams in the organization.

In addition, the study participants discussed funding models, stressing the importance of being financially supported and also having a strategy for how and where to spend that money in line with institutional priorities. All participants noted similar challenges facing their institutions, such as enrollment, discounting, demographics or the disputed value of a liberal arts degree. All worked from a general understanding that times are tough, though some realized that more than others and everyone had a different angle on efforts. Those reporting directly to a president signaled more confidence and were able to dive into more detail about institutional challenges. With those challenges in mind, though, participants still advocated for a consideration and prioritization of funding for IT — a willingness to spend money in order to make/save money and/or add value.

Today, the value of the liberal arts degree continues to be under scrutiny, adding a layer of complexity to how small, private liberal arts institutions position themselves. We live in a market-driven world, with market forces impacting the role of higher education and the types of students coming out into the workforce. Major external factors include demographic, economic and geographic shifts, but market economics are driving specific, job-ready outcomes. Most participants in the study understood these challenges and shifts, but also fell in line with the perspective that there remains a strong value for the small, private liberal arts college. Many of the participants were proud of the work their institutions do — they believe in the mission of their institutions, but communicated quite strongly that things must change in order for their institutions to be sustainable.

Finally, all participants in the research study mentioned the role of partnerships. It's vital for the IT department to partner with other offices on campus to help define how the department uses its resources to serve the institutional mission. IT is one of the groups on campus that has insight into how almost every department operates, the CIOs noted. For IT teams, the key is to be not just a supportive player, but a proactive change agent that works to enable the institution to construct new ideas and vision.

2) The Importance of Data

The concept of data emerged as a significant theme in this research. Every participant spoke to it in some capacity: For some, it was more of an emerging theme among several others, but all saw value in how it would help move the institution forward. Data can be defined through many lenses, but in very general terms, the definition that surfaced in this study centered on how institutions can use available information to make better decisions. Interestingly, when participants saw data as an opportunity to analyze academic costs, their approach to measuring that data varied — both in terms of defining cost savings and in terms of determining the best application/strategy for data use. There was no "go to" measurement or method for approaching these issues in the field.

Participants had a variety of ideas around how to define measurements of academic cost: Some considered the cost of faculty; some considered time as a key measure; some considered student demand for specific programs or courses; and others looked to efficiency or analysis at a cost-per-course or cost-per-program level. They also noted that economies of scale are significantly different in higher education, and measurements that might be considered in business environments do not always apply. Some participants emphasized the fact that many institutions have zero idea of how they make a living — and if they really don't understand how they make money on the academic side, it's difficult to find efficiencies. In addition, while no small number of participants saw the need to establish a data strategy as a priority, only a few could say that effort has been prioritized at their institution.

The fact that there was such divergence in measurement and analysis is an important finding for this research study. If there is urgency behind the need for change, the lack of a foundation on which to build an analysis is a risk — and signals just how far behind higher education institutions might be.

3) Thinking Through Alternative Delivery of Education

Throughout the interviews in this research study, a broad question was asked at the end of each discussion, asking participants to consider what an education at their institution would look like 15 years from now. Overwhelmingly, almost every participant referenced hybrid (or blended) learning: the mixture of both face-to-face and online learning.

When considering the need to reduce academic costs, other ideas around alternative delivery surfaced, such as online learning, or learning through digital forms. The impact of technology on higher education continues to rapidly expand, and it is clear that both online and blended learning are forms of educational delivery that small, private liberal arts colleges will need to consider in order to survive. Some believe these modes will help save the college money, others see them more through the lens of service to future students and families. Several participants recognized and prioritized the fact that today's students are growing up with technology in their personal and professional lives.

For many participants, a major challenge was governance or the institutional priority to grow online or blended programs. While some institutions had just a few courses being delivered online, a few other schools were building larger programs, with one specifically focusing on incentivizing faculty and trying to increase the percentage of full-time faculty that teach online. As these new delivery modes become part of the strategy and mission for an institution, college leaders must remember that without significant rewards and governance, recruiting and sustaining quality faculty might prove challenging. Substantial faculty development, as well, must be considered and investments must be made to assure quality.

Online learning also involves a shift in financial models, and institutions need to do the analysis to understand how such a change could benefit them. A few participants referenced this work being done. One analysis, for example, showed financial benefit to the institution through a number of factors: generating new revenue; keeping revenue in-house that might have gone elsewhere; accelerating the time to degree completion; keeping students on path to graduation; using online programs as a recruitment tool for new students (including transfers); and reducing some overhead in services to deliver the form of education. Others considered potential savings through reduced use of facilities and campus resources (heating, A/C, other), as well as potential edits to course caps.

4) The Benefits of Consortia

One of the final major findings that emerged from the research study was the concept of consortia, defined as partnerships, collaborations or joint efforts on behalf of several institutions. Over half of the study participants noted consortia as something either underway or something they are thinking about for their institutions. Some participants spoke to the benefits and opportunities for improved services or cost savings on the administrative side, with one participant highlighting a project underway among three schools to integrate back-end software systems to support the business side of the college.

Still, not many others are committing to larger partnerships that would "wed" the institutions in a big way. Some participants started with the business side of their institution as an opportunity to consider consortia, but the academic side did not come as quickly to the conversation. The concept of academic partnerships emerged a bit more when participants were asked to consider a scenario in which their professional role was focused on reducing academic costs through integration of technology. One participant referenced academic partnerships as a potential next step with an already established consortium; others simply referenced an increase in institutional partnerships or regional collaborations; and a few considered the possibility of a group of schools teaching courses unique to them and partnering to deliver the courses across the group. Arguably the most aggressive idea was a theme around committed relationships between institutions: Partner colleges could "outsource" specific courses to other institutions, potentially making a college look very different than it does today.

While some might consider these ideas bold in higher education right now, a few participants felt forming consortia for both business and academic purposes might be an important way to create more sustainable models for both colleges and families. The idea brought hesitation in the voice of several participants — yet many realized it could be the most impactful of strategies for sustainability.

Conclusion

In this study, the flexibility of the semi-constructed interview format resulted in a fascinating level of honesty and bluntness from participants. In particular, participants' language changed when they were asked to take off their professional hat and consider a new point of view — it was a chance to be vulnerable and honest. What was probably most interesting was that almost everyone signaled that the status quo is not sustainable. Something in the higher education model has to change for institutions to stay open, yet many lack a strategy for effecting change. Even if they do have a strategy in place on the business side, many are hesitant to dive into analysis and change on the academic side of the institution.

Institutions simply cannot continue to nibble at the edges of change. Significant change is needed in order to sustain the financial model of higher education. The ideas for doing so are out there, though the work must be guided by the institutional mission and consider new models for delivering education. CIOs and their departments can play an important role in that work — providing infrastructure, data, access, services and ideas — but institutional leadership at large needs to understand IT's strategic role and position the organization to make that impact.

When participants were able to think about the "what if" question — what if the institution were forced to drastically cut academic costs — several had detailed, "out there" ideas that might not be traditionally welcomed into higher education cultures. Yet a number of participants were not being asked by their institutions to think about such ideas. The question is, if everyone agrees that the status quo is not sustainable, why aren't they thinking about it?

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