3 Key Questions for Higher Ed IT Leaders

As student success becomes a major focus at universities, IT leaders are left to consider what they can keep, collaborate on and sustain so they can contribute meaningfully to student success.

by / January 20, 2017 0
Provost Terry Parker gives Gabriela Martines her diploma at Florida Polytechnic University's first graduation on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. Martines is the first in her family to graduate from college and will be working for an engineering firm on the Space Coast in Florida. Ray Reyes

Chief information officers face a lot of issues in today's digital culture, including information security, student success and data-informed decision-making — three of the 10 top IT issues for higher ed leaders to tackle in 2017 according to Educause, a nonprofit higher ed professional association that released its latest IT issues report this month. But as they tackle these issues, they have to consider three key unanswered questions.  

1. What will IT keep and what will IT outsource? 

It's impossible for CIOs to continue doing everything they currently do while taking on more of a role in supporting student success efforts through technology. That leaves them to consider other options including outsourcing, said Susan Grajek, vice president of data, research, and analytics at Educause.

For example, 44 percent of colleges outsource or are considering outsourcing their residential networks to save money, as well as to spare their resources and time, according to the 2016 ACUTA/ACUHO-I State of ResNet Report. Other common areas to outsource include email, storage and data centers. 

Strong top leadership at universities, strong IT foundations and solid data foundations help IT shops advance student success. But with finite, fixed resources, tasks outside of these three priorities may need to be taken care of elsewhere, Grajek said.

That's where leaders come in who can share their vision for student success and what their priorities should be. Based on those priorities and cost comparisons, IT leaders can figure out what to continue doing in-house and what to consider outsourcing to the cloud and other providers, she said.

2. Are higher ed institutions willing to collaborate to provide services? 

Along with considering what to keep and what to outsource, it's important to ask how other universities may be able to help. Some universities that are part of university systems may have flagship institutions or system-level staff provide certain IT services. Others may consider sharing services with a nearby college or community college, as the University of Albany and Hudson Valley Community College did with a data center and fiber link to increase their IT customer service. And still others may consolidate their campuses as the University of Georgia System is doing.

But ultimately it comes down to how much colleges are willing to even consider the possibility of collaboration and how they will work together. And that choice will differ from campus to campus, from private institution to public, according to Grajek.

3. How will higher ed keep tech up to date without drowning financially?

Higher ed needs technology to continue advancing research and education. At the same time, the more technology advances, the more expensive it is to maintain. Despite the financial strain, keeping up with technology is paramount. "Today's state-of-the-art analytics solution is going to look pretty long in the tooth in maybe even three years," Grajek said. 

Figuring out a way to fund technology sustainably — another one of the issues that made the list — will be a question that leaders will have to address based on their shared vision and priorities that include student success. Higher ed institutions spend a median of $917 in central IT for each full-time student, faculty and staff member, amounting to 4.2 percent of an institution's total expenses, according to the Educause 2015 Core Data Service survey. Public institutions classified as associate's degree, bachelor's degree and doctoral degree-granting institutions saw slight increases in central IT spending over the last two fiscal years, while public institutions classified as master's degree-granting institutions saw drops in IT spending.

Eighty percent of central IT spending goes to running the institution, while 13 percent goes to growth and 5 percent goes to transformation — a number that is lower than Gartner's cross-industry average of 11 percent for transformation and 19 percent for growth. The funding gap represent a potential problem going forward for academic institutions.

For a more in-depth look at some of the top 10 IT issues that Educause previewed at its annual conference, check out our previous story.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.