March 8, 2015
We are all Monday morning quarterbacking the Sweet Briar story. All of us have firm ideas about what we would have done differently in Sweet Briar’s academics, admissions, marketing, finances, or any other part of the school responsible for keeping the lights on. Go ahead, what would you have done differently if you were in charge of the place?
Here is the thought experiment: Imagine that you were asked back in August by Sweet Briar’s then new interim president, James F. Jones, to come to campus and advise his leadership team on putting together a financial sustainability plan. What advice would you have given?
The two areas that I would have focused on are costs and revenues.
The dollars available to save in higher technology are hard to come by for two reasons: a. Most colleges don’t spent all that much money on technology (in absolute or a percentage of total spending terms), and b: Most of the spending is for people (salaries) and not licenses or equipment. Still, it would be worth understanding what sort of enterprise software licensing and hardware costs that Sweet Briar was absorbing, and figuring out if those costs could be significantly reduced by a different approach.
The first questions would be to figure out what technology services that Sweet Briar was providing itself, and then figure out if it was possible to move from providing to renting these services.
Technology is not a core competency or differentiator for any college. Those core competencies are education (and sometimes research).
There are real savings to be had by moving from enterprise to consumer technologies, and from locally provisioned to cloud-provided software as a service. Yes, there are significant transition costs to moving to any cloud-based system (such as an SIS, financial, enrollment management, and LMS platform), but such a switch will free-up resources in the medium term while enabling the campus technology staff spend more time on mission (as opposed to technology) related activities.
The second way to address technology costs, after moving as many services as possible to cloud based and consumer tools, is to figure out what technology related activities can cease. The demands on campus technology professionals have increased exponentially. Beyond running 24/7/365 operations, campus technology units must accommodate requests to support specific (and often idiosyncratic) business processes from every part of the institution.
I would have asked Sweet Briar’s technology professionals for a list of services that they provide, and then tried to work with the institution to curtail any activity not related to the core education mission. The looming financial crisis of Sweet Briar, from an August 2014 perspective, would have provided the rare opportunity to stop doing things on the campus (at least when it comes to technology). We are not good at stopping things in higher ed, or at least not good at stopping things before a major crisis forces our hand. Maybe the Sweet Briar in August of 2014 could have done things differently.
Cost saving is very hard in higher ed technology. In fact, there is every chance that Sweet Briar was not investing enough in technology - as technology investments may have been the school’s best path to financial sustainability. The question that I would have asked Sweet Briar’s leadership team in August of 2014 is: can the college use technology to bring in significant revenues?
The first way that technology can improve the financial picture is through improved institutional productivity. Could Sweet Briar have admitted more students with its existing physical infrastructure? What exactly was the limitation on expanded enrollment?
In higher education, enrollment is normally limited by classroom space, residential space, and the size of the faculty and staff needed to support the student body. Classroom space is the easiest scarcity to address, as blended and online learning methods can greatly increase teaching space utilization. The more instruction that can be moved from face-to-face to online, the more students that can be accommodated by existing instructional space. Blended and online learning done right means that there is little compromise in educational quality, and if done really right blended and online learning will improve quality.
The residential living space question is more difficult, particularly for a small liberal arts institution like Sweet Briar. Could of Sweet Briar kept this residential / community system, while simultaneously lowering the amount of time that students needed to spend on campus? Would it be possible to have admitted more students, and therefore had higher utilization of the residence halls, if the residential learning activities were both briefer and more intense? Moving to a mixed residency-model, where some part of all the courses were delivered in an online format, could have increased the numbers of students that Sweet Briar could have accommodated in its residence halls.
Assuming that Sweet Briar’s physical infrastructure, classrooms and residence halls, could be more productively utilized to meet higher enrollments by moving to a blended /online format - what about the faculty and the staff? More students means more faculty to teach more classes, and more staff to provide the range of services that students require. This is true, but the numbers of faculty and staff could have been scaled up to meet demand as it came, therefore ensuring that any plan remains revenue positive. Could the student-to-employee ratios at Sweet Briar have changed while still maintaining the quality necessary to attract students?
Any plan to improve revenues by increasing enrollments assumes that there was a market for a Sweet Briar education. Even if the fixed cost-per-student can be driven down by moving to blended/online teaching model, the underlying demand to enroll must be present. Campus technologists can only do so much to reduce costs and create new educational opportunities.
Moving from a pure residential teaching model to a blended model is actually the easiest part of the equation. The toughest job is on the marketing, outreach, and communications side. The hardest work is in telling the value story of the institution, and of recruiting the qualified students able to fill the (expanded) spaces offered by new teaching techniques. Could have Sweet Briar found the resources to grow enrollment under a different educational model?
When would have Sweet Briar needed to have begun the process of moving away from a high cost, purely residential model of teaching?
At what point would have Sweet Briar needed to improve its productivity in order to have remained financially viable?
Can the rest of the higher ed community draw any lessons from Sweet Briar?
Can we get out of thinking about the Sweet Briar story in simplistic terms (Sweet Briar has nothing to teach us or Sweet Briar is the future of much of higher ed), to a more nuanced understanding of the cost and revenue challenges faced across higher education?
What conversations has the Sweet Briar story sparked on your campus?
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