Still Waiting for Recovery

Campus Computing Survey finds lingering IT budget issues dating to the financial crisis colliding with demands for new technology and services.

October 26, 2016
 

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Nearly a decade after the financial crisis began, many college and university IT offices are reporting that their budgets still haven’t recovered, according to the results of the 2016 Campus Computing Survey.

The survey, which has tracked IT trends in higher education for more than two decades, this year found 63 percent of the chief information officers and senior IT officers surveyed -- representing 339 two- and four-year colleges and universities across the U.S. -- said their departments are still struggling with the fallout from the worst recession since the Great Depression.

At many colleges, IT offices are still seeing budget cuts. About three out of every 10 respondents (29.5 percent) said they started this academic year with a smaller budget than the year before, and about one-quarter (24.7 percent) reported a midyear budget cut during 2015-16 -- the average size of which is growing, according to the survey.

Top IT Priorities, 2016:
  • Hiring and retaining IT staffers
  • Using technology in the classroom
  • Network and data security
  • Providing user support
  • Using technology for student success
  • Supporting mobile computing
  • Supporting online education
  • Using learning analytics
  • Offering professional development
  • Planning for IT emergencies
  • Upgrading the campus network

The reductions, which averaged 8.1 percent, were most common among community colleges, 43.1 percent of which reported an annual budget cut. IT officers at roughly one-third of public universities (32.7 percent) and one-fifth of private institutions (18.7 percent) also said their budgets were cut.

As a result of the cuts, IT offices have turned to other sources of funding to replenish their budgets.

One major source of supplemental funds is student IT fees. A majority of the IT officers surveyed (54.6 percent) said their campuses charge students such a fee, but it is a more common line item at public institutions (76.5 percent) and community colleges (60.2 percent) than at private universities (32.3 percent). The fee is higher at private universities, however -- $399 on average -- compared to $233 at public universities and $198 at community colleges.

The money collected from fees in most cases isn’t being put toward funding new IT initiatives, the survey results show. Most respondents (72.3 percent) said they funnel the funds into the core IT budget, spending them on upgrades for classrooms, computer labs, wireless networks and more.

Kenneth C. Green, founder of the Campus Computing Project, said the combination of the budget cuts and ongoing demands for new services, top professionals and the latest technology is putting college IT offices in a tough position.

“It’s just not sustainable,” Green said in an interview. The publication of the survey results coincides with the Educause Annual Conference, taking place here this week.

IT offices are responding to the budget cuts with cuts of their own. For example, about half of the surveyed IT officers (46.8 percent) said they are considering outsourcing some IT services or are doing so already. Many respondents (35 percent) have reduced the amount of bandwidth students can consume on campus -- similar to the data caps some commercial internet providers are putting in place. Most (70 percent) are relying on students instead of IT professionals to run help desks.

Many respondents also said the budget cuts are hurting colleges’ ability to recruit and retain IT staffers -- a perennial contender for the top spot on the survey’s list of IT priorities (see box above). This year, 82 percent of surveyed IT officers named it their No. 1 priority. Nearly as many (75 percent) said their budget constraints make it difficult to compete with the private sector on salaries to attract top IT talent, and about one-quarter each said they have had to cut IT staff jobs (28 percent) or opportunities for professional development (23 percent).

Other selected findings include:

  • Despite their budget woes, most IT officers believe administrators and faculty members understand the benefits the IT department brings to campus. Nine of 10 respondents said administrators understand the strategic importance of investments in technology, and 84 percent said faculty members at their institutions support the idea of using technology as a tool to improve teaching and learning.
  • Very few IT officers are satisfied with what they have been able to glean from data collected about students. Only 6.5 percent of respondents rated the technology infrastructure in place for learning analytics as excellent, 24 percent said investments in data analytics for learning and managerial purposes have so far been very effective, and 15.9 percent said they were very satisfied with the analytical tools at their disposal.
  • About half of the colleges that participated in the survey (48.8 percent) said their networks were attacked by hackers during the 2015-16 academic year. A similar proportion of respondents (44.4 percent) said they lost confidential information following the theft of laptops, tablets, smartphones, thumb drives or other devices. More than half of respondents (51.3 percent) said they are concerned about data breaches this academic year.
  • The number of colleges with policies in place that encourage faculty members to replace commercial textbooks with open educational resources (OER) in their courses continues to grow steadily. This year, the share reached 41.1 percent, up from 38 percent last year. About four in five respondents (79.6 percent) said OER will be an important source of course materials in five years.

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