With student expectations shifting and competition increasing, colleges and universities are being forced to revisit their value propositions. The key to success will be transforming operations and experiences to be digital-first through the efficient and optimized use of technology. Or in other words, institutions need to rethink their technology ecosystem and how they accelerate project velocity to improve student and staff experiences.

This is no easy task – especially in an era of flat or declining enrollments, limited budgets and scarce resources. However, there’s a model that’s gaining traction in higher ed that may offer a solution. This article outlines how variable staffing with shared services can be a cost-effective and strategic option to achieve transformation quickly and looks at the key considerations and requirements for implementing this model.

What are shared services in higher ed?

Shared services in higher ed can be defined as a shared staffing or variable staffing model in which institutions can leverage fractional headcount where internal capacity is lacking or unavailable, particularly in IT, admissions, and enrollment departments. Another model is leveraging a common platform that is shared by two or more institutions to accomplish a particular task (or aspect of a task). In a shared services consortium, a group of institutions collaborate to pool their resources and share common back-office technologies and services. Common shared services include finance and accounting, human resources, and information technology.

Some examples of institutions that formed consortia to share services include:

  • Four Midwestern universities collaborating to consolidate back-office services onto one platform for finance, accounting, IT and human resources to make the schools more efficient and reduce costs.
  • The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education consolidating six state universities into two to share enrollment management strategy and student support services, as well as enhancing information systems for cross-collaboration.
  • Five New Mexico colleges collaborating to establish a common platform for student and financial services.
  • 15 Iowa community colleges collaborating to create a shared development center that provides faculty with the knowledge and tools to best educate students, whether in the classroom or virtually.
  • 26 institutions in the University System of Georgia rely on a Shared Services Center to streamline and standardize administrative functions for HR and payroll and monitor and mandate compliance risk.

Why are shared services gaining traction in higher ed?

What’s behind the increased adoption of consortial/shared services in higher ed? The answer: student expectations. Today’s students expect consumer-grade experiences in education that mirror the 24/7, multi-channel, personalized access they have with all other aspects of daily life – all powered by technology. This technology requires regular upgrades, expert staff, and the ability to collect, connect, and activate data to inform continuous innovation. These data, tech, and talent evolutions can be extremely challenging to implement from a change management standpoint.

However, while the way each institution chooses to fulfill its mission may differ, many of the business and operational functions they use may not be so unique. This common foundation offers institutions the opportunity to pool their resources and share the cost of purchasing and maintaining basic back-office technologies and services, allowing each individual college and university to focus more on better serving their students and educators in a digital-first way.

While the way each institution chooses to fulfill their mission may differ, many of the business and operational functions they use may not be so unique.

What are the benefits of sharing services?

Since much of the technology that is needed to support, run, manage and drive an institution is the same (e.g., student information systems, customer relationship management systems, etc.), it’s redundant and costly for each institution to own and manage their own core technologies and infrastructure.

Sharing services and software purchases between institutions can achieve the following:

  • Streamlined and simplified essential business processes
  • Maximized individual cost savings
  • Standardized workflows to enable efficiency, scale and growth
  • Enhanced program and service quality
  • Improved operational productivity
  • Prioritized resources for mission-oriented or strategic activities
  • Reduced data enablement costs with multi-tenant Google Cloud architecture
  • Fractional headcount to reduce cost on full time generals and obtain specialists as needed

By sharing common services and technologies, institutions can enhance their student support, improve the student experience and ultimately, increase academic success because they are now focusing more on their own core competencies.

Much of the technology that is needed to support, run, manage and drive an institution is the same. It’s redundant and costly for each institution to own and manage their own core technologies and infrastructure.

Technology: A prime opportunity for fractional headcount

At a time when resources are scarce, supporting transformation initiatives – which often includes expensive technological infrastructure and human expertise – is hard. And untangling the legacy of technology systems and tools to achieve a streamlined, integrated ecosystem is no small task.

Adequately staffing a college or university IT department that will help lead strategic change can mean filling 17 distinct IT roles with a cumulative annual cost of up to $1.5M. As institutions continue to balance innovation with operational efficiencies a shared service model that leverages experienced fractional headcount could be the answer. Rather than hiring generalists who must fulfill several roles at once, risking excessive workloads and burnout, you get the specialized expertise you need at a fraction of the cost.

Key considerations for enabling shared services

The creation of a shared services partnership can have its own pitfalls, however. And the challenges involved are not simply about technology. Sharing services requires significant cooperation across multiple institutions, internal and external teams, as well as third-party providers.

To be successful, these relationships require thoughtful considerations around the following factors:

  • Significant coordination of people, processes and technology
  • Shared vision
  • Change management considerations
  • Standardization of workflows
  • Integration, user support, and ongoing optimization
  • Agreement on common applications
  • Limited customizations
  • Expectations of the shared resource partner that is managing the relationships
  • Funding options

Shared governance is critical

Ultimately, the goal is that customization and personalization will happen at the individual campus level, while standardization and optimizations are happening up at the shared services organizational level. The only way this can happen is if a shared governance structure exists where there’s a common agreement between the involved parties so each have equal say in the decisions being made at each level.

If your institution is interested in exploring a shared services relationship but doesn’t know where to start, Collegis Education can help. We facilitate a partnership between your school and others to address the needs listed above – allowing you to maximize the delivery of your school’s value proposition. If your school is feeling constrained, this solution can help you stabilize, optimize and innovate student experiences – enabling you to thrive in this competitive landscape. Let’s talk about where to start.

Author: Elise Povejsil

Elise Povejsil is a former marketing manager (content and communications) for Collegis Education. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Conflict Studies from DePauw University.