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Using partnerships to curb cost of facilities, services

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Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from an article in the October/November edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Facilities and services are a huge drain on community college budgets. They’re also vital to the student experience.

As funding dries up across the country, many institutions are taking a team approach, working with partner colleges and private service providers to offset costs and generate revenue without sacrificing the services and amenities students have come to expect.

Some have formed consortia to share resources with partner institutions. Others have explored outsourcing as a means of improved efficiency. Still others have embraced the role of landlord, renting out underused spaces to host community-based events.

No matter the strategy, the goal is the same: to find new and different ways to pool resources, cut operational costs, and better manage facilities in the midst of a historic budget crunch. That’s the aim at Ohio’s Lorain County Community College (LCCC), where administrators are working with colleagues at the University of Akron and Stark State College to foster a new shared-services environment that will allow the partner colleges to host a range of educational software and facilities management applications, including complex enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools.

Quentin Potter, vice president for administrative services and treasurer at LCCC, says the shared services arrangement is made possible because, unlike the early years of IT management where proprietary systems were built to give institutions a competitive advantage, many colleges and universities today employ similar ERP applications and business processes. The emergence of a more open, transparent environment has created its own advantages.

“Pooling resources will enable us to provide a breadth and quality of services to colleges and smaller universities— public and private—they could never afford on their own,” Potter says. “Sharing services and systems will enable students to easily move between institutions to satisfy their academic needs.”

There’s a potential cost savings, too. Potter says the agreement should help “reduce the cost to purchase and operate these functions, while at the same time increasing the quality of service to customers,” including students and their families.

The concept of sharing technology resources among neighboring colleges is nothing new.

The New Jersey Virtual Community College Consortium (NJVCCC) was launched more than 11 years ago to help New Jersey’s community colleges leverage cooperative purchasing, professional development opportunities, and other benefits.

It was first intended to help state colleges share online courses, says Josh Piddington, CIO at Gloucester County College (GCC), a member of NJVCCC.

Students would enroll through GCC and pay for courses through the college, but would take the courses using a partner college’s online course system, Piddington explains. The shared online model was abandoned four years ago after participating colleges deemed they had enough online courses to support their own catalogues.

But the consortium is still going strong. The ability to pool purchasing power among higher-education partners is one reason.

Piddington says the consortium also serves as a sounding board for sharing best practices related to distance learning, testing, and tutoring, among other uses.

GCC’s experience with the consortium has emboldened administrators to branch out into other partnerships. The college is currently working with the county’s local technical school, the Gloucester County Institute of Technology, on a shared technological infrastructure project.

The outsourcing option

While some colleges have turned to partner institutions for help cutting costs and improving efficiencies, others have turned to the private sector, outsourcing services that levy too heavy a toll on their native environment.

Washtenaw Community College (WCC) in Michigan doesn’t outsource in the traditional sense. Rather, administrators rely more on hosted services, such as software-as-a-service (SaaS), explains WCC Chief Information Officer Amin Ladha.

The college uses a hosted service from Google for student email at no cost. The free technology replaces an out-of-date internal system. The college’s human resources department uses a different SaaS application for re- viewing and sorting new job applicants.

WCC also leans on open-source software, which Ladha says helps save money and increases collaboration through the sharing of useful source code among partner colleges and organizations.

As with traditional outsourcing, Ladha says cost savings are key. WCC estimates it has saved upwards of $200,000 on its Google email hosting strategy alone.

Renting for revenue

To save money and, in some cases, generate new revenue, many colleges are making better use of their physical spaces. Whatcom Community College​ (WCC) in Washington rents out classrooms, theaters, conference rooms and athletics facilities to a variety of community groups, through a Conference and Events Services division launched in 2007 as a result of growing demand for these services.

During the 2010–11 fiscal year, rental revenue reached an estimated $100,000, an 18 percent increase over the previous year, according to the college. Rates run anywhere from $550 a day for its auditorium to $200 per day for a classroom. Administrators contend the ancillary revenue has helped offset the pain of recent budget cuts.

“Revenue is the driving force behind our services; however, we also see the importance of bringing the community onto our campus,” says Fred Abitia, conference and event services coordinator. “Many of the community groups are nonprofit organizations, local businesses, youth programs and even other colleges.” ​