Boosting Non-Credit Revenues by Consolidating Non-Credit AdministrationNicole Westrick | Associate Vice Provost, Temple University
With declining operational budgets and increasing demand for labor-market responsive offerings, non-credit programs have become increasingly important to colleges and universities across the country. Of course, after decades of existing at the fringes of the institution, the administration of these programs rarely matches their current importance and, unfortunately, does not position them to fully realize their potential. In this interview, Nicole Westrick reflects on the process of consolidating the administration of non-credit offerings at Temple University and shares her insights on how this consolidation process has benefited individual divisions and the institution itself.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What were some of the factors that led to the decision at Temple to consolidate the administration of non-credit offerings?
Nicole Westrick (NW): The consolidation of non-credit administration was driven by several factors. The first factor was the lack of online registration and payment for all of the non-credit programs. Many were still using paper registration processes and handling significant amounts of physical cash.
The second factor was the challenges and opportunities around cash handling and compliance with university policies and procedures. The decision to select a single system that would be used university-wide was strongly influenced by compliance issues.
The final factor was revenue-based. Some of these individual programs were quite large and could afford to support their own system and administration, but other units were smaller and their profit margins more narrow. The university saw this as an opportunity to make an investment in innovation and entrepreneurship at the divisional level. That’s why we chose a single solution that could be managed centrally but allowed the individual units the flexibility to create, develop, and run their programs.
Evo: How was this consolidation put into practice? Was it a top-down process or did it require champions at all levels?
NW: It’s an interesting process that, frankly, was paved with a number of misses from a technology perspective that led to a successful software implementation. I was hired by Temple University in June 2012 to implement a system that had already been purchased by the university to manage the administration of all Temple’s non-credit programs. This system was heavily dependent on the business rules defined by our credit programs. As part of that process, we learned two things. First, many of the credit processes were incompatible for the non-credit programs. Second, we learned that a number of programs were hidden and embedded deep into individual units. In truth, we simply didn’t have an understanding of the real landscape of non-credit and continuing education offerings at the university. In many ways, the original system was forcing a round peg into a square hole.
Within six months of being at the university I had to tell the CIO that current software would require a significant capital investment in order to actually work for non-credit and continuing education offerings. Thankfully, I was given the green light to find what other products were available. From there we did an extensive market analysis, which included business requirement gathering from each non-credit offering unit. We sat down with each and every non-credit unit, in their physical offices, to see their catalog and talk about their business practices.
We spent a significant amount of time doing business analysis to understand how each of these units operate. What we found was that, while they said they were very different and distinct from one-another, there were a number commonalities shared across all these units. So, as we moved into the new system, we spent a lot of time focusing on those shared characteristics and the common practices. Most importantly, we focused on shared pain points that many of the units were experiencing. This allowed us to frame the solving of the most significant pain points as a win and allowed us to more seamlessly move to centralized operations for our system implementation.
One other thing was that we consistently exceeded the non-credit units’ expectations. We really focused on under-promising and over-delivering. The CE Systems team viewed the non-credit units as our customers and our goal was to delight them with our service and solutions delivery.
Evo: How was the decision and process of consolidation communicated to staff and faculty across the institution?
NW: I am a huge believer in face-to-face conversation so I spent a lot of time going between the campuses and meeting with the individual unit directors. We presented multiple times at our Council of Deans meetings and Faculty Senate. We also spent time talking to associate and assistant deans across the university.
We fostered an open door environment, where we encouraged our colleagues to come to us and bring us any problem, so we could figure out how to solve it. We eventually became known as the problem solvers across the university.
This consolidation was further supported at the Provost level through several policies that required all non-credit continuing education programs run through the university central system. That said, the schools and colleges got to benefit by not being “taxed.” This is to say, by shifting to the central system they would not have to pay allocated costs on non-credit revenue. Allocated costs are like a tax and are a fixture of the Responsibility Centered Management model of budgeting. This provided a big motivator to go through a central system, so each unit could recognize the full value of their non-credit revenue without having to pay a tax, or an allocated cost, on it.
Evo: What led to that concession from central administration to allow individual departments to maintain the majority of their non-credit revenue in exchange for moving to that centralized system?
NW: It was the vision of the Provost to foster an environment across the university that was based on entrepreneurship and innovation. This allowed the units to move past focusing on only doing things that would guarantee short term-success. It meant that units could be responsive to the market as well as the needs of students and the education needs across the region.
Now, they can build something and try it and the worse-case scenario is just losing expenses; they would not also have to pay the tax and start out with a negative balance just by trying something.
Evo: What was the initial response from staff and faculty—especially from those larger faculties that could afford a system to manage their own non-credit offerings—to this consolidation?
NW: We were solving the problems that these larger units, even though they could afford their own system, couldn’t address with the system they had in place or that they were thinking about purchasing.
For example, we had a unit that had extensive requirements from our internal audit department around cash handling, because of the system they were using and the way security, roles and responsibilities were divided. As a result, they had one staff person whose time and energy was largely focused on making sure that they were in compliance with their cash handling processes. We told that unit that the central system we were looking at handled that administrative function, so the person who was otherwise spending their time focused on the cash handling processes could instead spend their time focusing on the things that really matter at the program level, which is program development, marketing and curriculum management.
When you focus on three things—program development, marketing and curriculum—you really can sell a central system because you’re taking important tasks that can be done by anyone off their hands, and leaving program-specific staff member to focus on unique differentiators and high-value work.
Evo: With the system having now been rolled out, how has the consolidated administration of non-credit offerings been received?
NW: Universally, the consolidated administrative system has been received really positively. There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t learn about some benefit that a program has seen.
For example, we recently we had a unit host a conference attended by several hundred people and, in the conference program, they acknowledged the continuing education system team and one of our student workers who helped support and set up the conference using the non-credit system. The fact that a school or college recognizes their systems people speaks volumes about the way that we’ve been able to build that relationship and the impact the system itself has had.
Now, teams from our various colleges and schools come to us for help with things they’re trying to do. We’re seen as a solutions provider, not just technologists. We’re always coming up with new ways for them to expand their business or increase their revenues.
Evo: What were some of the major roadblocks to gaining buy-in across the institution for this consolidated administration system?
NW: I think the biggest roadblock we faced was the history of over 40 years of attempts to create a centralized continuing education and non-credit system. The advantage I had was coming in from outside the university. In some ways, I didn’t really understand that what we were doing had not been historically possible. I just thought about the problem differently and focused on building relationships and creating this culture and environment of trust, which led people to want to work with us. I saw how we could help them improve and grow their businesses.
Evo: What kind of impact has central system administration made to revenue-generation in the non-credit space?
NW: In our first full year with the system, which was last year, our revenue was $9.6 million. This year, we’re on target for over 30 percent growth and fully anticipate $12 million in revenue.
It makes sense because we’re helping people shift their focus from administrative work to the things that really matter: program development, marketing and curriculum.
Evo: What advice would you share with other institutional leaders looking to consolidate their non-credit offerings?
NW: I would suggest any leader trying to move in this direction focus on each unit independently. Take a “one unit at a time” approach to really understand how each unit does business and why they do business in that particular way. After completing this process, take it back a level— move from the micro to the macro level—where you’re looking at commonalities across the units. At the macro level, you’re really promoting a shared experience that everyone will have and benefit from.
If there’s one big takeaway from shifting to a centralized single system for university, it’s to avoid customizations and really focus on building each unit’s business processes so they align with the system, rather than building a system to align with your current business process.
Evo: Why is it valuable to build business processes to fit the system, rather than building a system to fit existing business processes?
NW: By adapting business processes, you’re really focusing on the system and its capabilities. Making business processes map to the system really allows you to achieve that true centralization and consolidation university-wide.
If you’re building small customizations for each program, you will end up making a larger investment in a system, even though people’s existing business processes are in place because they were conceived around whatever tools they had available at the time. As you move to a new tool or a new system, you should be rebuilding your business processes, not rebuilding the system. After all, the system will eventually change and your business processes are the most flexible part of your organization.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Author Perspective: Administrator