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Administrative Skepticism Could Hamper Institutional Growth

AUDIO | Administrative Skepticism Could Hamper Institutional Growth
While service providers can help institutions achieve institutional growth and success, higher education leaders still do not tend to see vendors as strategic partners.

The following interview is with Dave Jarrat, vice-president of marketing at InsideTrack. Jarrat and his colleagues partner with colleges and universities to support enrollment growth, retention and student success. In this interview, Jarrat expands on the role vendors play in the highly competitive postsecondary marketplace, and discusses the value a vendor can bring to partner institutions.

1. Blending the pursuit of innovation and growth with limited budgets and resources is a challenge for higher education institutions. What role do vendors play in helping to bridge this divide?

I think there are six key areas where a partner can help an institution. One is focus; partnering enables the institution to focus on their core competencies, which enables them to simultaneously address a larger number of competing priorities by leveraging that partner.

One is the time to benefit. The partner the institution is working with typically possesses deep expertise that would typically take many, many years for the institution to develop itself. They’re getting to benefit faster by partnering.

There’s economies of scale and scope. I think most vendors or partners the institution might use work with a broad range of institutions and students. It enables them to better amortize the cost of specialized expertise and technology. It also enables them to provide valuable benchmarking information about how that institution is performing compared to their peers.

The fourth area I would say is in how the expense gets treated; leveraging a partner often allows an institution to have a variable expense versus a capital investment. By contracting, they’re able to avoid major capital investments. …

There’s a risk component; implementing an established program provided by a third party often avoids the financial brand regulatory and other risks that are associated with an institution trying to develop something from scratch.

The final benefit is neutrality; having an objective third party providing feedback from students or providing feedback to administrators that an internal team simply can’t provide.

2. In what areas are vendor services highly sought after, and in what areas are institutions more wary of partnering?

We just completed some research … looking at the student services that institutions provide and the incidence of partnering. What we found is that institutions are more willing to partner for services that do not directly relate to students’ cognitive and non-cognitive development. Think about real estate services, financial services, food services, bookstores, IT — things like that.

If you look within the area of services that directly support enrollment and learning, library services are really the only ones that are routinely delivered by a partner. Only a small minority rely on partners for things like marketing, enrollment management, academic advising, non-academic mentoring and coaching, tutoring — things like that. The incidence of partnering for this latter group of services is definitely increasing, particularly as online learning grows in popularity and as institutions find themselves serving an increasingly diverse and geographically dispersed group of students. Most of those students don’t meet the definition of a traditional first-time, full-time student and they often require more of these services.

3. What are the biggest advantages an institution can gain from partnering with a vendor for the provision of an academic or administrative service?

I would say — in addition to time to benefit and the economies of scale, the things that I discussed earlier — the single biggest benefit of working with a partner is that it exposes your institution to ideas, experiences and best practices that lie beyond your four walls.

No matter how great your organization is, there’s no way that you can possibly be even near the best at everything that you’re doing. Partnering allows you to bring in best practices from other organizations and integrate them into what you’re doing in-house.

4. In your opinion, is there a negative perception of vendors in the higher education space?

It’s funny you bring that up; when you asked your first question, I cringed a little bit at the term “vendor.” I think that term in and of itself has a negative stigma attached to it. It basically says, “I’m here to sell you something.” I know that one of the comments we constantly receive from our partner institutions is, “You guys are really like a strategic partner and not a vendor.” We take that as a point of pride when they tell us that.

All that said, I do think there’s a general distrust of anything for-profit in higher education. There’s even been testimony at the Department of Education hearings recently condemning non-profit universities for making money from their online courses and using it to subsidize traditional undergraduate courses they consider essential to providing a liberal education.

Those attitudes are changing, especially with all of the attention being focused on improving outcomes and controlling tuition costs. I know that as a provider of services that deeply impact the student experience, we have to fight that. We’ve been fighting those headwinds for 13 years and I think it’s only been in the last two or three years that those headwinds have started to feel a little more like tailwinds.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the value a service provider can bring to a postsecondary institution and some of the roadblocks that stand in the way of a successful implementation?

The one thing I would want to bring up is what to look for in a partner. I think it’s really important before engaging with a partner to make sure they’re the right fit for your institution. … There are a few things I would recommend. One, mission and values; are they congruent? Does the organization you’re looking to partner with share your core beliefs? What’s their brand and reputation? Are they known for operating with integrity and as a trusted partner? Effectiveness; do they have a strong and well-documented and, most importantly, independently validated history of success? Are they committed to measurement, transparency and accountability? And, focus; is the service that they’re providing to you really their core purpose for existing?

If all those things are true and you’re willing to treat them like a partner and not a vendor, then the chances are you’re going to be very successful in that relationship.

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