This post first appeared on LinkedIn.

At the 2019 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Chicago, the forthcoming Top 10 IT Issues were a main topic of conversation. Once revealed, they provoked much discussion among higher ed leaders. It’s no surprise why: the survey is the most anticipated of its kind for technology leaders.

The theme for 2020, Simplify, Sustain, Innovate: The Drive to Digital Transformation Begins, emphasizes that we’ve reached a new era in the role of CIOs, and in our sector’s collective journey toward digital transformation.

Here’s what made the list:

  1. Information Security Strategy
  2. Privacy
  3. Sustainable Funding
  4. Digital Integrations
  5. Student Retention and Completion
  6. Student-Centric Higher Education
  7. Improved Enrollment
  8. Higher Education Affordability
  9. Administrative Simplification
  10. The Integrative CIO

Three of the above issues are of particular interest to my team, as we focus on helping institutions toward achieving a ‘noble ROI’—that is, the sweet spot where Mission, Market and Margin℠ meet. It’s where financial health as well as an institution’s reputation and relevance all come into play.

Interestingly, each of the following issues rose to a new level of importance for the coming year.

  • Sustainable funding soared from #7 up to #3, signalling a significant shift in favor of business models that support the institution for the long-term.
  • Student retention and completion appeared. As a new issue for 2020, this area is becoming increasingly relevant as institutions compete for tuition dollars across similar applicant pools.
  • Higher ed affordability went from #10 to #8, which I view as the acknowledgement that silos cannot exist if institutions are to not only survive, but thrive, in this new competitive landscape.

Here’s how EDUCAUSE defines each.

Sustainable Funding: Involves the development of funding models that can maintain quality while accommodating both new needs and the growing use of IT services in an era of increasing budget constraints.

Student Retention and Completion: Developing the capabilities and systems to incorporate artificial intelligence into student services to provide personalized, timely support

Higher Education Affordability: Aligning IT organizations‚ priorities and resources with institutional priorities and resources to achieve a sustainable future

When it comes to sustainable funding, what’s the opportunity? Success isn’t just about achieving operational excellence and resiliency of student services; institutions should be able to maintain these and also make innovative investments—some of which could enable revenue generating endeavors.

Student retention and completion not only create recurring, predictable revenues; the higher these rates rise, the stronger an institution’s reputation becomes. In a crowded marketplace, creating an environment where students are highly valued (via effective support services, relevant technologies and decreased costs) will yield dividends.

The issue of higher education affordability has been top of mind for institutional leaders for years now. The IT organization has a significant role to play in streamlining operations in order to reduce costs, both for students and for institutions. (Witness, for example, the 102% increase in published tuition and fees over the past 20 years at public four-year institutions. It makes a lot of sense to me that this issue is of increasing interest to those leading the IT side of today’s post-secondary environment.)

You can see in the graphic below where sustainable funding, higher education affordability and student retention and completion factor into higher ed’s biggest challenges; the symbiotic relationship of these three issues in particular could present major obstacles for institutions, as an inability to retain students then leads to broader fiscal problems, which are likely to impact long-term affordability.

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Source: 2019 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference presentation, 2020 Top 10 IT Issues

In the session announcing the new Top 10, Opinder Bawa, VP & CIO of the University of San Francisco, shed some light on what this means for IT leaders.

“We need to change our narrative.
We are a business and have one customer:
the student.”

Bawa continued by emphasizing that IT leaders should believe that enrolling and retaining students is their responsibility, as is ensuring they persist to graduation. This, rather than technology, is the business focus.

This deeply resonated with me. At rpk GROUP, our focus is on finding and telling the compelling stories within the data—because data alone cannot move people to action. In his presentation, Bawa echoed this sentiment, recommending that those leading technology efforts in higher ed should become strong storytellers who are fluent in return-on-investment.

“Funding is often viewed as (but seldom is) the problem…it’s a question of business priority.”

In other words, if we’re focusing on the right outcomes, sustainable funding will follow.

Tell me what you think: 

  • Do you agree with the placement of the coming year’s Top 10 IT Issues?
  • Which represent the biggest issues you might be facing within your institution?
  •  How do these IT issues connect to the creation of sustainable business models?

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Richard Staisloff

Richard Staisloff

Rick Staisloff is the founder and senior partner of rpk GROUP. Follow him on Twitter: @rstaisloff