Taking the “uh-OH” out of CIO consulting in higher education


Higher Ed IT’s T-Shirt Problem

t-shirt reading "I before E except after C, Weird."

When I was in college I was part of Hoof ‘n’ Horn, the south’s oldest student run musical theatre organization. (full disclosure: I worked backstage; I can’t act my way out of a paper bag).  We put on three major shows every year, and as part of that experience everyone on the cast and crew got custom made t-shirts.  Even for the largest productions, that generally amounted to about 30 – 40 shirts. In college student dollars these things were expensive.  Really expensive.  One year I asked our silk screen vendor what we could do to lower the price to the cast/crew.  His answer: buy 100 shirts.  If we did that the per shirt cost went from around $30 to like $10.  When I asked for clarification on this funny math, he explained that the first shirt costs $800.  To do that first shirt he had to work with us on the design, cut the silk screen with that design, clean the ink our from the last run, and load the right color ink in the machine.  After that all he had to do was put a shirt on the press.  So every shirt after the first one was just a couple bucks. I have since referred to this as “the t-shirt problem.”

Higher Ed IT has a t-shirt problem.  The first student, faculty, or staff member on a campus requires a huge amount of infrastructure.  Network routers, switches, firewalls just to start plus staff to run these things.  And then more staff and equipment to secure it all properly.  And then staff to support the student, faculty, or staff member.  So the first person costs an institution hundreds of thousands of dollars in IT spending, but every one after that is an incrementally small amount of money.

Here’s how that plays out at my institution.  Looking at the recent EDUCAUSE Core Data Service Almanac, you’ll see some normalized data about IT spending across all institutions.  Taking a look at the core metrics the t-shirt problem starts to become apparent:

DescriptionAll InstitutionsMy Institution
Total IT spending per FTE$906$1,300
Total IT spending per employee$5,102$7,363
IT spending as percentage of Institutional budget4%9%

We’re not spending more money on IT than other institutions, but we are spending more per FTE than most institutions (and a larger portion of our budget).  What if we had twice as many students?  Yes, there would be some increase in costs, but it wouldn’t be linear.  The reality is though, that we are not going to become a college of 5000 students, so we have to live with who we are.

As CIO one of my goals moving forward is to understand what we can do to reduce that “first t-shirt” cost.  I certainly believe that cloud services can help with this.  Many of these services do scale down to some extent.  I gain the economies of scale of lots of institutions using the service but pay only my small part (I can guarantee you that isn’t the case with our on premise ERP).  Consortia purchasing can also help with that.  We do take advantage of the Internet2 Net+ services (at least those available to InCommon members) and are actively looking at other options.  The real challenge comes when trying to address the increasing needs for IT specialists.  Where some schools have a team of IT security experts, that’s part of someone’s job here.  Others have suites of instructional technologists to assist faculty.  I’ve got one (and one more coming soon I hope).  Many organizations are able to staff to avoid single points of failure.  I’ve got twelve single points of failure.

At the end of all this, you make due with your circumstances.  I have a great staff that work very hard to do right by the institution.  We spend more of the institution’s budget than I wish, but we keep working to get it down.  I think, though, that the t-shirt problem looms over all small institutions, and unless we can figure a way to break that model, we’ll be stuck paying $30 per t-shirt, just like I did in college.

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