To Remain Competitive, Higher Education Turns to Technology Collaboration

A groundbreaking partnership across higher education institutions is taking place in New Mexico, with six public colleges sharing a cloud-based platform to manage finances, payroll, staff, and student services.

Institutions are struggling to keep up with students’ growing expectations that their education be personalized, convenient, and omnipresent—and provide clear value before and after graduation. 

To better deliver on these expectations, institutions will need to collaborate with strategic partners as well as within their own departments, which are often woefully lacking in alignment. 

In fact, only 9% of higher education leaders say that their IT and finance functions are on the same page, according to Workday’s latest global CxO Indicator survey of senior leaders—the lowest percentage of any industry surveyed.

But even improved collaboration across an institution’s functions won’t fully solve higher education’s challenges. Uniting separate but similar institutions through shared decision-making, data, and technology is an additional option. 

This type of collaboration can deliver cost savings, system upgrades, and partnerships between institutions, allowing students to take classes at multiple colleges or provide convenience in transferring credits.

A groundbreaking example of this type of voluntary system-sharing can be seen with the Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services (CHESS) in New Mexico. A partnership between six public colleges, CHESS has replaced individual institutions’ outdated administrative functions with a shared, cloud-based platform to manage finances, payroll, staff and administration, and student services. 

By using one application and one set of student records, CHESS allows students easy access to increased class offerings across all six institutions, with the goal of providing consistent services, equitable access, and meeting expectations of all students. To learn more, we talked with CHESS CEO Kathy Ulibarri.

What did you learn from your previous experiences and leadership roles in higher education prior to joining CHESS?

Over the past four decades, I’ve been fortunate to serve in a variety of higher education roles including budgeting and accounting at an R1 university (recognized as the best research universities in the country), financial policy at a state coordinating board, and finance and operations at a comprehensive community college. 

Serving higher education institutions in multiple sectors enlightened me to the differences in culture and the impact those differences have on operations. The state coordinating board role exposed me to the many common challenges faced by all higher education institutions. 

Depending on the college’s size and location, the responses to those challenges were inconsistent, resulting in significantly different levels of service to students. 

I saw first-hand how small to mid-size colleges, particularly those in rural communities, struggled to find talent, keep current with technology, maintain adequate business processes, and ensure that systems and data remain safe. Ultimately, this can impact the institution’s ability to serve students and to meet the workforce and economic development needs of the local community.

“With our first four colleges, we were able to achieve alignment in more than 90% of the hundreds of business processes managed by Workday.”

Kathy Ulibarri Chief Executive Officer Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services

Why did you create CHESS, and why do you believe shared services collaboration is the path forward?

New Mexico is not unique in that our colleges face challenges around enrollment, finance, competition from online programs, rapidly evolving expectations for the modern digital student experience, and political pressure to create efficiencies and reduce duplication. 

Layer on the fact that New Mexico has 27 public higher education institutions and has the 5th largest land mass in the country, but our population is only 2.1 million. Over the years we’ve invested heavily in physical access to higher ed, but with a very small tax base to support us.

Many of our university and college presidents recognized that we needed to improve efficiencies or we would face consolidation—even closure of some colleges. We could either wait for the state government to address the matter—likely meaning a change in the governance structure—or, we could take ownership of the solution by working in collaboration to share tools and talent. 

This would allow us to achieve many of the benefits of a statewide system of higher education but without changing governance. For our community colleges in particular, this meant partnering to face common challenges while maintaining our locally elected boards of trustees who have a deep understanding of the needs of their communities.

We moved forward with a plan to keep technology current and provide all colleges in CHESS a cloud-based, single-instance software platform. We allowed the flexibility to separate data for individual independent colleges but to also come together when needed. And, we also shared in system maintenance costs.

Knowing collaboration is a key element within the vision of CHESS, what innovations will maximize institutional excellence?

Our first step was to get everyone on the same platform with as many business processes in alignment as possible. Currently, four of our colleges are live on Workday Financial Management, Workday Human Capital Management, and Workday Payroll Management. Two additional colleges are implementing them now. 

With our first four colleges, we were able to achieve alignment in more than 90% of the hundreds of business processes managed by Workday. 

Now, the real innovation begins. By moving to a common platform, we are able to consider which back-office operations can and should be consolidated into true shared-services offerings. This is important as quality back-office operations are critical to the success of a college, and failures in those processes can lead to both financial and reputational risks for the college.

To innovate, our colleges will come together to prioritize those operations that can be centralized as shared services—in other words, outsourced through CHESS. 

We have already prioritized this decision for the payroll process. Currently, CHESS is running payroll for our four colleges that are live on Workday. And stay tuned, because not only will there be more business office processes reviewed for consolidation, but as we begin to implement Workday Student, you can also expect to see shared service innovations related to administrative tasks that support students.

Can you provide examples of the capabilities CHESS institutions gained that were not possible before?

One important example relates to system maintenance. Prior to implementing Workday, each of our colleges maintained their own independent legacy systems. Many of our colleges, particularly those in small rural communities, really struggled to attract the IT talent necessary to adequately maintain their systems. Consequently, they ended up relying on very expensive out-of-state consultants to fill in the gaps. 

Now, CHESS has been able to hire top talent to support Workday. As a single-instance cloud-based system, the work is now more focused on bringing together college personnel to make decisions around proposed system changes or to address new release features and then working on configurations based on the cross-college decisions. 

In the past, this work was duplicated by IT personnel and/or consultants at each college. Plus, our legacy systems were much less intuitive and often required database administrators, system administrators, and business analysts to extract the data needed by functional experts.

Payroll is another great example of where we have achieved greater efficiencies. In our legacy systems, collectively our colleges employed 14 full time employees (FTE) to run payroll. We are now able to provide this service with a total of 7 FTE at CHESS supporting those same colleges.

“Running one centralized payroll for all colleges has helped save about 50% in costs, and in turn, helped our colleges streamline the payroll process.”

Modernizing the student experience is the next project with Workday. Can you explain why investing in a modern student management platform is necessary for CHESS institutions?

Student expectations around technology have changed dramatically in recent years. They expect clear and intuitive interfaces. And they expect full functionality in a mobile format. Some of our legacy systems have begun to offer mobile interfaces, but they often sit on top of platforms that remain clunky or difficult for students to understand—particularly first-generation students.

In the end, this is an equity and access issue. A person in the most rural community in New Mexico can enjoy the same online shopping experience as a person in a large community with a strong tax base. But when that same rural person, who also happens to be a student, wants to register for classes at the local college, they struggle to complete the transaction on a mobile device; whereas a would-be student in a more well-resourced larger community might conduct college business on a mobile device because the college has the capacity to stay more current. 

Historically, equitable access meant close physical access to a college. Now, it means all students are afforded digital access to quality tools that support them on their educational journey. CHESS’s newest president, Hector Balderas at Northern New Mexico College, has made the transformation of the student experience his top priority. President Balderas and all the CHESS presidents understand that we need to modernize and share our student information system to truly innovate in transforming the student experience.

The ability to adapt is critical for any institution. Does the Workday platform enable CHESS to become more agile in times of change?

Yes. Workday has helped CHESS and our colleges respond to change in two fundamental ways. First, functional users are now able to use point and click configuration for business process changes and reporting requirements without having to put in a ticket to IT for programming support to extract data. 

Second, because Workday allows us to share a platform, functional users now have a team of individuals from other colleges with whom they can consult on a variety of issues as they arise. Previously, functional experts from one college often didn’t even know their counterparts at the other colleges. Now, not only do they know each other, but they share many common processes and are much better positioned to help each other.

And, running one centralized payroll for all colleges has helped save about 50% in costs, and in turn helped our colleges streamline the payroll process.

What are the near-future higher education trends that CHESS is paying close attention to?

Particularly as we begin implementation of Workday Student, we place transformation of the student experience as our top project goal followed by streamlining the administrative effort for providing student support. Our goal is for our academic and student services staff to spend more time one-on-one with students and less time doing administrative tasks. 

In addition, we will be pursuing innovative ways to make it easier to interact with prospective employers, seamlessly transition students between credit and noncredit programs, and connect students with workforce opportunities in ways that grow local economies.

I’d like to add, if I could: While CHESS is currently serving six New Mexico colleges, our bylaws allow us to serve any public, nonprofit, or tribal college in the United States. If your readers are interested they should contact us at CHESS.

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