WHITEPAPER

The Guide to Integrated Academic Operations in Higher Education

Colleges and universities looking to meet the evolving demands of students and thrive, even survive, in this new postsecondary education landscape must examine the back office processes that facilitate education delivery to students, known as academic operations. Integrating these often-siloed processes allows your institution to sustainably operate and support on-time completions for students.

  • Academic operations’ impact on student success
  • The case for integrating your academic operations
  • How to achieve academic operational excellence

Introduction

Colleges and universities looking to meet the evolving demands of students and thrive, even survive, in this new postsecondary education landscape often overlook the back-office processes that facilitate educationdelivery to students. By failing to audit, analyze, and optimize the administrative functions that make up an institution’s academic operations, students face avoidable barriers in accessing and completing the courses needed to earn their credentials. It is also nearly impossible for administrators, faculty, and staff to deliver the level of service that students now expect.

“It seemed like the degree programs were managed separate from the entire class catalog. I always have to go back and forth between pages to figure out which classes I need to take to graduate and then also figure out which classes were offered in a given term. This makes it difficult when planning each semester.” - Joshua, 4-year, public research university student

Higher education is a collaborative, complex, and mission-driven industry that is combating demographic, cultural, and technological changes that are putting the value proposition of higher education under pressure like never before. To best serve their communities, support their employees, and survive in this rapidly-changing environment, institutions must take a look under the hood and clear the cobwebs from the “way we’ve always done things”. They must understand how oft-overlooked back-office academic processes are impacting and detracting from the value that students derive from their postsecondary education. This will allow institutions to sustainably operate and get back to the business of educating students.

Academic Operations in Higher Education

Higher education academic operations include a combination of processes that contribute to the enrollment, retention, and completion of students. The processes enable students to discover, access, and complete the courses they need to succeed.

Academic operations include (but are not limited to):

  • Curriculum and program management
  • Course catalog development
  • Academic policy administration
  • Academic scheduling
  • Accreditation reporting and compliance
  • Instructional resource allocation
  • Completion auditing

Curriculum Lives at the Core of Academic Operations

Academic operations are inextricably linked by students and curriculum. Academic operations are, at their core, the vehicle by which curriculum is created and delivered to students.

Given the complex regulatory requirements that accredited postsecondary education institutions are beholden to, creating and delivering curriculum requires a great deal of additional oversight and management before it gets to the students.

Curriculum Creation & Approval

Curriculum Management

New curriculum must be:

Researched, created, submitted for approval

  • Faculty need the time and resources to research and identify opportunities to innovate and support the institution’s academic mission through marketable, modern curriculum.
  • For faculty members, a lighter administrative load is a huge selling point, since “institutional procedures and red tape” ranks as one of the top five sources of stress.
  • Reducing the amount of red tape, manual, repetitive processes they must complete to submit and have new curriculum proposals approved leaves faculty to focus on instruction and research.

Reviewed and approved

  • Once new curriculum is submitted, it must go through a long journey before it is approved and included in an upcoming course catalog. Depending on the institution and type of curriculum proposal submitted, dozens of faculty, committee members, and administrators are responsible for reviewing, commenting, editing, voting, and facilitating the subsequent steps of the approval process.
  • Most often this looks like a series of form submissions, word processing document reviews, email chains, and committee meetings.

Curriculum Publishing

Curriculum Management + Catalog Development + Accreditation

Publishing new curriculum to the course catalog

  • If approved, the new program or course must be passed on to the appropriate department that handles the publication of the course catalog. Whether it is an online website or PDF document hosted online, the new piece of curriculum must be included in the appropriate term’s catalog. Other pieces of the program or course requirements it impacts should also be updated.
  • The course catalog has traditionally been seen as a “contract” between institution and student regarding the academic offerings available at a given term, and is a requirement for continued accreditation. However, more often the course catalog is seen as a marketing opportunity for an institution’s academics and leveraged as an academic planning tool for students and advisors.

Scheduling New Curriculum

Academic Scheduling + Academic Policy Administration+ Instructional & Space Resource Allocation

Including the new curriculum in the relevant upcoming academic schedule

  • As well as including the curriculum in the publication of an upcoming catalog, it needs to be adapted into an upcoming academic term’s schedule.
  • Regardless of the centralized or de-centralized nature of an institution’s scheduling processes, institutions must reconcile:
    • The number of sections to offers
    • Timing
    • Instructor(s)
    • Modality
    • Location
  • Decisions about section availability have a direct downstream impact on a student’s ability to access and complete the course needed for pathway/completion plan.
  • Section scheduling also must take into account room availability and faculty space preferences to promote resource optimization and faculty satisfaction.

Assessing New Curriculum Performance

Degree/Completion Auditing

Evaluate new curriculum to understand the impact on enrollment, contribution margin to program/credential, and completion rates.

  • Once a new course or program is added to the curriculum, its impact on program or department’s contribution margin for tuition and completion rates must be included in the institution’s reporting cadence.
  • Some institutions are adopting an “academic portfolio management” approach where a program’s alignment with the institutional mission, enrollment demand, credential attainment contribution, career outcomes, and contribution margin analysis result in the decision to sustain, invest, or sunset the program.
    • The increased use of predictive analytic point to a shift in the historical data analytics strategy in higher education. However, developing accurate predictions is challenging for most institutions. In fact, in one study that surveyed various departments working on institutional research, only 54% of respondents agreed that wrong conclusions were not drawn from results of their institution’s analytic results.
    • For institutions that use the Responsibility Center Management (RCM) budget model, the information gleaned from the “academic portfolio management” approach would be important when academic departments are reporting on their expenses and how their individual operations are aligned supporting their academic priorities.

Always-On Academic Operations

While creating and adopting new curriculum demonstrates the connected nature of academic operations, it still does not exemplify the entire scope of academic operations. Academic operations also include the daily, constant execution of continuous scheduling cycles, preparation for a new term’s course catalog, and miscellaneous updates to existing curriculum that must be processed. These processes are conducted either via paper forms, email, spreadsheets, and/or software and the outputs must be written back to the institution’s student information system. The decentralized and concensus-driven nature of higher education has unfortunately resulted in departmental, data, and information silos. Consequently, these inter-dependent operations are often disconnected from each other in both analysis and execution.

Academic Operations’ Impact on Student Success & Retention

Academic operations have a direct impact on retention and completion rates at an institution.

While many factors contribute to a student’s ability to complete their program of study, these back-office administrative processes are often not viewed as a driving factor of student success. More often, these processes are seen as a necessary “given” that must be checked off the list each term. As foundational and expensive as they are, they have seemingly flown under the radar and been left behind from the technological spotlight other areas in higher education have benefitted from.

Institutions have inadvertently created barriers to completion by not analyzing and optimizing these operations. Barriers include:

  • Unclear degree pathways;
  • Misalignment of academic schedules with student demand and;
  • Time conflicts that prevent students from accessing all the courses they need.

These operational barriers to completion can have a significant negative impact on student persistence and retention.

  • Studies show that over half of an institution’s total expenses are associated with instruction and academic support services, and that the academic experience is the at the core of a student’s satisfaction with their institution
  • Approximately 90% of students reported that their ability to register for classes with few conflicts and having clarity on their program requirements contributes heavily to their satisfaction with their academic experience.
  • A 2019 survey on national student satisfaction and priorities found that approximately 1/3 of students were unsatisfied with course availability, a strong indicator that a significant number of students were unable to register for appropriate classes and stay on track.

According to a study by AACRAO, the most popular factors for course scheduling include:

  • Faculty availability (91%)
  • Time block popularity (77%)
  • Course scheduling consistency from year to year (71%)
  • Data from student plans for study (47%)

As a result, schedules aren’t built with student needs at the forefront. Schedules created with other preferences in mind often result in schedules misaligned with student needs.

The Case for Integrating Academic Operations

The pandemic and demographic enrollment cliff have forced higher education to catapult into a new way of delivering postsecondary education.

Any signs that things will return to “normal” were quickly squashed with new viral variants, declining enrollment numbers, and increased competition for students. Running an academic enterprise the same way it was run 25, or even 10 year ago, is not a reality that the vast majority of higher education institutions can afford to operate.

The majority of institutions struggle to operate efficiently. Our research shows that university administrators are spending 60% of their time on manual, oftentimes duplicative, data entry and very few have the right data for decision-making.

While many institutions made significant investments in upgrading their LMS and modality delivery technology solutions during the pandemic, a great many more did not look at the processes that precede instruction. By failing to examine the demand (historical and future) for curriculum, modality, and curriculum exploration, the LMS and online-delivery technology investments will likely be be under or mis-utilized.

Student Impact

The proliferation of self-service technology, services, and products have already transformed the average postsecondary student into someone that expects the “Amazon experience” in nearly all aspects of their life. One-click purchases, same-day delivery, reviews, ratings, and predictive suggestions influence the manner in which today’s learners expect to interact with institutions.

Waitlists, paper or labourious forms, timed-out registration periods, crashed servers, and inflexible transfer requirements do little to instill confidence or satisfaction with the traditional higher education model that’s growing in price and decreasing in perceived value.

Manual, siloed processes and human error are a common reason why:

  • Required courses are commonly scheduled at the same time, creating access bottlenecks
  • Catalogs aren’t reflective of the most up-to-date curriculum and completion pathways
  • Notoriously-overfilled courses remain under-scheduled
  • Low-demand courses are scheduled at historically under-filled rates.

Now is the time to analyze the academic operations at your institution.

Administrative & IT Staff Retention

The pandemic and changing nature of higher education have not only impacted enrollment and retention rates of students. Employment retention in higher education is a growing concern for leadership.

The era of the “great resignation” is impacting nearly every industry, and higher education is not immune. The flexibility of remote-work and higher salaries are pulling talent away from higher education and toward the private sector.

Besides students, administrative and IT staff are the most impacted groups of the current state of manual, siloed academic operations in higher ed.

Administrative Staff

Academic administrators spend the bulk of their time doing manual work such as entering data into several sources and manually reviewing documents for accuracy.

Limited, shrinking resources are compounded by the fact that administrators often don’t have easy access to the data that’s needed to make student-centric decisions or an integrated, easy to use tool or method for executing curricular or scheduling processes.

As an example, the average campus could have 4-6 different tools to support class scheduling, creating duplicate data entry. 11 There is no single source of truth to understand course demand for the institution. These administrative burdens result in:

  • Difficulty obtaining big picture insights that could help spur innovation
  • Errors that require last minute changes that ultimately impact student success
  • Reliance on institutional memory/specific individuals
  • Lack of accountability/visibility/data-informed decision-making because everything happens in a black box
  • Increased time and expense because of manual labor• Less time spent on core focuses and institutional priorities

IT Staff

IT Staff are more and more often pulled in to reactive, emergency scenarios to help an institution quickly pivot to a new delivery modality, run reports, dig for data, implement new software, all the while making sure everything is secure and high-functioning.

When looking to innovate, stacking technology solutions with overlapping or redundant functionalities is common due to the siloed approval and oversight functions of a given department or campus unit. This leaves IT leaders with an additional responsibility to act as gatekeepers to third party vendor access to data sources. They are also stretched thin managing the various high-priority IT projects going on around the campus at a given time.

This increase in complexity and risk has made talented IT staff with institutional knowledge more valuable than ever in higher education. However, the siren song of hybrid or remote work with higher salaries in the private sector have made the mission-driven allure of a career in higher education IT less attractive.

“The more third party solutions you bring on and integrate with, the higher the security risks you’re opening yourself up to. These processes also remain disparate when using different tools to execute them.”- Gabriela Wanless, JCU Assistant Registrar for Catalog and Scheduling

How to Achieve Academic Operational Excellence

Like any campus-wide initiative in higher education, analyzing and optimizing your institution’s academic operations takes time, commitment, collaboration, and buy-in from all impacted groups. This is not something that should be considered, evaluated, decided upon, and implemented from the top-down without input.

The Roadmap to Accelerating Excellence in Academic Operations

To pursue this transformational initiative, an institutional leader or administrator looking to optimize their academic operations should:

  1. Map the Owners of Each Department & Operational Unit
    • If it’s not already documented and mapped out, take the time to create a visual of the workflows, stakeholders, overlaps, and disconnects that exist within your institution’s:
      • Academic scheduling
      • Curriculum proposals and management
      • Catalog development, degree/completion auditing
      • Academic policy administration
      • Accreditation reporting
      • Instructional resource & space allocation
  2. List the Key Processes Contributing to Collaboration & Impact
    • When identifying the owners of each department and unit, take the opportunity to understand how these departments communicate with each other. Document the channels, methods, and cadences that these business units use to stay aligned and up-to-date.
  3. Audit These Processes for Roadblocks
    • Create cohesive, up-to-date documentation of the current state of affairs for each of the units. Who on their staff does what, what pieces of technology are in place, who do they request work from, who do they report to, how are students impacted by their delivery.
  4. Identify the Tools & Software Across Processes
    • Work with your IT team to understand what software (if any) is already in place that is being used to execute or contribute to academic operations.
    • Work with your IT team to understand what software (if any) is already in place that is being used to execute or contribute to academic operations.
  5. Evaluate Your Data Silos
    • Is new curriculum handed over too late for inclusion in the catalog, or upcoming schedule? Is student completion data not fed back to your scheduling units when they’re planning an upcoming term’s course section volume?
    • Work with your Institutional Research team to map all data sources associated with your academic operations and how they intersect.
  6. Engineer the Fastest Route to Better Student Impacts
    • Does your research uncover roadblocks in the schedule, hiccups in the catalog development, low hanging fruit in the curriculum review process? Start where you can show the impact and improvements more quickly and continue innovating from there.
  7. Align the Plan with Mission & Strategic Plan
    • Make sure that your optimization efforts are always mapped back to your institution’s mission and strategic plans to help increase buy-in and relevancy to your quest. If you can show how this research and proposed updates will help each campus unit meet its mission and strategic goals, the more it will facilitate buy in to the proposals to optimize the operations.
  8. Get Faculty Feedback & Buy-in
    • Don’t limit your research to the owners of the operational unit. In your discovery research, uncover the stakeholders of each process and find a sponsor to act as a representative of each group to help you map the contributions and downstream impacts these operations have on the group.
  9. Reorganize Your Technology Stack
    • Innovations in technology and process automation have transformed workflows and project management for a majority of industries today. Higher education has unfortunately been left behind in adopting affordable, accessible, configurable technology to optimize these academic operations.
    • Understand where your institutions operations can benefit from technology-facilitated automation and optimization and where your institution’s human resources can best be deployed on strategic, student-facing efforts rather than manual data entry or repetitive tasks.
  10. Plan Change Management for People-Driven Processes
    • Bring a project team together that is representative of each of the academic operations units that are committed to executing the transformative initiative of integrating academic operations on campus.
    • This team should focus on training, facilitation, and process re-design where relevant and tailor their actions based on the specific unit and problem they are solving for.
  11. Execute Integrated Academic Operations
    • You have a great many options to decide between when you’re looking to optimize these operations. Based on your audit, resources, and budget, you should decide if you would like to:

How an Integrated Academic Operations Platform Works

An Integrated Academic Operations Platform works by first securing a two-way, real time integration with your institution’s SIS. Then, the relevant curricular and scheduling data is mapped so you and your staff are able to analyze the data and take action within the same platform.

By including academic and event scheduling, curriculum management, online course catalog, course demand projections within one platform, your academic operational data is aggregated to create a single source of truth for all curricular data sources.

An integrated solution ensures you don’t unintentionally create silos by keeping data stored within disparate point solutions or spreadsheets. Additionally, most student information systems have not been built to maximize efficiencies or meet modern requirements for executing academic operations.

Thus, more and more institutions are opting to adopt technological solutions that allow best-of-breed execution of these operations and allowing their SIS to act as the central database for the institution.

An integrated platform allows for:

  • Historical curricular and scheduling data to be transformed into actionable analytics and reports
  • Curriculum proposals to be efficiently managed and processed using configurable forms and workflows
  • Academic schedules to be built based on historical enrollment demand, instructor preferences, and pathway-based course demand projections
  • Courses, requirements, and schedules to be published to the online catalog to maximize access and searchability for students
  • The creation of a master campus calendar for all academic and non-academic events and optimization of space utilized for academic and non-academic events

Academic administrators will be empowered with modern technology & support to execute student centric, data-driven, & cost-efficient educational experiences:

  • Simplify and streamline your processes with a single platform that helps you save time• Reduce the number of last minute changes that affect your students
  • Manage one contract and learn one tool for all your academic operations needs
  • Dig into the big picture with course demand and analytics built right into the tool
“[Coursedog] was able to accomplish multiple things that we needed and really in a meaningful way. Events don’t get scheduled in rooms where there are classes and vice versa, classes don’t get scheduled that aren’t approved through a curriculum committee... It helps to make sure that the things that we’re doing are accurate across the university.”- Dr. Matt Winn, DBU CIO

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