Saving Green by Going Green in Higher Education

Michael A. O’Grady
Vice President of Sales
Oventure Technologies

I remember about 17 years ago, I was attending a university-wide “town-hall” meeting at a large state university where I was working in financial aid and admissions. All faculty, staff and administrators of all levels were required to attend. As usual the president held forth and gave accolades to those aspects of the university he thought were going well, and forcefully admonished those he believed weren’t. The routine was always the same. The president would welcome questions after the admonishment and there would be the usual dead silence. And just as everyone thought they were safe and could dash to lunch, a faculty member, academic faculty that is, would raise some arcane question about the direction of the curriculum or about a change in a retirement plan. The next question was always from some staffer eager to throw a compliment to the president disguised in some fluffy question.

In one of these sessions, the president pointed out that university-wide we were making a huge amount of Xerox copies, and he wondered if they were all necessary. Next he went on to other budget matters that needed to be contained due to budget cuts. The new street lights that were just installed for safety? Well, they would have to be turned off at 10 pm to save electricity. Lastly, he pointed out the high cost of machinery around the campus including numerous copy machine repairs. As expected, the question and answer section followed. A faculty member asked some perfunctory question about retirement benefits; the high level staffer hid his compliment in a fluffy question. I couldn’t resist breaking the unwritten two question rule. Despite a death stare from my Provost, I stood up to ask the obvious question: I said, “In light of the out of control number of copies we make at the university, why don’t we just not fix the copiers?” There was dead silence of course, although I could almost hear my colleague’s thoughts on whether they could take my precious office with a window that opened. The president seemed taken back. There was dead silence in the auditorium, until the president broke out in his larger than life laugh, and we all joined in as if on queue.

Well 17 years later we are still facing budget cuts and are probably still making too many copies. However, our university presidents are not laughing. The national economic flu is hitting our universities and colleges and is going to get much worse. With the exception of the “for profit”  sector, higher education institutions will have to make comprehensive cuts in their budgets. This will create a precarious balancing act between meeting recruitment and retention goals despite fierce competition from cross-applicant schools and on-line competitors, keeping the quality of campus life and maintaining a sound infrastructure. “Going-green” you would assume will have to wait. Our presidents aren’t waiting though; the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Leadership Summit or ACCUPCC has blossomed to over 550 signatory institutions representing four and a half million students. In short, campus leaders (that is you) are going to have to create a plan that meets the confluent needs of doing more with less—and consuming less but creating more…make sense?

Although my daughter is only 14, we decided to take her to a large college fair that was in town. I was surprised how little had changed in the 27 years I have been in higher education. Most notably, large booklets and brochures on admissions and financial aid were being passed out by the box loads to thousands of parents and teenagers as they meandered by the booths. No particular match—everyone met their goal for the night. Prospective students picked up lots of stuff to impress their parents, and admission reps didn’t have to carry heavy boxes back to their rental cars.

I told my daughter to stop picking up the booklets and just make notes. I knew she wasn’t going to make any decision based on the booklets (let alone read them)—she was going to choose her college the same way she recently made the most important decision to date in her life. That is what type of dog to get. Actually it was both my daughters’ adroit use of the Internet that helped them overwhelm their parents with proof that a particular breed could overcome all of our objections on why we couldn’t have a dog. The objection we couldn’t overcome came from Internet research that stated the dog’s life expectancy would not exceed the timeline for my kids to go to college. (Who ever thought a four inch dog with the bladder of a bull existed?) Bottom line: my kids are going to choose a school the way they chose “Rusty.”

Changing the paper paradigm in admissions and financial aid isn’t going to be easy. All stakeholders will invariably make the case that their paper, whether it is an inquiry card or a financial aid award letter, is essential to the recruitment and retention process and therefore the financial health of the institution. To these stakeholders I would quote Marshall McLuhan’s famous edict that “the medium is the message.” I recently had a colleague mention how her niece received a huge package of information in the mail from a “prestigious” university upon being admitted, including the university’s “point of sale”– the award letter. Her immediate response was how behind the times they were. “They claim to be hitech and I get this?” was her niece’s retort. So are we actually turning off prospective students, communicating ineffectively, and killing trees, while paying more to do so? Yep.

The financial aid award letter would be one such example. Being admitted is important to a student, but the admission letter has no life until it is plugged into the financial aid award letter. Often the receipt of an award letter creates more questions than it solves, and in today’s tough economic environment that isn’t a good thing at your university’s “point of sale.” To make matters worse, the tasks of printing, packaging, stuffing envelopes, mailing and handling, phone calls and award follow-up cost a university approximately $25.50 per student. If you multiply your student population by $25.50 you would probably conclude that that chunk of change could be used to communicate the affordability of your education more wisely. If your existing financial aid management system can send awards electronically that is only half the battle. The existing capabilities of your system may be able to cut the paper and mailing costs, but the expense and time-consuming nature of inbound phone inquires may not be mitigated without more robust “counseling” automation in your software.

This is just one example of where “going-green” is not at odds with spending less. In fact, your university probably has multiple opportunities where less money could be spent, if it was spent differently, and efficiencies in recruitment and retention would result. As for all the plastic brochure racks you have cluttering your offices? Have a team building exercise. Get some GHIA pet planter seeds, fill the racks with top soil, and have a competition among your staff on who can make the racks greener the fastest. As for the postman who shows up with a paper admit and award letter?…..Rusty will be waiting.