Is there a time at which a higher education institution reaches a point of diminishing returns with its vendor partners?
One of my favorite Broadway musicals is Phantom of the Opera, and my favorite song from the musical is "The Point of No Return," which includes the following lyrics:
Past the point of no return
No backward glances
The games we've played till now are at an end
Past all thought of if or when
No use resisting . . .
Past the point of no return
The final threshold
The bridge is crossed, so stand and watch it burn
We've passed the point of no return1
Is there a comparable situation in higher education? That is, when colleges or universities are working with vendors, do they also reach the point of no return? Every vendor partnership, every technology adoption, and every new innovation requires months of investment in time and resources. Each new vendor partnership requires various entities across the institution to participate in the adoption and implementation of a new technology, tool, or service. Whether it is institutional research, which assists with the data; general counsel, which approves the service agreement; the provost and academic affairs, which assist with the launch; enrollment management and student success, which invests time in training; or (the most obvious partner) the IT department, which assists with every aspect of integration and security for the users, everyone invests human capital and critical resources in the adoption of new technologies and innovations. This is especially true for technologies that are adopted at scale for an entire campus.
In just the past eight years, the division of Enrollment Management and Student Success (EMASS) at Morgan State University has partnered with a number of vendors on the implementation of various technologies and services, including Starfish by Hobsons, EAB, Ellucian Degree Works, College Scheduler by Civitas, TES, Academic Works, Advantage Orientation, DIGARC: Connected Curriculum, Ivy.ai Chatbot, and CampusESP. For each of these enrollment and student success partnerships, significant energy has been invested in implementation, adoption, buy-in, training, assessment and evaluation, and ongoing enhancements. Each one of our new technology adoptions requires not only funding to purchase and sustain the tool but also resources to manage the tool. It's not easy! What begins with a solicitation or a demo from a potential vendor results in months of work between campus stakeholders and vendor partners. And, if all the stars align, and you're very lucky, the end result is a campus-wide innovation that provides a new tool as an effective strategy to promote student success.
Now let's say you're attending a conference, or your president entertains a colleague, or you get a video in your email inbox, and you learn about a new and exciting tool—or at least a new version of a tool that seems too good to resist. And let's say you have already invested months, even years, in the adoption of an older version of the tool or partnered with a different vendor for similar technology. Do you abandon all of the work and time you've invested in what you already have to pursue a new partnership with a different vendor, or are you already past the point of no return?
This is a question that we at Morgan State University ask ourselves on a regular basis. Is it worth "undoing" the human, social, and financial capital and a culture that has been built around a particular innovation or technology to enhance or improve the user experience? This question is complicated by the fact that you can only forecast the results of any particular tool or innovation with faith and optimism. However, any tool or technology that's already been adopted can be evaluated and measured. While the institution may not have achieved the expected success, there are results that can be measured.
The difficulty is in comparing a tool that has already been adopted with one that has yet to be adopted. This is less of a problem if the implementation of an existing technology or tool has failed. In that case, what is there to lose? The "point of no return" in this context suggests that there is another level of success and that a new vendor will provide better results (or so that potential vendor partner would suggest). This is a truly challenging predicament to be in. Innovation and change are perpetual, yet many tools do not yield results until years down the road. So, should institutions continue to innovate with new vendor partners and discontinue partnerships with current partners? Or should institutions stick with what they have—especially if the results are consistent and going in the right direction?
In the EMASS division at Morgan State University, the approach to answering this question has been mixed. We continue to rely on our long-standing partners while still finding a way to bring new vendors to the table. The EMASS office of Institutional Research is critical in helping us to evaluate the success of our tools in the promotion of student success. Morgan State's retention rate is consistent, having been above 70 percent for eight consecutive years. This represents a ten-point increase compared to the early 2000s, when Morgan State retention rates had been hovering in the low to mid-sixties. The university's graduation rate has climbed by fourteen points to 43 percent over the course of the last eight years. These gains couldn't have been achieved without our vendor partners and collaborators! In some cases, grants helped us to obtain student success tools, but the institution is using in-house funding to sustain these tools and technologies, as they continue to be critical to our student success model.
Like many other higher education institutions, Morgan State faces a challenge: costs continue to rise, and vendors continue to urge us to invest in seemingly new and exciting features at the same or lower cost. My position remains that we need not fix something that isn't broken. While we explore new innovations constantly and embrace the fact that change is perpetual, we have surely reached the point of no return when it comes to student success and our retention and graduation rates. We're in no position to gamble on greater success that a potential vendor partner may predict as long as we continue to attain consistent and measured success with our current partners. Yet, we find ourselves watching new vendors' presentations and demos that challenge us. That challenge keeps us on our toes, questioning the effectiveness of our technologies and tools. The point of no return is, in fact, subjective. Let's keep questioning and pushing our institutions to reach student success goals with the help of technology and innovation.
- Andrew Lloyd Weber, "The Point of No Return," Phantom of the Opera, 1986. ↩
Tiffany Beth Mfume is Assistant Vice President for Student Success and Retention at Morgan State University.
© 2020 Tiffany Mfume. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.