Discovering inexpensive on-campus IT support.
Over the past few years, U.S. higher education institutions have endured severe budget cuts which have resulted in decreased spending in the area of information technology (IT). However, the demand for IT support has continued to grow and institutions and their academic departments are faced with the challenge of locating inexpensive or even free IT expertise and support for their IT projects. This paper highlights many of the existing opportunities that exist at most institutions, which can be leveraged to support IT projects.
According to the 2003 Campus Computing Project a National Survey of Information Technology in U.S. Higher Education (Green, 2004), budget cuts in U.S. higher education institutions continued to grow impacting campus Information Technology (IT) activities and investments. Green reported two-fifths (41.3 percent) of the survey participants indicated budget cuts affecting academic computing this past year, up from 32.6 percent in 2002 and just 18 percent in 2001. Similarly, just over two-fifths of the institutions reported reduced funding for administrative computing, compared to almost one-third (31.0 percent) in 2002, and one-fifth (18.3 percent) in 2001. In addition, one-third (32.4 percent) of the 2003 survey participants reported mid-year budgets cuts up from 24.9 percent in 2002 and 8.0 percent in 2001. Despite reduced budgets, the Campus Computing Project (Green, 2004) and other studies report that interest and demand for technology-based initiatives such as wireless connectivity, web-based portals, course management systems, e-commerce and service solutions on university campuses, continue to expand. A necessary component in supporting this growth is an increase in IT personnel to implement, manage and support these technology initiatives.
In budget friendly years, many universities had sufficient funding to conduct regional or even national searches for IT candidates and budgets to offer competitive salaries and benefit packages. With decreasing budgets, university-wide hiring freezes for fulltime positions and no reprieve in the foreseeable future, universities are struggling with the challenge of acquiring IT support, expertise and personnel inexpensively especially for the many short-term IT projects originating from academic departments. Internal personnel, individuals already at the university in some capacity, represent an often overlooked and untapped IT resource to fulfill these needs. In my own institution's search to find IT support on campus for my academic department's IT projects, we discovered a plethora of existing programs which we could and did leverage to meet our IT needs for a fraction of the cost of full time personnel or in many cases, for no cost at all. This article will present and describe the problem of diminishing budgets in the context of IT initiatives, the resulting declining job market for IT professionals, and the dire need for IT majors to find work-related experiences on-campus and the many on-campus opportunities which exist for them or others with IT skills to gain this experience and meet the needs of many departments' IT projects.
Budget Cuts in Higher Education
For the 2003-2004 fiscal year, aggregate appropriations for higher education in the U.S. fell 2.1 percent to $60.3-billion, the first actual spending cut since 1992-93 when appropriations dropped to 0.9 percent (Arnone, 2004). The decline may be the single biggest ever (Palmer as cited in Arnone, 2004). In a study found in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education (Young, 2004), it was reported that 76% of Chief Information Officer's (CIO's) budgets in higher education were cut in Fall 2003 canceling or delaying most campus technology projects. Furthermore, 51% of CIO's who experienced budget cuts froze or eliminated IT positions. Despite the diminished budgets, there is evidence to suggest that the demand for campus technology initiatives has grown (Green, 2003).
IT Expertise on Campus
Employment in the U.S. high-tech industry dropped 8 percent in 2002 from 6.5 million to 6 million. (Cyberstates, 2003). The unemployment rate for computer programmers reached 6.7% in 2003 up from 2.5% in 2001 compared to an overall U.S. unemployment rate of 6% in 2003 (Young, 2004). Understandably, this depressed U.S. market for IT professionals has led to a flood of IT students on campus desperately seeking real-world experiences.
Higher tuition costs is another factor driving IT students in higher education to look for work on campus. Historically, college tuition costs have risen an average of about 5% a year. For 2003-2004, public colleges and universities in the U.S. raised their tuition and fees by an average of 14.1% over 2002-2003 year's costs, which was three times the rate of inflation (Learning Quest, n.d.). In 2003, 49 out of 50 states raised their tuition fees at public colleges and universities (Bofelli, 2004). As a direct consequence, many IT students are forced to seek part-time employment to offset these rising costs of tuition. With limited options off-campus, on-campus opportunities with the many extra perks offered (hourly wages, tuition waivers, course credit, etc.) present attractive and viable alternatives. Thus, providing opportunities for IT students to support IT projects on campus tends to be a mutually beneficial arrangement for students and departments. The university as a whole may still incur the costs for some of these opportunities, but the total cost is far less than would be realized hiring fulltime IT staff:
On-campus opportunities include assistantships, work-study programs, coop/internships, individual studies, academic service learning, and senior capstone projects. These opportunities are funded through various sources and the positions can be utilized to support various IT projects. The scope of department IT projects vary in levels of expertise required and length of time needed to support and/or complete them. On campus opportunities will also vary in length of time and expertise; for example, students in IT programs working on senior capstone projects bring in a higher level of expertise and skills, although the length of time committed to the project is typically a maximum of 20 weeks. In contrast, students who are on work-study programs may bring in a lower level of IT skills but may be available for 4 years to support IT projects and in this time may have the opportunity to develop more advanced skills. Thus, departments need to align the right students and on-campus opportunities with the appropriate IT projects.
A graduate assistantship is a type of financial award provided to a graduate student for part-time work in teaching, administration/staff or research while pursuing course work toward an advanced degree. At most universities, the graduate assistantship generally takes on three forms--a teaching assistantship, a research assistantship and an administration/staff assistantship. Some institutions have set guidelines for assistantship duties requiring their awarded students to adhere to these parameters. For example, at some institutions teaching assistants must be directly involved in teaching and direct instruction and often are required to be the instructor on record for teaching an undergraduate class. They are not permitted to work on other "projects" outside of their teaching responsibilities. Research assistants can be grant-funded and, if so, their duties are typically limited to the nature and specifics of the grant. At other times, they may be funded by the institution to promote and support research and assigned to particular faculty members or departments to assist with their research needs. Administration/staff assistants have the most flexibility as their duties are not strictly instructional or research-oriented. Depending on your institution's definition and expectations for the various types of assistantships, students with the appropriate IT expertise who have been awarded graduate assistantships may be eligible to support academic departments' IT projects.
Typically, 100% of funding is provided by the university's graduate office, and the total number of graduate assistantships per department is based on available funding and a factor of department size often measured by number of fulltime department faculty and/or students and/or credits generated/courses taught. To be eligible to receive a graduate assistantship, students must be admitted as masters or doctoral degree students prior to the employment period. Students must also be enrolled with a fulltime course load, which in my institution's case requires a minimum of 10 course credits. No other employment, scholarship, financial aid or other remuneration is permitted by my institution without written graduate office approval in advance. Although the graduate office generally provides the funding for graduate assistantships, the actual appointments and the responsibility of meeting the requirements of the assistantships are left to the academic departments. Appointments to a graduate assistantship are normally made on a one-fourth to one-half time basis. Full year appointments (on a half-time basis) require twenty hours per week, two hundred hours per academic term, and six hundred hours per year with a maximum of 14 credits of coursework any term. Appointments are usually limited to the academic year, but with additional end-of-year funds, summer appointments are possible.
A graduate assistantship is considered a paid position, as there is a stipend involved as well as other benefits. For example, at my institution for the academic year 2004-2005, a graduate assistantship package included a stipend includes a stipend of $7,120, a tuition waiver worth $5520, coverage of medical insurance costing $621 and $180 for health center fees. In some cases, non-resident/international graduate student assistants are assessed state resident tuition. At some institutions which charge international students as much as 200% of in state tuition fees, the student's savings can be enormous. In addition, students may have access to departmental resources including office space, computer/printer access, telephone/fax access, photocopier access and use of departmental supplies and materials. Assistantships provide a unique opportunity for students with IT skills to support IT projects while being provided a stipend, tuition support and coverage of health and medical insurance. It is not unusual for students to move into fulltime IT opportunities on-campus after successfully demonstrating their IT abilities and knowledge through an assistantship.
This option is also known as independent study or arranged study. Students can receive undergraduate or graduate course credit that can be applied to most programs. Students are not paid in this option because they are receiving course credit. For each credit offered, student must engage in 30 hours of course work. A student completes coursework as outlined by an instructor. The "class schedule" and responsibilities can be flexible and negotiable with the sponsoring faculty member. These types of courses require a faculty member to develop, sponsor and supervise the courses usually without additional compensation. One of the requirements for these types of courses is that they must be unique--i.e, not offered elsewhere at the university. Typically, the faculty and student decide what the course will look like, and then the faculty member submits a course request form for approval from the dept. chair and dean. The form addresses a number of areas including: a course description and outline, a rationale for offering individual study, a justification for number of credits granted, an explanation of faculty's role and responsibilities and how the student's work will be evaluated. Individual study courses can often be an ideal opportunity for a department to receive assistance on IT related projects while students gain experience and skills and get credit for non-traditional coursework.
There are two types of work-study programs: state work-study awards and federal work-study awards which are partially funded by the state and federal governments, respectively. State work-study awards subsidize 80% of the student's hourly wage, while federal work-study awards subsidize 75% of the student's hourly wage. Students apply through their financial aid office and must qualify for need-based financial aid. However, not all those who qualify for financial aid receive work-study awards. Work-Study may be in place of other financial aid or in addition to other loans or students may choose to reduce loan funds to accommodate a work-study award. Work-study awards are a needs-based financial aid award. They are not grants or loans, but paid jobs. Any academic department can list a job for these types of awards, but the jobs must be approved by the Student Employment Office.
Work-study jobs are like other jobs; work a number of hours in a pay period at some wage rate and receive a paycheck. Work-Study awards typically range from $2,000-$5,000 for an academic year. Student can work a maximum of 19 hrs/week although the weekly hours can be limited to just a few hours per week depending on the student's needs. Priority is given to students who are offered jobs related to majors and/or high skill. Jobs involving IT projects represent a good fit for IT majors or those with IT expertise. Work-study opportunities provide real work experience in a course or field of study such as IT and often offer higher compensation these positions are subsidized. Therefore, employers can afford to pay near the high end of wage scales. And because these positions are heavily subsidized, work-study students are in high demand by employers and eligible students can often work the job of their choice.
A number of academic programs require students to attain co-op or internship experience sometime before the completion of their programs; other programs provide this as an elective option. My institution offers both undergraduate and graduate cooperative education courses and internships. For many institutions, the differences and policies governing co-operative education and internships are quite different. At my institution, the terms "co-operation education" and "'internships" are interchangeable since both programs are identical in their components. These types of opportunities are typically unpaid, but if there is payment involved, the employer pays 100% of wages. To be eligible to enroll in a co-op or internship course, students must be in good academic standing. Prior to enrolling, undergrads must have a minimum of 45 credits, and graduates, 90 credits. In addition, students must complete a learning agreement between the university, employer and student describing the learning objectives, learning activities and evaluation. The employer can be an academic department or individual faculty member on campus. Together the employer, university and student negotiate the specifics of the learning contract. Students must also identify a faculty member to serve as their advisor and to be responsible for ensuring the academic portion of the co-operative/internship is viable.
Students can receive university credit (usually not letter grades but a designation of Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory) for successfully completing their internships or cooperative courses. Individual academic department determine the number of credits for each program but the range for undergraduate credits is 1-5 and for graduate credits, 1-12 credits. At my institution, students require 40 hours of co-op/internship to earn one university credit. Most institutions have Student Career Centers which provide a list of available co-operative education courses and internships. Students have the option of locating an appropriate internship on their own or creating their own internships. Academic departments needing IT support for a project can submit a co-operative education course or internship request reflecting this need. Co-ops and internships represent opportunities for IT students to get hands-on experience and learn professional skills while supporting IT projects on campus.
Academic service-learning is a course-based, credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way to gain further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995). Academic service-learning enhances and expands student learning by promoting opportunities for faculty and students to make connections between course content, theoretical knowledge and real-life situations with community partners (Academic, n.d.) or clients on campus (which may include individual academic departments).
In any given academic term at my institution, pre-designed academic service-learning courses exist in a number of different fields including some interdisciplinary options. Undergraduate courses span across disciplines--e.g, marketing, communication, public relations, reading, graphic art, astronomy, tourism, photography, etc. Students can find their own academic service learning projects and/or academic departments may submit their IT projects to be considered for this option. A faculty member is responsible for "teaching" this course and providing a grade of satisfactory or unsatisfactory based on student performance assessed against the course objectives. At my institution, any student in any program is eligible to participate in academic service learning for credit. Academic service learning opportunities are usually unpaid. Courses typically range from 3-5 credits; undergraduate students can take a maximum of 6 credits and graduate students a maximum of 9 credits. Each credit requires 40 hours of academic service learning activity.
Senior Capstone Project
At many institutions, students are required to complete senior capstone projects involving a significant amount of work in their content area. At my institution, all computer science majors are required to take two 4-credit courses (20 weeks total) offered in consecutive academic terms in the last year of their computer science degree program. The ideal capstone project is "one that is well defined, not easily satisfied with commercial off-the-shelf software, and requires some custom programming effort." (J.S., personal communication, September 27, 2004).
Students work in teams of four or five to develop a software application or IT solution to meet the needs of a real-world client which may include an academic department. Project proposals are solicited by the instructors and students from the university and surrounding community. Student roles include a team leader, a quality assurance manager, a lead programmer, and a lead tester. Each team has a faculty mentor from the computer science department who is responsible for grading each team member, assisting in troubleshooting problems with uncooperative team members, and working out any unresolved problem with clients. Project teams meet weekly with clients to gather necessary data and to test projects. The client gives the final word if the finished project meets requirements. The end result is that computer science students complete their capstone project (and receive a grade) in addition to working in a team with a real-world client. The client receives a completed project hopefully meeting their needs. The only drawback for the client is the lack of ongoing maintenance and support once the project has been submitted for grading. This fact does not appear to deter many clients who may not otherwise to be able to afford IT staff to complete necessary projects. In 2004, the computer science department at my institution received 25 client proposals for senior capstone projects.
For the reasons cited in this paper, IT expertise is readily available and is accessible on campus and may be leveraged through free or low-cost funding options to support academic department IT projects. As described in this paper, each opportunity carries its own restrictions and parameters. The specific options presented in this paper are based on opportunities available at my institution, a regional comprehensive university in the Northwest United States. Most likely other institutions have similar options, although the specifics and policies will vary from institution to institution. Readers are encouraged to survey their own institutions' resources and options to reap the benefits of tapping into their available but often hidden talent on-campus IT pool to support their IT projects. While these options tend to be beneficial for various academic departments at the institution and the student (money, experience, skill development, job, credit, etc.), they also have the added advantage of often being available during all fiscal periods--budget-constrained and budget-friendly years.
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Marwin Britto, Central Washington University, WA
Marwin Britto is an assistant professor and Director of the Educational Technology Center.