While STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — is a top choice of study and career paths at U.S. colleges and universities, many schools are not keeping their campus computer networks up to speed.
Research suggests it is becoming routine for the schools to limit their spending on information technology, or IT.
In October, the Campus Computing Project, which studies how American higher education uses IT, reported that two-thirds of IT offices among 242 public and private schools across the country said they faced budget cuts recently. The schools polled did not provide financial support to recover from the cuts.
More than 79 percent of those leaders questioned said budget cuts made it difficult for them to keep their employees from seeking jobs elsewhere.
Kenneth Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, checked off the reasons that maintaining campus IT is so important: Students often visit a college or university first on its website. Professors use technology to share educational materials and connect with other educators. Schools use online databases to collect information about their students. And, students use the internet to research, register for classes, and pay for their education.
Green said budget issues, especially at public education institutions, are to blame because the schools depend on public money and many state governments reduced spending on higher education in the past decade. And while the U.S. economy has improved, an increase in financial support for higher education has not followed, he added.
"We have this … exploding demand for … more wireless services, for instructional support in the classroom and online courses, for user support," including IT security, Green said. But "not enough money to do all of that very well."
"At a college or university, you have … competing groups saying, 'Over here, over here! We need money to do this.' And … leadership has to make some hard choices."
Many schools have chosen funding administrative jobs on their respective campuses at the expense of IT, according to Alan McQuinn, with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a nonprofit research group not involved in the Campus Computing Project study.
A 2017 George Mason University study found that schools added a large number of administrative employees between 2001 and 2011, increasing 50 percent faster than the number of classroom teachers added during the same period.
IT products and services can reduce operating costs, McQuinn said, because technology can replace human tasks, like recordkeeping, document preparation and standard funding requests.
"One of the major problems that we see here is that different institutions are treating IT as a cost center rather than a strategic investment that can pay off … to both students and their administrative body in terms of efficiency, in terms of better learning environments, and definitely in terms of security," he said.
The Campus Computing Project's Kenneth Green said schools need to get a better picture of how well their IT services are operating. His study found that only about 20 of 242 colleges and universities have a process to examine the benefits of technology on their campuses.
"We talk about the power … of technology," Green said, "but it's still the case that a lot of the decision-making is done with opinion or epiphany. We don't do a good job, at least in the United States, about gathering evidence and doing research about our investments in technology."