$10 million grant to help North Central, 3 other colleges streamline business operations

A collaborative project between North Central College and three other Midwest universities has been awarded $10 million in grant funding to help streamline their nonacademic, back-office services.

President Troy Hammond says the Naperville college has been partnering with Valparaiso University, the University of Evansville and Drake University "for quite some time" to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing mid-sized higher education institutions: improving efficiency and reducing long-term costs.

At the heart of their solution is a plan to create an independent nonprofit, called the College and University Sustainability Project.

The organization would act as a central entity for the four institutions, running their information technology, finance, accounting, human resources and other business operations "in a completely standardized way," Hammond said.

"We're literally integrating those functions into one so that it's efficient and cost-effective," he said. "We think it can make a big difference."

Money and manpower are the biggest hurdles to adopting such a system, Hammond says, and likely the reason it hasn't been done before.

That's where the combined $10 million grant from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment comes into play.

The philanthropic foundation kicked off its Charting the Future initiative in 2019 to help Indiana institutions advance strategic planning and implementation efforts, according to a news release. As part of the program's third phase, Valparaiso University and the University of Evansville were each awarded $5 million last week to support the College and University Sustainability Project.

The funding will help the four institutions develop the nonprofit, launch a common software platform and work through the logistics over the next three years, Hammond said.

"In the end, it may cost more than that to fully get this implemented well, but that $10 million of funding brings the cost down to something we can manage," he said, "to get over the hurdle to where we're now actually saving money."

The grant proposal was structured by a steering committee comprising top administrators from each university, who will now work to bring the concept to fruition, Hammond said.

Once the project is up and running, he said, other small- to medium-sized institutions will be invited to join.

The goal is to better serve students and employees, Hammond said, both by keeping costs low and making various functions and interfaces more user-friendly. That applies to students accessing their financial accounts or faculty members handling payroll information.

The program also will provide institutions with "excellent data analytics and business intelligence" to help drive future operational decisions, he said.

"There's a clamoring for, what are colleges and universities doing that's innovative to try and manage and control future costs of a college degree?" Hammond said. "We're proud to be a leader right here in Naperville that's an integral part of something innovative."

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