07/20/2012 10:45 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2012

Streamlining Processes Saves Colleges Money

Colleges and universities do what they can to save money in their day-to-day operations. In tough fiscal times, that's more important than ever.

Just by changing the light bulbs and harvesting more daylight in several buildings and auditoriums, Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., expects to save more than $30,000 per year, according to Bradley A. Markley, director of facility services.

Messiah has replaced metal halide light fixtures with fluorescents, he says, and in three buildings they have added a system that automatically controls the lights based on the amount of sunlight entering the room. "The estimated time to pay back the system is less than three years," he reports. Messiah also has built the fourth-largest solar thermal system in the nation. They took this step in 2010 after the local utility company stopped offering off-peak electric rates.

"The college used to heat the North Complex with the old electric boilers," Markely says. "After deregulation, and the loss of special off-peak electric rates, the cost to heat the buildings went up by 380 percent." In response, Messiah installed 116 solar thermal panels on top of three buildings. "During peak summer performance, the solar arrays will produce 5.6 million BTU output per day," Markley says. "This is equal to 1,641 kilowatts."

Savings are realized not only from large physical plant changes but from improving processes and procedures. The college human relations (HR) office in particular seems to be running more efficiently these days. At Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, F.,, HR documents formerly distributed on paper to employees are now posted on line. At Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., contracts are now delivered electronically, and the faculty/staff recruitment process has been automated. Resumes are collected sent and reviewed online. Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, F., has digitized its employee action form documents that are used at 17 centers in seven states. "We believe strongly in the one university concept and all locations will be using the same system," says Deborah C. Brown, associate vice president and general counsel at Saint Leo.

The process of converting data on paper to digital information is universal in higher education today.

Eckerd College has reduced printing and mailing costs by distributing student bills electronically. Eckerd also eliminated paper time sheets and created online time entry for employees. Pay stubs and W2 forms also are distributed online. Student refund processes, the check-in process for returning students, and student health insurance waivers, all have been automated.

There is even less paper in the college print shop. "Previously work was submitted by hard copy," says Pamela Parsnik, director of printing and mailing services at Misericordia. "Now it is done by electronic submission." The marketing office at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., cut its printing costs in half by moving to an online ordering system and changing print vendors.

Admissions and marketing are other areas where schools are cutting costs.

More judicious mailing of the admissions viewbook, which cost about $5 apiece to produce and mail, has saved thousands annually for Misericordia. "About two years ago we stopped mailing the viewbook to students outside the northeast whose likelihood of applying andenrolling is less," says Glenn Bozinski, director of admissions. "They still get all our other correspondence, both smaller paper pieces and electronic."

Misericordia also stopped renting travel cars for admissions. Instead they bought a Prius which, "due to its heavy usage saved us a lot of money in the long run," says Bozinski. "We also labeled it, meaning that it serves as a rolling billboard, driven on some of the busiest highways in the northeast corridor." At the same time the school collapsed more than 60 individual gas card accounts and went to a universal fleet card. One benefit is that fuel taxes areautomatically removed from the cost of the fuel. Another is that cardholders have access to roadside assistance without the university having to incur the cost of buying a multitude of motor club subscriptions.

At Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas, the Communications Office saved approximately $10,000 annually by creating its own more efficient home-town news release process. TCU had paid an outside vendor to produce and distribute its hometowners. Now, according to Lisa Albert, director of communications, "We have been able to save both time and money with this [new] process." Previously, TCU gathered the info from the registrar's office and submitted it to a vendor to develop customized news releases and send them to the hometown paper for each student. Now that TCU controls the data throughout the process, "we have been able to eliminate the time it takes to process the information because we aren't depending on someone else's schedule."

Now students download a customized news release. "In this age of user-generated content," Albert says, "students now have access to their own customized release and can share it as they choose." They can send it to their local papers, post it on Facebook or email it to grandparents.

In summary, there is a lot of penny pinching going on in higher education these days. "Every dollar saved with a better process or procedure goes to holding down the cost of delivering education," says Arthur F. Kirk, Jr., president of Saint Leo University.