A month ago, I wrote a blog about how financing at higher education institutions works. In that blog, I wrote about how most places, for various reasons, were going to have some tough budget decisions to make due to COVID-19. In the current environment we live in, things change day-to-day. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to update people on where higher ed stands as May begins and the school year ends.
Every higher education colleague I talk with around the country is facing severe budget shortfalls, and they are anticipating even more slashed budgets in the upcoming year. There are talks of layoffs, furloughs and other money-saving tactics. Here’s what I know: The general principle right now is that if a purchase order has not been cut, or a project is not actively being worked on, all other money is frozen. For integrators and manufacturers, this means: If you don’t know of a project, or don’t have a purchase order for one, don’t be optimistic that will change. For sure, this is a generalization, but it’s in line with what I’m hearing from the vast majority of other tech managers and in-house integrators.
Our institutions are looking at two situations. There are some differences in how funds will be spent, depending on how each case pans out. The first situation is the one that holds the most optimism for the higher ed sector in the AV industry. It’s this: Students are welcomed back to campus at some time this fall. Whether this starts early (some are talking about a start in August, since most summer sessions were canceled) or late (others are thinking about delaying and beginning in October or November), there will be some work to do. If students are on campus, we know that we will need to prepare for the potential of small outbreaks on campus.
Additionally, we must keep in mind that some students may not feel comfortable returning to campus, or in the case of international students, not allowed to return to the United States. To be prepared for this, most in-house AV teams are looking at ways of putting cameras and microphones in classrooms. This will allow us to quarantine students who are ill and still provide them an education. We are also thinking about class capture options — how quickly these options can be accomplished, and how expensive they are. (This will be a hardware solution, and a software solution, in terms of where to host the videos.)
There is an opportunity here for vendors to step up and offer solutions and products. A fair warning to vendors: Don’t expect each sale to be a big-ticket purchase. The total sum, depending on the size and needs of the institution, will vary. To integrators: Work with your manufacturing partners to propose cost-effective solutions. The in-house AV teams need to feel that you are giving them flexibility and options, not just selling them products and services that provide you with the highest margins. Also, heads up: Most institutions are collectively thinking about now rather than later — many of us are not planning to offer a long-term hybrid learning model. We are instead looking for options to get us through an unprecedented period. Use this information as an opportunity. You can show your value as a partner and keep some cash flowing through your business at the same time.
The second option is much less pleasant for schools and the higher ed sector of the AV industry. If the virus is still spreading across the United States this fall, colleges can’t plop students back into close-quartered dormitories. Therefore, AV firms may see some business in class capture and video-hosting products. In this scenario, the faculty would likely still be encouraged or required to come to campus and use a technology-equipped space for delivering lectures. This space would include features like a document camera, whiteboard and software they don’t have at home. It is challenging to imagine a scenario — in this case — where schools would be investing anything else in classrooms that are not being used.
In either of the above scenarios, higher ed tech managers are busily juggling plans for an unknown future. This is a fantastic time to build a great relationship with your customers and help them develop creative and cost-effective projects.