No longer just a buzzword in technology circles, e-commerce has found a permanent home at colleges and universities across the country, as more and more institutions make the Internet a central focus of their business strategies to provide value-added services that ultimately enhance their bottom line.
In fact, electronic commerce has become a driving force for higher education in a fairly short period of time, helping students and staff with a myriad of tasks and functions--from streamlining paperwork, paying bills online, and gathering alumni donations, to more accurately forecasting future cash flow. As a result, a growing number of schools are reaping big benefits in terms of cost savings; new revenue opportunities; greater administrative efficiencies; and enhanced service and support for students, families, faculty and staff, and others.
John Carroll University in Ohio successfully employed an e-commerce system that enabled the school to allow its alumni and others to reserve rooms and schedule events for a large alumni reunion held earlier this year.
And in 2002, in a period of just four weeks, Cornell University (NY) collected more than $2.1 million in tuition payments via e-commerce. With specialized technology, students and their families were able to review and pay their tuition bills online and in real time, giving them unprecedented convenience, says Robert Morgan, director of Information Services at the school. Moreover, the technology could mean even greater savings for the institution, as the potential for late payments is reduced.
Officials at the University of Maryland-College Park said their decision to use the power of e-commerce was, in part, based on the increasing number of students who conducted business via the Internet. The school began shifting traditional paper transactions to electronic channels last year, employing e-commerce to accept credit card payments online. Ultimately, the decision has resulted in a tremendous increase in Internet activity, according to Michael Landi, assistant bursar, who anticipates continued aggressive growth in the future.
Proponents and users of the latest e-commerce systems contend that key advantages of the technology are convenience and time savings. Consider, for example, a purchasing department at a large university. With e-commerce, employees who are responsible for making institutional purchases--whether a laboratory beaker or a larger expenditure such as an office copier--no longer need to manually sift through a multitude of product catalogs. Rather, they place their orders electronically, an invoice is prepared, and bills are subsequently processed and paid--all transacted online and in real time.
In addition to improved efficiency, schools are realizing significant cost savings from e-commerce--dollars that may then be put into new academic services for students, or to defray rising tuition costs.
A FLEXIBLE APPROACH
For Morgan at Cornell, e-commerce technology offered a flexible approach to enhancing the school's ability to manage donations from alumni and school employees.
"We have a large number of donors--anywhere from 4,000 to 5,000--who have continually requested we charge their credit cards on a weekly, monthly, semiannual, or annual basis. But managing this workflow was extremely difficult," Morgan says.
"We also have a large number of faculty and staff using payroll deductions to give to the university. The previous process we used to transact these donations each period--donations ranging from 13 cents to $1,000--was very laborious. It used to cost somewhere around $g for the school to process a transaction from each donor every pay period; and the average transaction gave the university about $7. In essence, every time we entered a transaction, it would cost us $2 per transaction in excess of the amount we actually received as a gift!"
The resolution, he says, was to find an alternative that enabled donors to conduct electronic fund transfers directly from their banking accounts. …