IPMA – Your Defender Against Outsourcing
By: Dwayne Magee, Director of Print and Mail, Messiah College, IPMA Board Member
I was speaking last month with a retired director from a university in another state. She was reminiscing about her leadership role there in one of the support areas. “My most pleasant memories,” she said “involve the connections we were able to make with our students. We were like family. In fact, after all of these years, we still stay in touch.”
“Were you an employee of the university?” I asked, “Or did you work for an outside vendor?”
“Oh we were employees of the university.” She stated without hesitation. “We were supportive of our mission and our values. I do not think outside vendors could possibly care for students as deeply we did.”
She then proceeded to tell me a story about a time when a student became gravely ill. She and the employees in her department became a support system for that student sending cards, bringing meals, and couriering homework.
In the weeks following that conversation I had many more conversations with other support service directors from other colleges all over the United States. I queried them about the connections they made with their students and I heard story after story of employees going above and beyond to support them.
Roughly 1/3 of IPMA membership comes from the higher education sector. Our constituents often express concern about the possibilities of their departments being outsourced. Large, well-known imaging corporations will come sweeping into town without any intimate knowledge of an institution’s business needs. These outside vendors catch the ears of senior administrators with promises of newer technology and huge cost-savings. The in-plant closes and fiercely loyal, highly skilled employees who have delivered years of quality service are left suddenly unemployed.
For years IPMA has been defending support services against the threats of outsourcing. We remind Vice Presidents that in-plants, when operating effectively, typically deliver a 12-15% cost savings on an institutions overall print budget. We remind them that in-plant print shops also provide an array of value-added services that contribute to the overall business success of an institution.
While IPMA has had some success defending in-plants, and while we continue to foster stronger relationships with companies like Ricoh, Xerox, and Canon, we also continue to see a growing trend in institutions outsourcing their support services. So when I began hearing these countless heartwarming stories from employees offering care and support to students, I found myself wondering if these deeds of compassion were having any impact on student retention rates. A retention rate is the percentage of a school’s first-year students who continue to study at that school after the first year. Those who serve in enrollment management pay very close attention to these numbers. If students are leaving, they want to know why.
I gathered together a list of 100 colleges and universities; 50 of which outsourced their printing services and 50 who maintained their own internal print shops. I researched the student retention rates from each list and found that institutions that outsourced their printing averaged a 5% lower student retention rate. Because my study was clearly not scientific, I decided to write to the National Association of College Auxiliary Services to see what their research on this topic had shown them. After 3 months with no response, I wrote The National Center for Education Statistics and was abruptly told the NCES does not collect any data on whether or not institutions outsource their support services. Nor do they collect any data on whether or not these decisions impact student retention rates.
I subsequently reminded my contact at the NCES that most research focusing on student retention rates lists students’ personal affiliations with staff as a leading contributor to their overall satisfaction with their college experience. “If that is the case,” I argued, “why aren’t you gathering data on this? Doesn’t it seem more likely that a student would make a positive connection with a college employee than they would with someone who has no ties whatsoever to an institution’s mission or values?”
Apparently she had no interest in continuing our debate because she never responded.
I realize there are many factors that contribute to positive student retention rates. But the fact is; colleges and universities are communities. The employees who make up these communities are vital contributors to a student’s college experience. Their daily work makes a positive difference in the life of a student. I have seen colleges who outsource janitorial services, bookstores, dining, safety, ITS, payroll, and printing. In all of my research, I have not heard one story about a contracted employee who visited a student in the hospital.
I do not think the math of outsourcing truly ever adds up in the way it is often presented. Beyond the math, I believe a college community is also made weaker when support services are entrusted to outside vendors. If you know anything about IPMA members, then you know we are caring a community of hard workers. We care very much about what we do and who we do it for. If you are a college or university and you have decided to outsource your printing and mailing services, and those folks are IPMA members, then there is a good chance you just shot yourself in the foot.