30 Smart Business Ideas

When University Business editors interview senior higher ed administrators, one of the questions we like to ask is, "What was your smartest business decision?" Over the years that question has yielded a wide range of responses, from the seemingly trivial (such as not delivering junk mail to campus mailboxes) to the far-reaching (energy studies to maximize facility use).

What follows are 30 Smart Business Ideas culled from conversations with higher ed leaders that can easily be adopted at most any institution. You'll find 26 more suggestions in the online version of this article href="http://universitybusiness.com/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=969" target="_blank">here. And if you'd like to submit your institution's own smart business idea, drop us a line at editorial@universitybusiness.com, with "Smart Business Idea" as the subject line.


1. Build facilities with shared use in mind. RiverPark Art and Theatre Complex, created as the foundation of a new downtown arts campus for Columbus State University (Ga.), has played a major role in revitalizing downtown. Other building types with shared use potential include continuing education centers, fitness centers, libraries, museums, parking structures, and stadiums.

The Takeaway: Besides the potential for shared funding, opening up a campus facility to the community often means maximizing the building's use (giving a nod to sustainability principles) and building goodwill (which not only feels good but can come in handy on future zoning requests).

2. Be smart about studying your economic impact. Economic impact studies can encourage funding, support development, and foster town-gown relations. Interested in carrying out a study? Do your homework first. Consider an outside firm to conduct the study to ensure confidence and reduce skepticism in your constituents. Just don't file it away after it's complete. The College of William and Mary (Va.) used its study as a starting point for an in-depth analysis of the value of the college's community volunteers and outreach efforts.

The Takeaway: Having specific numbers to mention pays off big time.

3. Junk the junk mail. Like other institutions, the University of Idaho processes and distributes large volume of bulk mail, nearly all of which recipients immediately toss in the garbage. Starting next month, all bulk mail from sources outside the university will get recycled immediately rather than get distributed across campus. Major sources of bulk mail will be informed of the new practice and asked to stop their mailings. Also, on a department-by-department basis in an effort to encourage e-mail communication, students and staff will have the chance to opt out of bulk mail originating from on-campus sources.

The Takeaway: The move will save staff time, decrease fuel and equipment use, and decrease the volume of campus waste to be processed.

4. Ease the classroom space crunch. Geneva College (Pa.) officials subdivided larger classrooms and opened class sections during lunch after a classroom utilization study determined that only 13 classrooms on campus were used more than 67 percent of the time. Harvard and Brown have freed up classroom space by moving administrative functions not directly related to teaching off campus. And space analysis software helped Boise State University (Idaho) discover underutilized classrooms; it turns out they were poorly maintained, and spiffing them up made them a hot commodity among faculty and students.

The Takeaway: Maximizing classroom space makes for happier faculty and students as well as better utilization of campus facilities, which can mean energy savings.

5. Think electric for campus cars. University police, the parking facilities division, computer services, the mailroom, the trades division, and the maintenance department at Purchase College (N.Y.) all use Global Electric Motorcars to get around campus.

The Takeaway: These cars save a significant amount of fuel. Vehicle maintenance costs are also down, since the cars use variable-speed electric motors rather than internal combustion engines.

6. Garden with goats. The grounds maintenance staff at the University of Washington rents goats to eat weeds and other undesirable plants in steep areas where the terrain is too hazardous for humans to work.

The Takeaway: Although it's a little smelly, the solution is environmentally friendly and frees the staff for other projects.


7. Put basic human resource tasks in employees' hands. Managers at the University of California, San Diego, can view everything from the hiring process to job descriptions online, while staff at the University of Denver can update their own benefits and training information.

The Takeaway: Self-service technology can free up staff time and resources for other necessary tasks.

8. Determine what your hiring needs are ahead of time. Concerned about staffing shortages in the future, some IHEs are developing strategic hiring plans by exploring their risks as well as opportunities in order to build a competent labor workforce. The University of Texas at Austin formed a workforce planning unit to discuss and examine staffing issues, while Babson College (Mass.) established an internal task force to create a plan for faculty of the future. College officials with an eye on the aging workforce are taking steps such as creating part-time positions with health benefits and reconsidering age-old hiring criteria that place academic degrees over business experience.

The Takeaway: Thinking about tomorrow today helps avoid last minute hiring scrambles and can ensure new employees are a good fit.

9. Buddy up new employees with seasoned pros. Southwestern University (Texas) started a mentoring program for all new hires three years ago. Through a workshop, volunteer mentors are trained to help new employees get acquainted with the university's people, procedures, and culture. To mix it up a bit, people from different departments are paired together to offer different yet broader perspectives about how the university operates.

The Takeaway: Mentors can help new employees get acclimated, and then those hires will be more likely to stick around.

10. Partner with other schools for international recruiting. International students can add a lot to campus culture and to the bottom line. But there have been more hoops for them to jump through since 9/11, causing a decrease in their numbers. Institutions have teamed across state lines to share information and promotional efforts to aid the recruiting effort.

The Takeaway: Enrolling an internationally diverse student body won't happen on its own.

11. Give a grand student tour. Make campus visits more engaging instead of just having tour guides show where buildings are located. Set up a schedule for the day with a visitor through a phone call, e-mail, or online form. Treat visitors as though they're already accepted students, encouraging them to sit in on a class or eat a meal in the dining hall. A gift of complimentary memorabilia can also go a long way. Train tour leaders to present a knowledgeable but flexible approach to answering questions.

The Takeaway: Every contact with a potential student is a crucial one.

12. Get (home)schooled. Parents are homeschooling their children for a wide variety of reasons. If you determine that this population would be a fit on your campus, put a plan in place for outreach and adopt appropriate admissions requirements for when they come knocking.

The Takeaway: Qualified homeschooled applicants can help bring diversity and a new point of view to campus.

13. Have a clearly defined financial aid appeals policy. Staff in admissions, financial aid, and any other office involved in recruitment activities should understand and be able to communicate the steps a family must follow to initiate a secondary review. The policy should remove any emotional influence to avoid having parents succeed in "negotiating" better deals.

The Takeaway: Families will appeal, and having a policy in place is the first step to ensuring they are treated fairly and with respect. diversity and a new point of view to campus.

14. Accommodate students with chronic illnesses or disabilities. Students with illnesses that unpredictably increase or decrease in severity (such as lupus) or that involve frequent hospitalizations (such as cancer or heart disease) may find it almost impossible to meet the requirements of a conventional college program. DePaul University's School for New Learning (Ill.) houses the Chronic Illness Initiative, a supportive, flexible program for college students facing chronic health conditions. It offers services so these students may complete the School for New Learning's requirements and earn a degree.

The Takeaway: Students facing an illness may be particularly eager to keep learning, so do what you can to help them succeed.

15. Consider making student health insurance coverage mandatory. Voluntary health plans are seeing rates skyrocket because only those who need coverage most tend to purchase them. Some institutions, and even entire states, are requiring students to have coverage. Since Florida State University made this move, its plan has been able to cover more, from preexisting conditions and prescription drugs to an off-campus urgent care center.

The Takeaway: New health care realities call for rethinking old practices.

16. Get the word out on student debt. With headlines announcing that students are graduating with record levels of debt, the expectation is that IHEs will make them aware of the hazards. Debt management is a life skill that will serve students well. Efforts at the Indiana Business College have led to increased retention rates and enhanced trust. Student default rates at the school are down while credit scores are up. No one mentions it, but there is always the possibility that less money sent to repay student loans means more money alumni can donate.

The Takeaway: Increased student debt loads are everyone's problem, and getting students to stay and have trust in their school is certainly a good thing.

17. Encourage connections to potential corporate dollars among all positions on campus. Consultant Ted Grossnickle of Johnson, Grossnickle, and Associates says he's seen situations where a university corporate gift officer initiates discussions with the corporate foundation gift officer and where university researchers have initial conversations with company researchers. Even volunteering by faculty or staff members in the community can result in valuable relationship building.

The Takeaway: Anyone can play the role of salesman and bring in a pledge.


18. When choosing a communications medium, ask your audience. Students, faculty, and staff might be open to getting online publications and saying adieu to print versions. Following the results of a survey, the University of Missouri-Columbia Graduate School learned that more than half of its constituents had no preference on whether they accessed the school's graduate course catalog online or in print. By offering the catalog as both a PDF file and a collection of web pages, the move saved about $12,000 and countless hours.

The Takeaway: Don't assume a particular audience prefers either print or online communication.

19. Make it easy for the media to cover your school. The most effective media relations web pages can be reached via a direct link from the home page, include 24/7 e-mail and phone contact information as well as complete mailing address, feature an academic experts online directory, have searchable current and archived press releases with targeted RSS feeds or e-mail subscription options, offer background information, and include downloadable photos in high resolution for print quality.

The Takeaway: If reporters can't find your media relations page, the institution will have fewer opportunities for positive stories to appear as well as less of a voice in stories that could be seen in a negative light.

20. Have a mass notification system in place. Formerly thought of as a way to provide weather-related advisories or remind students about an event, in the post-Virginia Tech tragedy era everyone is talking about how to help ensure the safety of students, faculty, and staff during a true emergency. The best systems support multiple cell phone services.

The Takeaway: With every minute counting as a troublesome situation unfolds, it doesn't pay to be caught off guard with no system to use.

21. Maximize revenues on product licensing. According to a Collegiate Licensing Company study, the top-performing licensor schools were generating nearly 60 percent of royalty revenue in apparel and almost 40 percent in nonapparel (such as insignia merchandise and gifts). Those that make much less in licensing revenues averaged 85 percent of royalty revenue in apparel and only 15 percent in nonapparel; they're not taking advantage of nonapparel opportunities.

The Takeaway: Consider licensing all types of products.

22. Tell potential donors exactly what their gifts will mean. Last year at this time, a University of California, San Diego, press release titled "Forget the Gift Wrapping: Ten Ways Private Gifts to Public Universities Can Change Lives" was widely distributed internally and to local and national media. It stressed how support of any amount could make a positive impact-from the $100 gift that purchases a campus library book to the gift of $500,000 or more that could establish a permanent endowed faculty chair. While officials can't directly attribute the press release to increased donations, in online giving alone UC San Diego received 82 percent more donations via the web for December 2006 compared to December 2005.

The Takeaway: Touching people with examples of how their money could be spent shows the institution takes their donations seriously.


23. Allow self-service scheduling of campus resources. Constituents at Yale, Harvard, and Northeastern University (Mass.) can arrange everything from campus tours and advising sessions to fitness classes and lab time through a web-based hosted solution offered by TimeTrade. Customized to each campus, the system checks real-time availability, reserves resources, and sends attendees confirmation and reminder e-mails. PeopleCube offers a similar solution with Resource Scheduler and Meeting Room Scheduler.

The Takeaway: Staff members are freed from scheduling appointments over the phone, and no-shows are reduced.

24. Recognize the potential of business intelligence. A BI system can help digest and process data. For instance, rather than just sharing numbers about Organic Chemistry 101 enrollment, it will digest the information and other data to conclude that the class is being offered at a good time or, perhaps, that it's losing students to the Biology 101 class being offered at the same time. The National University of Health Sciences (Ill.) has used its system to improve the registration process. By determining the peak online registration times, the system helped officials decide to add more staff to answer questions.

The Takeaway: BI quickly gives decision makers more data power than ever before.

25. Verify data entered by students as part of a self-service portal. Online address update functionality can save staff time, but if the data isn't accurate, there goes the whole point. Many institutions are solving the problem inefficiently-having staff manually check address information-and some schools have even turned off their self-service applications for lack of a solution. A front-end address verification strategy can help. At Northern Michigan University, bad address data was delaying time-sensitive student and alumni communication and impacting procedures such as the delivery of campus parking permits. The IT department's strategy included integration of QuickAddress Pro Web from QAS with its administrative suite, SCT Banner from SunGard. Now, before student data is recorded, it is instantly verified against official postal authorities, and errors such as missing ZIP codes are corrected. If the address is undeliverable as entered, the student gets a prompt. All students get a quarterly e-mail asking them to update their address information.

The Takeaway: Make sure self-service is serving the institution best by ensuring data entered is accurate.

26. Log in to collaborative software. E-mail bandwidth can be saved when students in distance learning classes can share documents online instead. The risk of multiple versions of a document languishing in in-boxes is also eliminated. Marketing and communication staff at the University of Portland (Ore.) save time and money by placing print jobs in a secure network location then sending vendors the link, reducing the need for couriers.

The Takeaway: New technologies allow for better collaboration.

27. Review your database. Many IHEs leave report generation in the hands of the IT department. Another option is rolling out as-needed abilities to specific user groups.

The Takeaway: The ability to pull certain student records, such as attendance or schedules, can make everyone's life easier.

28. Thoroughly investigate all suspected data breaches. Gathering information in a manner that ensures forensic accuracy will help with any potential lawsuits. But an in-depth investigation might reveal that the compromised data never left campus, eliminating the need to spend time and money notifying constituents. The investigation might also reveal other security weaknesses that can be addressed.

The Takeaway: Data theft must be taken seriously to establish and maintain trust from constituents.

29. Establish and continually improve an electronic admissions process. Besides being an option that today's students expect, online applications can draw more applicants, help admissions departments feel less burdened, and result in quicker response time. At Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.), which uses Datatel's ActiveAdmissions system, the admissions department processed 30 percent more applications in early 2007 with the same number of staff members.

The Takeaway: Applicants are happier when they can check their application status online, and the technology helps free staffers for other tasks.

30. Take advantage of web analytics technology. According to a 2006 report, about half of the respondents to a Media Logic survey on higher education e-marketing reported using web analytics to track usage of their websites. Case studies from web analytics companies have shown that using the technology can drive huge increases in microconversions (including registration form completions, contact form submissions, and downloads, for example), self-service on the site, and online giving. However, few web teams at higher ed institutions are using the technology for tracking prospects from inquiry to enrollment (or giving) and beyond. A little more than one-third of survey respondents said they have the ability to determine what content leads visitors to convert on the institution's website, and only 22 percent of respondents said they are segmenting their audiences for more targeted outreach.

The Takeaway: Use available tools to maximize your website's effectiveness.

Category: Business ideas

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