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April 29, 2019 | Institutional data analytics

3 Major Changes to the Role of the Higher Ed CIO

Only 30 years ago, there were fewer than two dozen CIOs in the entire industry of higher education. Now, more than two-thirds of colleges and universities have a CIO, with still others that have added a CIO-like role with a different title.1 But the increasing number of CIOs only tells part of the IT story in higher education. Over the last three decades, the responsibilities, skill sets, and mindsets of these information stewards have grown beyond IT, evolving to meet new industry and consumer needs and keep up with the pace of technology. Read on to learn three ways the CIO role is changing in today's higher education sector.

1. Thinking and Acting Strategically

Today, CIOs are no longer simply, or even primarily, procurers of technology. And this trend isn't unique to institutions of higher education; across many organizations, roughly a third of technology purchasing power is moving to non-IT leadership.2 At the same time, the strategic role of the CIO at colleges and universities is growing significantly. Currently, CIOs in higher education spend up to 27% of their time in a business strategist role and would like to see more of their functional duties lifted so that they can focus even more on strategy.3

Increasingly, the role of the CIO is about understanding how IT and the larger institution align, or how they should align. Before evaluating or implementing technology solutions, the CIO must not only understand the strengths, needs, and potential opportunities of various departments but also have a working understanding of the institution as a whole and how the technology issues and problems faced by one group may impact others. Working closely with institution leadership provides CIOs with access to the knowledge and relationships that then inform their tech decisions.

2. Delegating and Outsourcing

Higher ed CIOs wear a lot of hats, including business partner, contract negotiator, IT strategist, technology evangelist, and more.4 Meanwhile, their responsibilities have expanded, incorporating managing the complexities of interactive whiteboards, data analytics platforms, and disparate operating systems; handling security and privacy concerns; and creating acceptable use policies around networking and data. On top of this, they need to manage interdepartmental and institution-wide relationships and contribute to strategic planning.5 Under this pressure, even CIOs with large teams and robust skill sets will find it increasingly necessary to delegate and strategize around staffing, workflows, and project management. Forward-looking CIOs will stay ahead of this curve by training and supporting staff to bolster retention and efficiency, promoting from within, and outsourcing projects or pulling in consultants with specific expertise to fill gaps.

3. Balancing Mobility, Agility, and Cost-Efficiency

While mobile-first approaches are all the rage, the fast-track development of mobility can actually hinder efficiency if not done properly. Too often, applications are built with agility rather than longevity in mind; created quickly to address a pressing institutional or educational need, they may not integrate well with other systems or applications, or they may have weak user experiences that result in poor student or educator engagement.

At the same time, mobility is important. Beyond the fact that educators and students expect it,6 mobility can positively impact everything from student advising and recruitment to registration and grade tracking.7 But the agile development of short-lived piecemeal solutions is neither a cost-effective nor an efficient way to connect students, educators, and administrators. Today's higher ed CIOs must help universities embrace a holistic view of technology, marrying the convenience of mobility to the comprehensive and long-term needs of both students and their institutions.

A Higher Ed Transformation

Colleges and universities that want to stay viable in an increasingly competitive higher ed landscape are looking for ways to integrate data into all aspects of decision-making—without getting bogged down by information overload. And as technology expands institutions' ability to understand factors leading to recruitment, retention, academic choices, graduation, and more, the role of the CIO is likely to continue to grow as well. The challenge for these CIOs—today and in the near future—will lie in helping institutions transform themselves into responsive organizations that can meet student needs while simultaneously doing more, with less.

The higher education sector is changing fast, and the expanding role of the CIO is one trend to keep an eye on. To learn more about trends in higher ed IT, download our e-book, The Intersection of Technology and Learning: 5 Important IT Trends in Higher Education


  1. Jonathan Huer, "A Brief History of the CIO," EDUCAUSE Review, August 13, 2018. 
  2. Mark Brinda and Michael Heric, "The Changing Face of Technology Buyers," Bain & Company, July 23, 2018.
  3. Aletha Noonan, "How the CIO's Role Has Changed in Higher Ed," Management, EdTech, March 1, 2016.
  4. Wayne A. Brown, "CIO Effectiveness in Higher Education," EDUCAUSE Quarterly, February 6, 2006.
  5. Dena Speranza, "Challenges And Changing Trends For CIOs in the Higher Education Industry," Education Technology Insights, n.d.
  6. Meghan Bogardus Cortez, "Students Find University Apps Helpful, but Want More Personalization," Digital workspace, EdTech, December 21, 2017.
  7. Rhonda Dean-Kyncl, "Mobile Advising: Engage Students and Contain Costs," Case studies, EDUCAUSE Review, April 21, 2014.

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