|   | 

Low-Cost, High-Impact Innovation

As we move away from the forced changes of pandemic years and into intentional innovation, consider a few low- to no-cost efforts successfully undertaken by colleges and universities.

May 17, 2022  |  By Jeffrey Shields, NBOA President and CEO

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

For the past two years, our schools have been forced to change, adapt or completely rethink how we approach almost everything we do daily. This extends from how we use our facilities, to instructing our students, to taking financial processes from paper to the cloud. Although much of this change was thrust upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing remains clear: business officers and business office staff have helped to lead and create change at an unprecedented rate.

Responding to a crisis is one thing, but being the architects of change with intentionality is altogether different. Prior to the pandemic, one of the main barriers to innovation within our schools was the notion that true innovation takes resources that we simply don’t have at our disposal. Then as we moved through the crisis, unbudgeted expenses dominated our operating budgets. Many schools may still be feeling the pain. Despite these pressures, can our schools afford not to innovate?

That’s why I read with great interest a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “ 5 No-Cost or Low-Cost Ways to Improve Your Campus.” Authors Richard J. Light and Allison Jegla are both affiliated with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the former a professor and the latter a graduate and, more importantly, the global director of impact at 100 Women in Finance, an organization committed to gender equity in the finance industry.

In recent years, the education sector has provided fertile ground for idea generation and experimentation to improve the student experience. Better still, such experiments can be done in ways that don’t break the budget.

The premise of their article, and their recently published book, "Becoming Great Universities: Small Steps for Sustained Excellence,” is that in recent years, the education sector has provided fertile ground for idea generation and experimentation to improve the student experience. Better still, such experiments can be done in ways that don’t break the budget or have any budgetary impact at all. The authors share several ways schools can continue to shake things up, without racking up additional costs and remaining within limited budgets. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions that could apply to independent schools:

Gather ideas from students — and take action.

The authors share an example of a group of students who expressed regret that they interacted directly with only a fraction of the faculty. The creative solution was to host an open session for all students where faculty had the chance to share the most exciting thing happening in their area of discipline in just 10 minutes. The faculty jumped at the chance to talk about their subject matter expertise, and the students expanded their thinking as well. What ideas might your school’s students have? How are you listening to your students and considering their feedback?

Make learning even more active.

To increase student agency in learning, the authors shared how one faculty member made a small but meaningful change in their course design. Rather than lecturing for the entire class, they paired up students, and the pairs taught one aspect of the lesson to their peers. This increased emphasis on student learning and understanding, and allowed the faculty member to assume more of a facilitator role. The result of this small, no-cost change in classroom design? Students showed up better prepared, were more engaged, and spoke up more, and course evaluations were more positive. What a terrific way to tap our students’ potential for the betterment of their own learning.

Expand the curriculum by tapping new sources of expertise.

I recently spoke to a business officer who was thrilled to be asked to lead a financial literacy class for second-semester seniors at her school. The course included guidance on managing savings and investments, and preparing for retirement, among other important aspects of a personal budget. Developing the new course was arduous work on the part of the business officer, but the students in her class left with a truly applicable life skill that otherwise would not have been included in the school’s traditional curriculum. The article suggests tapping additional faculty or staff talent to offer low-cost efforts that support the whole student in areas typically not found in the curriculum. Their examples included enhancing public speaking skills, giving or receiving personal or professional advice, and moving past writers block when you need to complete a paper with an approaching deadline. If we want to impact the entire student, ideas such as these go a long way.

While it is clearly not the business officer’s responsibility to direct the academic program, it is their responsibility to seek cost-effective ways to enhance their school's value proposition. Since the business office is involved in almost everything a school does, ideas for low- or no-cost innovations would, I imagine, be welcome among the school’s leadership team.

Even though many of us are understandably feeling personally and professionally depleted by an exhausting and challenging school year, it’s energizing for me, and perhaps for you, to learn about smart ideas, easily applied, at low or no cost. May these and other ideas help buoy your thinking through the summer and into the fall. Let me know if any of these ideas resonated with you by emailing me at jeff.shields@nboa.org.

Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.

From Net Assets NOW, May 17, 2022. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.


Jeff Shields

Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE

President and CEO


Washington, DC

Jeff Shields, FASAE, CAE, has served as president and CEO of the NBOA since March 2010. NBOA is the premier national association serving the needs of business officers and business operations staff at independent schools. Shields, an active member of the American Society of Association Executives, has been recognized as an ASAE Fellow (FASAE) and earned the Certified Association Executive (CAE) professional designation. His current board service includes serving as a director for AMHIC, a healthcare consortium for educational associations in Washington, DC, as well as a trustee for the Enrollment Management Association. Previous board service includes serving as a director for the American Society of Association Executives, as a director for One Schoolhouse, an innovative online school offering supplemental education to independent schools, and as a trustee for Georgetown Day School in Washington, DC. Shields holds a BA from Shippensburg University and an MA from The Ohio State University.

Full Bio »



years is the target ceiling for a school plant's financial "age."

Get Net Assets NOW

Subscribe to NBOA's free twice-monthly newsletter.