Five New Mexico colleges have created a 501c3 nonprofit and been awarded a little over $3 million from the 2021 legislative session in order to purchase and kickstart work under a shared software platform. The goal: to save money as well as make it easier and faster for students to graduate.

But it will be slow going for the foreseeable future—easier and faster processes are at least a few years out. Finding the right platform and installing it uniformly across campuses could take two to three years. And the changes will actually cost the institutions more money during the purchase and set-up process, though school leadership is not able to put an exact number on it.

It’s also still not clear how much money this initiative will ultimately save.

The platform will hold all of the schools’ financial records and student accounts, including admissions and financial aid operations, under one umbrella—something school leaders say that state institutions have needed to improve for some time. Students won’t have to submit multiple admission applications and registrations and schools won’t have to process them, and the number of student and employee records will also decrease.

Currently, even the schools that use a similar platform have adjusted it to fit their unique needs over the years, making work across institutions difficult.

Participants say the nonprofit, called the Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services, or CHESS, is the first of its kind in the country where public, independent colleges voluntarily collaborate as independent institutions.

Santa Fe Community College, Northern New Mexico College, Clovis Community College, Central New Mexico Community College and San Juan College are the first schools to join the effort and lobby for the money to set up the new software. The project has taken at least three years of planning and failed attempts to get funds from the state, including tries in the last two legislative sessions.

In 2021, the funds finally came from House Bill 2. But Rowley says the nonprofit is looking at federal funding, grants and private foundations to mine for further support. For now, the schools will split the $3.125 million.

“We had a couple of bills introduced to fund the project and so it’s taken us a while to explain what we really are trying to do and try to get widespread understanding for that,” says Becky Rowley, president of SFCC. “The other thing that’s been immensely helpful for us is that the Higher Education Department is very solidly behind our efforts and we really appreciate that.”

Rowley says there will be a “second wave” of schools who will join at a later date.

The agreement will make a number of things easier, including sharing funds and future grant money between the colleges and improve graduation rates. For example, if a student at SFCC needs to take a class to graduate that isn’t available for a semester, the student will easily be able to take it at a different school.

The same goes for professors—this software would make it easier for payroll employees at the school to pay teachers who work at multiple campuses, ultimately saving money.

“We have to spend a ridiculous amount of time and money on figuring out how to make sure everybody gets paid on time and correctly and we have to customize our systems so that we can do the things that we just really need to do,” Rowley tells SFR. “If we can minimize the amount of attention that we have to spend on a lot of those back door processes, we can spend more time and money on services that directly impact students and help them get their degrees and credentials sooner.”

Right now, SFCC spends around 10% of its budget on IT issues such as handling payroll and organizing students, and this new initiative will have “significant savings” once it’s up and running, she says.

Rick Bailey, president of Northern New Mexico College, says the collaboration will be particularly good for his students, of which there are only 1,238. It’s common at small schools like Northern that classes that have too few students are cancelled—called not “making” it—and students have to wait for a semester in the future when there are enough people to fill a class. This collaboration would effectively end that.

“In the past, our students were punished when that happened because we would have to wait until the following semester to offer the same class,” Bailey tells SFR. “With this collaboration, especially with all of our partner institutions building up their online capacity, it is…probable that those classes, when they don’t ‘make’ it, Northern will be available with one of our partners and we will be able to have those students participate in those other classes seamlessly. And at that point, it means our students will have a shorter time horizon to the graduation stage.”