With many public and private colleges and universities facing budget pressures, officials need to look for savings in every department, including IT. Rather than cutting programs or laying off instructors, colleges should look at virtualization to make their infrastructure more efficient and cut costs.

Some changes could even turn into real selling points for universities in their quest to attract students.

Look at what the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management did to help the 1,500 students who had problems accessing the information systems lab.

“Students were limited by the hours that the lab was open, a problem especially for those who work during the day,” Alessandro Seazzu, director of information systems, said. And granting administrative access for a public lab environment posed security risks. In addition, distance learning students couldn’t use the lab’s resources, and students who did use the physical lab often had to share machines.

Once the School of Management implemented a virtual lab, courses could be offered completely online.

“Students can access and complete their homework assignments from anywhere in the world at any time,” Alessandro said.

So in addition to the virtual lab being a more efficient use of the school’s resources, it gave the school another benefit to tout to the students it recruits.

According to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Education, about 5.6 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in fall 2009, the most recent period for which figures are available.

“Nearly thirty percent of all college and university students now take at least one course online,” said Babson College statistics professor Elaine Allen, a co-author of the study, which surveyed more than 2,500 schools.

With the 21% growth rate for online enrollments (compared with just 2% in overall higher education enrollments), schools that can combine efficiency with expanded offerings will see a huge opportunity.

With its virtual lab – which could be replicated in departments like the sciences – the Anderson School of Management gained an advantage over others with more limited resources and connectivity. And with the economic downturn increasing competition for students, universities will appreciate the edge virtualization can give them.

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