The Higher Education Contraction Is No Where Near the Bottom. Does Your College Have a Plan?

Over my career as an educational leader and consultant, I have developed many operational models for just about every functional area in a college or university. I’ve done that simply out of necessity as a chief executive and now have a substantial list to choose from. We can provide a free assessment of many game changing options for your college or university. One example is based on increasing the likelihood that a given school is among the group of institutions of higher education (IHEs) that survive and thrive the industry contraction vs. those that don’t.

In just the last five years, more than 1,200 college campuses have closed across the U.S., both for profit and not for profit. At a minimum, hundreds more will merge, close, or reorganize in the next decade, with the 800 or so private, not for profit colleges with enrollment of less than a thousand students being at greatest risk. In fact, helping colleges liquidate after closure has become a small growth industry in higher education. The good news is that we already have a baseline understanding of what successful institutions are doing and others will have to do, in order to survive and thrive. Every college and university has attributes and characteristics that are unique, both favorable and unfavorable, that influence what specific strategies and an overall plan look like, but there are some fundamental, shared requirements for the majority of IHEs that are at some level of risk. A sample list is below.

  • Have Alternative and High Margin Revenue Streams
  • Incur More Variable than Fixed Expense
  • Are Differentiated in the Market
  • Give Students What They Want
  • Have Programs that Require College for Employment
  • Pursue Value-Added Partnerships
  • Have Finance as a Core Competency
  • Are Really, Really Good at the Basics
  • Possess a Culture for Success (Innovative and Entrepreneurial)
  • Have Dynamic Leadership

In my experience the biggest barrier to success, or even survival, in the current environment is internal: Denial. In many of the more than 2,000 college campuses that have already closed going back to 2010, there was no meaningful acceptance of the crisis, let alone a comprehensive plan to survive, until the doors closed for the last time. In some cases, schools flailed around, cutting costs or juicing marketing, but they did not fully understand their situation and did not have a plan to address it. The biggest external barrier looming on the horizon is the growing trend of industry offering entry-level education and training on their own and simply ignoring colleges and universities as the source of their employees. That is the subject for another post!

The most basic elements of the survive and thrive plan require that an institution:

  1. Conduct a deep dive assessment of where there are gaps between what needs to be true both structurally and culturally to succeed versus what is actually true.
  2. Engage in a purposeful effort to identify, then prioritize what missing components will be assertively addressed (usually based on agreed upon ROI).
  3. Develop an enterprise level action plan to ameliorate the most pressing missing components.

This exercise often takes place in the context of an overall strategy review as well. The truth is that there is nothing mysterious or highly technical about the process. However, it is time and people intensive. Institutions that are transparent, willing to embrace risk, open about the breadth and depth of their challenges, and motivated to meet them head on, will dramatically change their likelihood of surviving and thriving. Those that remain in denial or are slow to act, will dramatically compromise their likelihood of success.

A common and heartbreaking observation I frequently make is how many institutions are so head down in the daily grind that they are either incapable of taking the time and making the effort to positively influence their future or they simply aren’t willing to make the investment. A shocking number of institutions, in effect, choose a slow death with a known, declining process and risk avoidance rather than embracing a path that, although potentially out of the collective comfort zone, might just ensure a long and prosperous future.

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