7 ways rightsizing (not downsizing) can help save colleges

Having the right size physical plant, workforce and programming can pay off—if you act now
Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit schools.
Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit schools.

Almost weekly we read about college closings. Some colleges in financial distress are merging with others. Some are creating partnerships with real teeth and enormous value in the short and long terms. But in many cases, mergers have wide and negative impacts on students, faculty, alumni and communities. 

Southern Vermont College, the college I led until 2014, shut down under new leadership. Despite my efforts and those of some remarkable alumni and a trustee or two, there was not enough time to save it. 

Everyone who runs or has been involved with a small or fiscally fragile college is thinking about solutions and approaches, even if their institutions are not faltering. It is not enough to survive; institutions need to thrive.

What can any higher ed leader do now? Rightsize. It’s something businesses have been doing successfully for years. Rightsizing involves creative forward thinking and action. It takes realizing that enrollment is down for the foreseeable future and rethinking how an organization can be structured to meet current needs. While there are no one-size-fits-all answers, here are seven rightsizing (not downsizing) strategies to consider.  

Rightsizing involves creative forward thinking and action.

1. Align faculty in high-demand areas

Focus on programs with current strength and consider areas of high need in the next year or two. There may be some gaps in the short term, but consider adjuncts. I have long thought that sharing faculty (with joint appointments) is another idea worth pursuing. Understand, however, that an institution can’t be all things to all students. Don’t enter fields in which the institution has no expertise. 

2. Think about the physical plant—and land

At the college I ran, there were old dorms that were costly to maintain and staff. If they had been knocked down (and yes, alums would have paid to swing sledge hammers), we could have doubled up in other newer and more efficient residential areas. And if that wasn’t enough, we could have rented a home or two or even space from nearby colleges. 

Residential life must match enrollment. Growth can come and new dorms can be built if needed.

Consider leasing buildings to area businesses. And don’t overlook land that could generate revenue through crops, orchards, hemp, flowers or maple syrup. Intergenerational housing could also be built by developers.  

Read: How bleak is the future at some small colleges?

3. Cut administrative personnel and salaries

Bloat in administration is a big deal as are high salaries. And ponder this: Don’t hire fundraisers who can’t raise enough to cover their salaries with money left over after 18 months. Don’t hire consultants to tell you what you know. Consider working with alumni with ideas and expertise.  

4. Create partnerships

Work with other colleges, businesses, high schools and programs—near and far—to meet student and workforce needs. Provide housing and opportunities for older students with children. Partner with local businesses employing students consistently so that students can learn and work. Think about semester or shorter programs, or night and early-morning classes; think about off-site classes in local or even faraway places with low or no rent and where there are few academic institutions.

5. Be honest about your institution’s strengths and weaknesses

Reass your assets and then use them wisely. Reassess the marketplace. Be realistic, but be creative and take risks, too. Acting outside the box requires more than thinking; it takes input and evaluation. But look at point six, below.

6. Act fast

Academia is notoriously slow to change. Most strategic plans collect dust on shelves, and once they’re completed, they’re outdated. Create a “change now” mentality. Reflect on rightsizing at myriad campus meetings over a three-month period. Then, act 

7. Make sure outside counsel is not married to liquidation or fearful of lawsuits

Find creative counsel who have new ideas and approaches to higher education and who see new trends. Don’t hire the lawyer or law firm whose clients have gone into liquidation.  

Bottom line: Don’t downsize and simply make cuts. Instead, rightsize by thinking about what the market demands now and two years from now—not 10 years from now. A budget can be cut without cutting to the heart of an institution. 

Remember: Rightsizing is a strategy for today—not tomorrow. By then it will be too late. Sadly, I know all about that.

Karen Gross, a former president of Southern Vermont College, is an advisor and consultant to nonprofit nonprofit higher ed institutions.

Karen Gross
Karen Gross
An author and educator, Karen Gross is the former president of Southern Vermont College, and was a senior advisor to the Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

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