Future of higher ed: Cutting costs alone isn’t the answer for sustainability

Leaders should be considering partnerships and collaboration
By: | May 27, 2020
(Photograph by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash)(Photograph by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash)
Tom Kennedy is a consultant with Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search. He founded the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Tom Kennedy is a consultant with Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search. He founded the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities.

Private colleges are now discounting tuition at anywhere between 50% and 70% in order to attract students. Operating expenses have continued to escalate requiring our institutions to dip into their meager endowments, cut expenses and seek new revenue streams.

We should be realistic about the institutions’ financial status and prognosis. Knowing the current data and sharing this information with all constituents is critical. If the wolf is not yet at the door, he is prowling in the neighborhood. Too many institutions either shield the financial data from faculty and staff, or they don’t have a handle on critical pieces.

However, simply cutting costs isn’t the solution for future financial viability and sustainability. Our institutions are not known for innovation and change, so it is up to our leaders to challenge the status quo via external resource leveraging.

Read: Updated: 113 free higher ed resources during coronavirus pandemic

Collaboration through consortia

Collaboration can take on many forms and can enable smaller schools to compete with resource-rich institutions. It is estimated that more than 125 consortia are now in operation across the country. For example, library consortia have long been utilized by most colleges and universities. A more recent model is an online consortium.

Struggle times can also be fertile ground for creating new ways to do things.

The Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and University offers access for member schools to enroll their students in online courses. This consortium provides a seamless process that is cost-effective and academically sound. Member schools are able to reduce the number of sparsely enrolled classes and curtail the use of “independent studies” while generating a better return on tuition.

Read: Will higher ed’s digital transformation save it?

External partnerships

For small- to medium-size colleges, partnering with unrelated entities sometimes can be easier, more complementary and more productive than working with look-alike schools. If leaders interpret the college mission in a more flexible way, it will include a much broader audience. There are many examples where colleges have unlocked their self-imposed mission-based boundaries.

Fifteen years ago, Regis University in Colorado and Ana G. Mendez University in Puerto Rico created a for-profit organization to manage dual-language (English and Spanish) degrees in Florida, Texas and Maryland. Regis also partnered with National University of Ireland Galway (Irish Studies) and Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines (MBA).

Partnerships between colleges and corporations have yielded many instances of fulfilling mutual needs. Southern New Hampshire University and Walmart recently joined together to serve adult-learner employees. The University of St. Francis in Illinois at one time offered classes at Federal Express terminal locations using break rooms as classrooms.

Some of these relationships lasted only a handful of years, but both entities gained much from one another while serving students.

Read: How colleges are responding to the drop in Chinese enrollment

Future considerations

It may be time to consider partnerships with trade schools. As a model, Lewis University in Illinois successfully combines their aviation maintenance two-year program with core and business courses for a Bachelor of Science degree. St. Francis was a pioneer in developing the “upside-down” degree format by accepting nursing school diplomas as a major and providing core humanities courses to complete a bachelor’s degree.

Mutually beneficial relationships between colleges and various labor unions such as the Teamsters, the United Association and building trades should be examined. The renewed national emphasis in trades might coincide with the national need for critical thinking, interpersonal relations and communication skills for our workforce.

Smaller private colleges and universities should be able to function better, more efficiently and more quickly than their public counterparts. Unfortunately, most of the impediments they face are internal. Until they shift their thinking from vertical to lateral, they will struggle for survival and relevance. But struggle times can also be fertile ground for creating new ways to do things.

Tom Kennedy is a consultant with Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search. He has more than 50 years of experience, both in the classroom and in executive leadership roles. His higher education leadership includes establishing New Ventures of Regis University, a private, nonprofit; and founding the Online Consortium of Independent Colleges and Universities, where he was responsible for the development of online academic consortiums with more than 80 colleges and universities.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.