How colleges are creating sustainable business models while upticking student support programs

"Part of DePauw's strategic plan as a flourishing university is recognizing and acknowledging that changes have to occur for us to remain healthy and flourishing," says Andrea Young, vice president for finance and administration at DePauw University in Indiana.

The demands placed on colleges and universities have evolved beyond providing a world-renowned education. Schools today vying to win applicants over must toe the line between investing in top-notch student support programs and keeping their degrees affordable all while sustaining long-term economic health.

Research by the Lumina Foundation found that providing advisers across academics, finances, mental health and other services is essential for the post-pandemic college cohort. However, this growing facet of higher education intersects with the public’s growing disdain for the degree’s price tag.

As a result, colleges have had to develop sustainable strategies to ensure they can continue spending money on student support and tuition assistance programs while ensuring their own financial viability.

“We’re seeing all kinds of votes of no confidence, all kinds of faculty uproar about changes due to business factors,” says Andrea Young, vice president for finance and administration at DePauw University (Ind.). “Part of DePauw’s strategic plan as a flourishing university is recognizing and acknowledging that changes have to occur for us to remain healthy and flourishing.”

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DePauw embraces consortiums, cost-cutting and new revenue models

DePauw is implementing a five-year strategic plan that promises to revamp its liberal arts education model. The foundation of its commitment is to provide a modern, robust catalog of student success advisers and alumni engagement opportunities.

But spending more money than one currently has is easier said than done, says Young. To support the development of new programs, DePauw had to draw on a wide range of strategies to ensure they could be funded without hurting the institution.

With the demand for mental health resources climbing, many institutions must reckon with hiring more counselors or contracting telehealth services. In response, DePauw joined MINDful College Connections, a shared-resource consortium for student mental health. Other members include the Rose-Hulman Institute for Technology and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

“I truly believe [consortiums are] the way of the future for small private higher ed institutions,” says Young.

While the consortium helped DePauw’s dollar go farther, it also underwent a seven-month evaluation of its total expenses and cut costs that didn’t align with its five-year plan. Some programs were cut entirely, such as student employment for those who don’t demonstrate financial need through the FAFSA.

Lastly, DePauw draws on revenue that falls outside the typical range of an academic institution. The university operates several businesses in the city of Greencastle, including an inn, a theatre and a bookstore downtown. “When the town of Greencastle is successful, it allows us to generate additional revenue through our revenue-generating enterprises located within the town of Greencastle.”

It’s currently speaking with developers to test the market on what other kinds of additional stores and housing opportunities they could provide between campus and downtown Greencastle.

As resourceful as DePauw has been to create a sustainable long-term strategy, Young recognizes the “luxury” her institution has, drawing from a deep well of endowment. Other universities, however, still found a way to make their student support programs work regardless.

Creating a sustainable tuition-free program at the University of Central Arkansas

This fall, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) announced that in-state students whose household incomes are less than $100,000 will not have to pay any tuition as they pursue their degrees. While not the first institution to launch such a program, UCA is a regional public university in a state with a median family income of around $52,000.

“It’s mostly going to serve all of its students; they’re making a huge commitment,” says Khadish Franklin, managing director at EAB who helped UCA create the sustainable tuition-free model. “This isn’t like a Duke, whose [tuition-free program] is serving a very small population of its students.”

UCA may not draw from a large endowment, but it did run a $100 million fundraising campaign that reached its mark almost a year before deadline.

However, UCA also blended efficient strategies with the help of EAB to ensure it can support its under-resourced students for the years to come. In collaboration with EAB, UCA, like DePauw, parsed through each department’s budget and reprioritized its spending to align with its commitment to student success most efficiently.

Secondly, before UCA covers students’ tuition bills, it ensures students and parents are well aware of all the scholarship and tuition assistance opportunities available to them before entering the UCA Commitment, a last-dollar program.

“A lot of students are going to school leaving money on the table and making sacrifices that they don’t have to,” Franklin says. “There are students who can be served by these programs who otherwise opt out of applying because they’re making the assumption they cannot afford to go.”

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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