5 Focus Areas for Campus Presidents Amidst Decreasing Trust

It’s not surprising that 72% of college presidents agree or somewhat agree that their institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming, or other operations (Inside Higher Ed’s 2023 survey of presidents).

Or that roughly 40% of U.S. higher ed institutions are at, or nearing, financial risk, calculated by EY-Parthenon’s Institutional Viability Metric (IVM). Of these institutions, public campuses are less likely to be stable than their liberal arts and private, nonprofit counterparts.

And no wonder—in 1990, state-per-student funding was almost 140% more than that of the federal government. But in the last two decades, the gap between state and federal funding narrowed, with state funding per student only 12% above federal levels in 2015. This has dramatically changed the landscape of higher ed funding—federal funds are typically granted to individual students and research projects, while states typically support the general operations of public institutions. While not the only reason for this change, a lack of public trust in higher education is a big part of the challenge in advocating the value of an education to elected officials—only 51% of U.S. adults, down from 70% in 2013, consider a college education to be very important.

With a crisis of faith in the value of higher education and federal and state funding converging to similar levels, institutions are left to fill the gap. Endowments, gifts, and grants often come with restricted funds, athletic funds are usually re-distributed toward a variety of athletic expenses, and revenue from auxiliary services on public research campuses (e.g., housing, university bookstores, etc.) are often self-supporting, with little surplus to apply to operational expenses.

The situation leaves higher ed leaders with three obvious solutions: cut expenses, increase unrestricted funds (tuition and fees or giving), and/or increase demand.

We see these solutions play out in predictable ways on campuses. 

  • Across-the-board budget cuts? Brain drain and unimaginable pressure on the staff who stays. 
  • Stand alone tuition and fees increases? Your campus is seen as increasingly unaffordable to current and prospective students, threatening retention and recruitment. 
  • Trying to increase giving? Alumni aren’t receiving perceived reciprocal value from their alma mater nor bought into why their dollars matter. 
  • Trying to increase demand with the same approach? The volume of the traditional college-going demographic (high school students) is expected to drop significantly this decade.

Largely, these tactics may deliver short-term relief, but they don’t provide long-term results. And presidents know it. 

  • 76% of presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed agreed that “the pandemic, and subsequent necessary changes (e.g., adopting more remote learning) has created an opportunity for my institution to make other institutional changes we have been needing to make anyway.” 
  • 40% of presidents are focused on transforming their institution’s core structure and operations for long-term sustainability. 

This is the hard, necessary work to save higher education in the U.S. today. We must be focused on intentional, strategic, and informed ways to transform our campuses for long-term success. However this work requires expertise that is typically fairly new to campus administrators. If you’re a campus leader without experts who have industry experience in marketing, finance, sales, and change management on your staff, chances are you’re hearing the same recycled ideas I shared above that put you in an untenable position.

The thing is, three quarters of you know what you need to do, but you’re in an impossible position. As a campus executive, how can you expand your approach and support system to cut through the obvious solutions and instead solve the problems that will drive revenue and increase the long-term sustainability of your campus?

Focus on Revenue Generation

First, ensure your Northstar—long-term financial stability of your campus—guides all of your decisions and is appropriately contextualized. What are you willing to change as you seek this goal? What are you not willing to change? Make sure to share that with your campus leadership. 

  1. Look for support as you envision, explore, and implement these changes—you’ll guide a lot of them. How comfortable and confident are you in managing change? Build your skills or evaluate bringing on support to help you, and your campus, navigate big changes successfully.
  2. Identify your revenue-generating and revenue-supporting roles across campus. Prioritize and fund them in the short term while you build and implement a revenue strategy.
  3. Work with department heads to identify major priorities that support revenue or retention. Agree on critical priorities and staff appropriately. Don’t spend time or money on non-revenue driving priorities. As you accomplish your critical priorities, review and re-prioritize what gets added back into the schedule.

Evaluate Your Student Experience

Evaluate and adjust how your campus delivers educational services. How well are your educators prepared to successfully transform their courses to an online experience? Virtual classes require different skill sets to deliver. Who might you be able to bring into your campus life with successful virtual classes, cohorts, or programs?

Review Your Marketing Operations & Cross-Campus Collaboration

Your marketing teams can be a powerhouse for institutional change, helping bring to the table the right stakeholders to tell a differentiated brand story and build the top of the enrollment funnel.

  1. Review and change your marketing, advancement, and admissions team composition, structure, and pay. Do you have the right experts in place to drive prospective students to admissions, move them through the awareness to admit process, and generate value for alumni through fundraising? Hire for results or transferable revenue-driving experience—the more expertise you prioritize and pay for, the more likely you’ll see greater progress on your revenue goals. 
  2. Review and change how your marketing teams support admissions and advancement. Ask your marketing team to measure how many prospective students their efforts added to the enrollment funnel. Do they work with admissions to align how students move through the funnel? How does your advancement team welcome students to alumnihood—and nurture a post-graduation relationship for years to come?

Ensure Your Brand Story Is on Point and Unique Educational Outcomes Clear

Higher ed has a branding problem, but campuses can focus on what makes your campus unique to tell your brand story and how you support social mobility outcomes for your students.

  1. Review and change your marketing and branding strategies to ensure a clear position on what differentiates your campus to attract prospective students. Listen to your prospective students and their support network, as well as your faculty and staff, to identify and own what makes your campus unique, and you’ll increase the quality of your enrollment pipeline, yield, and retention.
  2. Ensure you are crafting and sharing a narrative at the local and state levels for the economic value your campus offers. What systems do you have in place to measure alumni outcomes, campus employment stats, or industry research and grants? Those outcomes should regularly be promoted and shared with newspapers, legislators, and the public.

Build a Marketing and Experience Strategy to Support Non-traditional Students

The industry is facing a demographic shift as the traditional college-going population decreases and students from different backgrounds represent a community of new students to serve.

  1. Review and change your marketing strategy and campus experience to reach and retain non-traditional students. Do you have the right strategy in place to re-envision how marketing can help you meet your revenue goals? Make sure you’re reaching non-traditional students, since the numbers of traditional college-going high school students has (and will continue to) dramatically decrease this decade. Do you have the right student support structures in place to align with the shift in your campus demographic?
  2. Set out to understand and improve the experiences of audiences that are critical to campus revenue, including prospective students, current students, and alumni. How do you make sure you regularly hear the diverse voices and experiences of these audiences to nurture and improve their relationship with your campus? Confirm that what you learn informs strategies that support revenue, including positive enrollment, retention, and giving outcomes.

Returning to the Inside Higher Ed statistic, almost 75% of college presidents agree that fundamental changes are needed to ensure the success of their institution. What steps have you taken to move toward change on your campus? What roadblocks or successes have you encountered? As a higher ed success partner, I’m eager to hear from you.

Make Transformative Change on Campus

We share three patterns we've seen emerge through years of studying higher education and its audiences through the lens of social listening research for six years and engagements with over 100 organizations. Take a deep dive into these patterns, the data supporting them, and the strategies you can use to break the patterns to make transformative progress in 2024. 

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