Independent Colleges: 4 Headwinds for Leadership to Navigate in 2024

Our 2024 kicked off with a trip to sunny Florida for the Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute. The conversations and sessions covered the toughest current topics, such as endowments, cost of attendance, artificial intelligence, and others, giving us renewed appreciation for the hardest job in higher ed. 

Attendees navigated issues and solutions critical for campus leaders this coming year. Although the focus was on independent colleges, the issues and trends affect every institution in some form. We’re sharing four challenges that will shape the 2024 higher ed landscape.

Declining Enrollment

Enrollment continues to be a struggle industry-wide, with some independent colleges dropping as much as 50% in the last few years. There are multiple factors at play with enrollment, including COVID-19 and the challenges to evolve with the demographic shift

Strategy: An audience-centric strategy has the power to impact your enrollment, enabling you to identify your prospects’ needs and adjust your strategy to adapt to them as students progress through the cycle. You’ll understand how you’re perceived related to key topics so you can better align your messaging with your goals and in a way that resonates with your target audiences. When you center your strategy on your audience, you’re in a position to build relationships and grow enrollment. 

Pressure to Differentiate

The urgency for campuses to differentiate themselves remains top-of-mind. Carving out what makes you more unique than your competitive set is important. At CIC, we saw the need for liberal arts colleges (LACs) to amplify the value of liberal arts in career preparation and shaping society. For example, Hampshire College fundamentally restructured its liberal arts experience to address globally relevant problems urgently needing solutions. 

Strategy: Your existing brand and research are your anchor points for differentiating your campus. Take the opportunity to lean into your solid mission, vision, and values statements. Add in research by listening to the views of your students and prospects. This adds context to internal perspectives and helps you to see what aspects of your brand resonate. Use the market and competitor data to establish and evolve your unique brand, identifying competitor gaps and opportunities to shape your strategic outcomes and alleviate some of the most important risks.

Managing Risk

The current campus climate is tumultuous and presidents are on high alert for crises. The key takeaway for campuses was the importance of preparing for the consequences and impacts of a crisis more than the crisis itself.  

Strategy: You most likely have a risk management plan in place in one form or another, including what to do during a crisis and how to remain unified in your messaging. But a critical component of your preparation should be bolstering your listening before, during, and after a crisis. When you consistently listen to your audience, you’re aware of the conversation trends and topics, giving you better insight into potential or rising issues and the opportunity to mitigate them before they become a crisis.

Exploring Artificial Intelligence

AI is a topic of conversation everywhere, including CIC. College presidents shared how faculty are responding to AI, including the concerns that it’s diminishing academic rigor, prestige, and critical thinking. But we also saw evidence that AI is a moment for the liberal arts to shine due to the rounded and critical thinking nature of a liberal arts education. If you’re sensing resistance on your campus, remember that others are pushing ahead and could gain advantages over those who don’t lean into the possibilities. As you explore AI, it’s important to search for more inclusive tools that better reflect society. 

Strategy: As you consider AI on your campus, tap into your institution’s faculty or staff expertise in this area, survey your communities to gain an understanding of how they’re feeling about AI, and develop policies that provide guidance on exploring AI. The nature of AI is constantly changing so your policies should be living documents that are continuously reviewed and updated.

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