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Higher Ed: Challenged as Never Before

6 min read

Recently, Scott Jaschik, the co-founder and editor of Inside Higher Ed gave the keynote presentation at ELEVATE 2018, our Mongoose user retreat. Scott spoke about the many challenges facing higher ed professionals and what institutions are doing (or need to do) to survive in the current social/political/economic climate.

“I do not know who groups call when they want somebody to give a speech that says ‘everything is great, just be happy’ but they don’t call me. They tend to call me to give a speech about lots of challenges; and that is my view of the situation in higher education, generally and particularly for those in enrollment management broadly defined. These are very tough times.”

Scott Jaschik believes there are three overarching issues and eight enrollment management-specific issues.

First overarching issue

The economic model for higher education isn’t working. Whether you’re referring to public higher education or private higher education, there are major concerns about the long-term viability of the current economic model.

Even if your institution is lucky enough to have money in the bank, you have to be smart about how you manage those endowments. Just in the last year, several schools have closed, including Mount Ida College, Atlantic Union College, Concordia Alabama, and St. Gregory’s. Also, St. Joseph’s of Indiana put itself on indefinite suspension. Smaller schools are merging with wealthier institutions to survive.

“You may be thinking all those institutions, they had "minuscule endowments, small enrollments, they had the odds against them" but I would argue that it’s tough even for colleges with more name recognition and money. Inside Higher Ed wrote about Earlem College in Indiana. Outstanding reputation liberal arts college and endowment approaching half a billion dollars. Earlem is in deep trouble these days. Earlem in 2017 took in 14.1 million dollars in tuition revenue. In 2008, a decade earlier, Earlem took in 21.3 million in tuition revenue. Think about that for a second — Losing a third of your tuition revenue in a decade.”

Second overarching issue

There’s a lack of consensus over the purpose of higher education.While those who work in higher ed might have a good idea of what the overall mission of higher ed should be, that perception is likely different in the eyes of the general public (the consumers).

Scott Jaschik references California Governor Jerry Brown, who suggested that higher ed follow the lead of the restaurant Chipotle when it comes to serving customers. The Chipotle model is simple: provide consumers more efficiency and fewer choices.

Is it better (to the consumer) for a school to provide a student with what they want or what the school thinks the student needs? Should schools be preparing students for a job or for life? Is success measured in experience? Opportunities? Grades? Employment? Depending on which school you belong to, you may have a different answer than your colleagues. It is not an “apples to apples” comparison, but an interesting conversation.

Third overarching issue

Higher education is divided by finances.The separation between very wealthy institutions and non-wealthy schools is growing. There are many schools that have to struggle, innovate and come up with new ideas while they’re being outspent 10-to-1 by the bigger schools down the street. This separation underlies a lot of the issues facing higher ed.

“It’s rare that I meet a president who is feeling good about their finances.”

Enrollment management-specific issues

1. Pressure to fill classes every year

Obviously, schools need students to survive, but due to competition, fewer applicants and other issues, it’s harder to reach goals year in and year out. In his conversations with school presidents and higher ed professionals, Jaschik states that he will often hear similar “cookie cutter” solutions to imposing threats.

To combat decreased enrollment pools, institutions will often:

  • Add a sports team
  • Attempt to recruit more full-pay international students
  • Add an attractive major to the curriculum

While these are reasonable steps to take, they are not sustainable across the board if every schools takes them. Jaschik believes that the key to survival for non-elite schools will be going “niche.”

Being “on brand” will help you reach your goals. Schools who know what they are and what kind of students they attract will have more success with enrollment and retention. Schools that chase the latest trend, ignoring the ‘brand currency’ they’ve collected could lose more potential students than they gain.

2. Boosting international students

A key part of enrollment strategy in recent years has been boosting the amount of full-pay international students.

In 2018:

  • 7% decline in new international students
  • 20% decline in intensive English language enrollments

A recent problem is that there is now a perception that the US is no longer welcoming to international students/people. While this may or may not be true, the perception is very real. The rest of the world assumes the average American is gun-happy and hates anyone who is not white.

Some students are taking their talents north of the border. The University of Toronto had an increase in Middle Eastern students of 86% and a 70% increase in the number of students from Turkey. Oddly enough, the U of Toronto had a 100% increase in the number of students from the United States of America.

While it may cost less to attend school in Canada, it’s also possible that the perception is that the country is more open to diversity.

3. Return on investment: Is a college degree worth the money?

A favorite topic of discussion in the media is this: “Is it worth it to invest in a college degree?”

In Jaschik’s view, higher ed has botched the ‘return on investment’ debate. Every social science study shows that it’s better to have a degree than to not have one.

It’s discussed as if there is any question, but the statistics prove that there is a measurable and tangible value to a college degree. Higher ed institutions are starting from behind having to make the case that they’re worth it.

4. Federal threats to affirmative action

The Trump administration has withdrawn guidance issued by the Obama administration on how to legally enforce affirmative action. US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy retired in 2018, and he was often a fifth and deciding vote in favor of affirmative action. The issue of the legality of affirmative action is now in question.

While all schools do not consider race in admissions, many colleges consider race when it comes to financial aid and special programs. Also, race issues can unfairly affect campus life. There is a deepening political divide in this country and that can raise issues for minority students.

5. More scrutiny of policies on ethnicity and diversity

Is it legal for elite universities to favor alumni children in admissions, even if the majority of those offspring are caucasian? Policies like ‘Early Decision’ favor wealthier, white applicants. Jaschik feels that school staff members need to be honest about who is favored when an application arrives at their desk. Admissions should be color blind.

6. State policies on free tuition

How can a private institution compete with a free school? Many private colleges are troubled by states implementing free public tuition. The challenge for private schools will be recruiting new students from out of state if they exist in a state where free tuition is offered.

7. Attracting more transfer students

Princeton University admitted transfer students for the first time since 1990.

It’s a sign of the times and raising the issue of whether or not colleges are doing enough to welcome transfer students. It’s not enough to accept transfers and their credits. Schools need to look at the student experience and make an active effort to seek out and recruit students from 2-year colleges. If it is a goal of your institution to increase that number, you need to think about what transfer students want. Consider incentives like career counseling for a 28-year-old single parent who left the workforce to return to school.

8. Fear of loans

Most institutions are losing students for fear of borrowing. Debt is scary. Many young people do not understand the difference between private loans and federally-backed student loans.

Colleges have lost the narrative, therefore, they’ve lost applicants. No matter how generous you are with financial aid, it’s lost if you don’t have people applying to your school. You can have great programs, but if your school is not properly explaining finances to 18-year-olds, opportunities will be missed.

Rising to the challenge

There is no one, simple fix. Jaschik insists that schools take a step back and look at the true challenges to higher ed and how they will be affected by long-term trends.

There will always be financial, ethical, and moral challenges. For higher education professionals, doing the right thing is not always easy because there are budgets to balance and masters to serve. Someone at the top is likely steering your ship and it’s hard to navigate waters when you’re not holding the wheel.

Here at Mongoose, we're sensitive to the challenges our client institutions face, and we're always working hard to help you better communicate with your constituents.


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