March 11, 2019

What We Know, and What We Can Learn From Transformative Leaders

By Geoff Baird, CEO of Edcura

In 2016, we formed Edcura in response to a troubling trend in higher education. Scores of colleges and universities are struggling to adapt to the changing complexity of current market conditions and operating environments — the changes in demand, changes in the perception of value and the changes in each student’s decision journey. As a result, many institutions are moving down a path of financial instability that will put their futures in peril, ultimately hurting students, faculty, staff and their communities.

We’ve seen how declining enrollment, increased tuition discounts and challenges to retention, particularly for first-year students, exacerbate the major disruptions to higher ed. Colleges that have served students and communities for decades are now nearing or experiencing financial peril.

At private colleges with fewer than 1,400 full-time students, 28 percent experienced three consecutive years of net tuition revenue declines for 2015 to 2017, and 21 percent had declines in enrollment for that period, according to a report from S&P Global. The report also says those colleges had an average tuition discount rate of 49 percent in fiscal year 2017, and this combination of factors makes small private liberal arts institutions especially susceptible to closures and mergers.

There have been many proposed solutions over the past few years — increasing modality through online programs, investing in facilities, outcome-centric program development, recruiting international students — but the reality is very few institutions have been able to successfully transform their status and their financial situation with a single solution. There is no silver bullet. Even highly reputable institutions — such as Green Mountain College in Vermont, which had successfully carved out a a distinct identity — can’t always survive climbing debt and plummeting enrollment. Limitations on time, human resources and capital make transformation feel overwhelming and sometimes paralyzing to institutions and their leaders. The collaborative and interdependent nature of higher ed operations can make alignment on root causes, priorities and execution feel untenable, just as rapid response and execution becomes imperative.

What could happen, we wondered, if we combined decades of experience helping private companies successfully transform, survive and thrive these highly disruptive operating environments by applying in-depth knowledge of higher education operations and successful transformation? Could we create a company that speaks the language of higher education while still executing with the speed and diligence of a fast-moving commercial entity? We believe we have.

At Edcura, we understand the unique market challenges institutions face and the sources of these declining student populations and decreasing net tuition revenues. We bring forward a deep curiosity that drives us to seek to understand not only what the institution has done in the past, but how it must execute strategies to drive a different set of results — to compete and differentiate. Changing the growth trajectory of an institution requires a series of parallel initiatives that need to move in concert: marketing and messaging, student and industry understanding, deep data and analytics, financial discipline and the creation and execution of metrics-driven management, and operating systems that drive clarity, alignment and accountability.

To this end, we want to share what we believe, what we know and what we can learn from transformative leaders in higher education, particularly in the vulnerable segment of small and mid-sized independent institutions. We will share strategies that have made our clients successful, the current topics we are examining and methods to leverage the experience of transformative leaders to improve the sustainability of this industry as a whole.

What we’re reading:


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