Colleges in the Middle: Strategies to Help You Thrive

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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Over the next two weeks I’ll be reviewing a series of 10 strategies to help “colleges in the middle” thrive.

First, demystify turnarounds.

If you look at the Elons and Highpoints and even the NYUs and USCs, you’ll discover there was nothing magic or miraculous about their turnarounds. In fact, these schools, and other turnaround institutions, generally share six common characteristics:

  1. Great leadership
  2. Cohesive senior team
  3. Compelling vision
  4. The ability to decide on—and stick to—a course of action
  5. Broad board/trustee support
  6. The ability to raise money

One of the reasons so many schools are facing difficulty is that higher ed has always preferred managers over leaders. Managers, as we know, strive to preserve the status quo. Leaders, on the other hand, recognize and respond to the future. Joel Barker said managers manage within paradigms and leaders lead between paradigms.

Another differentiator is that colleges that thrive have a highly collaborative, action oriented senior team that eschews fiefdoms and supports one another and one another’s goals.

Compelling visions attract talent and resources. And it’s no coincidence that compelling brands are built on compelling visions.

Colleges that thrive decide on a course of action and resist pressure to cave.

Change-oriented presidents and senior teams gain political and financial support from the board.

Colleges that thrive recognize this is an extraordinary time to raise money, but only by recognizing two truths. First, donors give to vision (where you are going) and not mission (where you have been). And second, donors must see how their gift will advance their agenda, not just the institution’s.

Second, colleges that thrive make the tough decisions.

A couple of years ago I asked a group of college presidents what decisions they would make if there was no political fallout. Here is how they responded:

Results of question posed to college presidents

The number one decision was to eliminate academic programs. Close on its heels was increasing teaching loads and adding new programs. Though most presidents know what to do to advance their institutions, they are worried about the political fallout of those decisions. Colleges that thrive can make those tough decisions.

Third, colleges that thrive identify their sources of competitive advantage.

More than a simple distinctive competency, a competitive advantage is an offer that is of proven interest to your most important target audiences. Interest is demonstrated by their willingness to pay tuition rather than rely on discounts.

A competitive advantage could be linked to a high-demand program, a unique and compelling way of teaching, or even a location. The key is that your competitive advantage(s) must be sustainable and something your competitors won’t or can’t replicate.

Related reading: The Importance of Competitive Advantage

Fourth, colleges that thrive continually finetune their curriculum.

Not surprisingly, this is one of our most consistent recommendations. Because your curriculum is your most important strategic asset, it must be continually evaluated and revitalized. At the very least, this includes:

  • Continually assessing existing programs in terms of marketplace interest and investing in those programs with greater potential
  • Carefully identifying, quickly developing, and aggressively marketing new programs
  • Sunsetting low-demand (by students and employers alike) programs that consume resources and are not missional

Fifth, colleges that thrive develop alternative sources of revenue.

Colleges and universities in the middle are far too dependent on tuition revenue. Importantly, this does not necessarily mean you should recruit other kinds of students. Rather, it means you must develop predictable, significant, and sustainable sources of revenue that have nothing to do with tuition revenue.

Here are two examples. First, a college in Tennessee was able to lease gifted land to the State for a new prison. Second, two colleges, one in South Carolina and another in Florida, earn significant revenue developing and selling curricular materials to the home school market.

My next blog will look at another five ways to help your college thrive.

Stamats can help implement these five strategies so contact me for a broader discussion on strategic thinking.

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