Assessing and Responding to Vulnerability

Becky Morehouse

Becky Morehouse

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This is the first of a multi-part series on institutional vulnerability. In this blog I review some of the characteristics that define or predict institutional vulnerability. Subsequent blogs suggest potential remedies.

For years, one of Stamats most popular conference presentations was a comprehensive overview of how a host of demographic, economic, and marketplace trends impact higher ed.

Vulnerability in Types of Colleges

After a thorough review of existing industry data, the presentation concluded by looking at three broad types of colleges and predicted their likelihood of surviving—even thriving—in the years to come:

  • Brand name schools
  • Colleges in the middle
  • Commodity colleges

Brand Name Schools

Firstly, we explained that brand name colleges will continue to do well. Their star power will see them through the ebbs and flows of the marketplace. While their future may not always be harmonious, it is secure.

Commodity Colleges

Similarly, the third group, commodity colleges, will do OK. While some will do better than OK, and some less, they will all survive if for no other reason than that they are largely public institutions or because they are in or near large metros. Generally, students choose these institutions based, in large part, on cost and convenience.

Colleges in the Middle

All in all, it is the second group of colleges—the colleges in the middle—that are most vulnerable. For the most part, these are lesser known private institutions that focus largely, sometimes exclusively, on residential, full-time students.

Based on this report, studies conducted by Stamats, as well as countless conversations and observations, I believe that the following characteristics describe colleges in the middle:

  • Rural/remote; removed from major population centers
  • Small, often less than 2,500 students
  • Private
  • Focus almost exclusively on traditional, full-time undergraduate students
  • Highly residential
  • Tuition dependent
  • High discount rate
  • Religiously affiliated
  • Little ability to shape their class as pressure to simply get the class increases
  • Academic programs are largely similar to those offered by competitors
  • Few high demand, high margin programs
  • More likely to describe themselves as liberal arts colleges (though most are not) than professional or pre-professional institutions
  • Have a cost that is higher than major competitors
  • Lower/falling graduation rates
  • Campus culture is highly resistant to meaningful change
  • Few cash reserves and/or unencumbered dollars
  • Aid for current students is disproportionately loan-based
  • More likely managed than led
  • Unable or unwilling to make tough decisions in a timely fashion
  • No compelling vision
  • Failure to reduce unhealthy dependency on tuition revenue

Indeed by some estimations, about 1/3 of the colleges in the country fall in this category.

Closings

Even though American higher ed is remarkably resilient, and premature predictions of its demise routinely find their way into the popular and higher ed press, lately we have seen a number of these “I’ve heard of this place” colleges actually close. The list includes Iona (founded 1888), Mills (founded 1852), MacMurray, IL (1846), and Concordia, NY (founded 1881) have closed. Other schools that have closed are Becker (1874) and Judson, AL (founded 1834).

While many believe that these closings are tied to Covid-19, the larger reality is that these and other colleges had been unable or unwilling to address key issues for decades and Covid-19 simply exacerbated or accelerated what had already been in play.

In many cases, the challenge has not been external forces as much as it has been an unwillingness to address the challenges of external forces.

Next week’s blog looks at strategies to help secure the future for these vulnerable institutions.

Interested in assessing and addressing institutional vulnerability? Drop me a note to discuss how Stamats can help.

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