Nicholas R. Santilli, Ph.D.
Senior Director for Learning Strategy, Society for College and University Planning
In 2014, I was a panelist at a conference that focused on the work of chief academic officers. The moderator kicked off the panel by posing this question: “What keeps you up at night?”
A word cloud swirled through my mind: shrinking enrollments, increasing net tuition revenue, decreasing the discount rate, accreditation pressures, innovation, defending the liberal arts, and improving access, persistence, and completion. I quickly realized my list became unwieldy. I needed to find some organizing principle and introduce some structure to this list.
Three themes emerged: cost, compliance, and relevance. In my opinion these disruptive forces are just as significant today as they were in 2014. Whether or not you agree that higher education is enduring its moment of disruption, there can be little argument that these three forces exert pressure on the sector.
The rise of the cost of attendance has been well documented. Tuition and fees, room and board, and ancillary costs have risen steadily for the past two decades. These cost increases have been identified as the underlying cause of the student debt crisis.
There is no doubt that student debt has reached oppressive levels. Institutions must find ways to reign in escalating of the costs of higher education.
However, it is important to note that while costs to students have risen, so have costs to institutions. Funding student success goes beyond direct instructional costs, and include facilities and staffing for career and academic support centers, student activities, and medical clinics. Additionally, funding critical operational units, such as institutional effectiveness, accreditation, planning, maintenance and grounds, IT, diversity, equity and inclusion, and advancement, serve student success.
Compliance has increased exponentially. Federal and state reporting burdens are only the start. Institutions must assemble assurance reports for accreditation reviews by institutional accreditors, as well as program and specialty accreditations.
The host of rankings surveys also creates a reporting burden on institutions. To respond, institutions build offices of institutional effectiveness to handle data requests. These data stewards are key in the day-to-day operations of the institutions.
Why note this? Simple: Compliance reporting is an overlooked cost driver for institutions.
Relevance stands between cost and compliance. We’ve seen the results of recent surveys regarding perceptions of higher education. Most still believe higher education leads to improved life circumstances, however, there is growing skepticism about whether the cost of higher education is equal to the return on the investment.
Some devalue the liberal arts, thereby escalating tensions between workforce preparation and a broad college education. Others worry about the state of free speech on campus.
It goes a long way
How does a campus respond? Two words: integrated planning.
Most institutions engage in strategic and operational planning. In fact, evidence of planning is a condition for reaffirmation of accreditation by all of the regional accrediting bodies. What is integrated planning, then?
The Society for College and University Planning defines integrated planning as “A sustainable approach to planning that builds relationships, aligns the organization, and emphasizes preparedness for change.”
Integrated planning is a social activity that depends on culture. Building strong, collaborative relationships across campus boundaries is essential for successful planning. The work of culture-building provides for effective working relationships, transparency, and investment in the success of the institution.
Institutional processes must be aligned in three directions; up, down, and sideways.
Upward alignment requires ground-level initiatives align with overall institutional strategic objectives. This form of alignment assures that day-to-day operational activities seek to support and advance the overall direction of the institution.
Downward alignment is also critical. The broad, strategic goals of the institution need to set vision and direction. Operational units should see their work aligning with the overall advancement of the institution.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, is horizontal alignment. This form of alignment is boundary-spanning and requires an institution’s individual parts to work beyond silos to achieve the goals of the institution.
Too often institutions suffer from insular planning processes that do not consider the relative impacts of a decision in one area of the institution on the work in other areas. In a conversation with a chief information officer, I learned that he was presented with an academic plan by a provost and was told, “make this work.” This CIO was unable to budget for new equipment and related resources because he was not consulted during the planning process. The facilities director at this institution was similarly dismayed when programmatic changes required new or renovated spaces on campus.
Again, a conversation or two may have helped avoid the tension that ensued when the academic plan would need to wait.
Disruption or a dip?
A mature integrated planning culture prepares institutions for disruptions — cost, compliance, and relevance — that impact higher education.
I know we suffer from “disruption fatigue.” Every challenge, many well-known to the sector for a long time, is couched in the language of disruption. I am not certain that higher education is experiencing disruption but rather just the usual challenges.
Pedagogical methods come and go, technology changes, and alternative providers threaten the delivery by promising faster, cheaper, and more effective educational programs. College and university leaders remain steadfast in responding to these industry threats through innovation.
The key component to innovation is integrated planning. Innovation occurs with thoughtful planning that leverages the power of boundary-spanning relationships and the alignment of institutional resources to advance the mission and purpose of the institution.