- When it comes to strategic planning, just one in six colleges is looking a decade or more ahead, according to a new report from the American Council on Education (ACE), Huron and the Georgia Institute of Technology based on a survey of 495 leaders at four-year institutions.
- They cite several challenges ahead: more competition for new students, particularly from national universities investing heavily in online education; an increase in nontraditional students; less state and federal support; and declining public confidence in higher ed's value.
- While they say their institutions are prepared to meet students' changing needs, they are less confident in their ability to address new forms of competition or change how the public views higher ed.
The majority (86%) of higher ed leaders surveyed expect competition to intensify. While about three-fourths (77%) are worried about existing competitors increasing their market share, about half (52%) expressed concern that national universities will scale into their territory. And one-third (34%) expect competition from startups and alternative education companies.
Private college leaders were warier than their public college counterparts of increasing competition for students and the decline of the traditional-age student population.
Meanwhile, public college leaders were significantly more concerned about a drop in federal and state funding, with 63% of respondents from that group saying it will be one of the top three revenue and market trends to impact higher ed in the next five years, compared to 20% of private college leaders who indicated the same.
Although higher ed faces "a growing sense of urgency" to address these threats, the authors note, the challenges and solutions will likely vary by institution. And in some cases, they said, burdensome cost structures "may be ill-adapted" to the shift toward nontraditional students, who don't demand as many campus-based services and amenities as traditional students, the authors write.
That could have the effect of shortening their planning timelines. Just over half (57%) of leaders said their institutions are planning three to five years out, according to ACE. That's compared to 19% who said they are planning within a six- to nine-year window and 16% who said they are looking 10 or more years into the future.
To help plan further ahead, the report's authors make four recommendations. They are:
- Take a collaborative approach to leadership with shared accountability and deliberate performance management.
- Address short- and long-term questions when planning.
- Share data and technology to improve performance management.
- Set up innovation centers to develop services for new types of students.
However, 62% and 47% of responding leaders, respectively, said they had change management and innovation/research and development roles involved in strategy and planning at their institutions. Between one-quarter and one-third of respondents plan to do so in the future — figures that were slightly higher for leaders who feel that their institutions are prepared to respond to change.
The report comes as higher ed stares down potentially fewer traditional students, more competition online, less state funding, and concerns over public perceptions of higher ed. These pressures have made smaller public and private institutions vulnerable to consolidation and even closure.
In August, three higher ed associations called on colleges to make better use of data and analytics to drive strategic decision-making, including recruitment, cost-cutting and operational efficiency. Their recommendations for doing so reflect ACE's call for collaboration, such as by streamlining data collection.
"You can honor higher education's long tradition of moving carefully, but not be immobilized," the groups wrote. "The stakes are too high."