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Constitution & Commitment — AGB Conference Reflections


If only for a cohesive, supportive team.

Almost 1,000 Edu trustees and presidents attended the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) annual conference in San Diego a few weeks ago. 80% were university trustees – volunteers who help keep the US higher educational system running. That’s an impressive thought right there.

As you can imagine, conference sessions addressed big ideas. Yet, consistent themes came to life in almost every session I attended.

  • Team approach is in short supply between trustees and university administrations.
  • Pressure to change the higher ed business model is growing, yet few institutions have the wherewithal to address it as quickly as needed.
  • Most have been avoiding the difficult conversations facing all of us. This is making things worse, even dire.

A bit of a downer. But stick with me. The ideas matter.

The higher ed business model has long needed to change. According to AGB, 25-35% of US institutions are experiencing a negative cash flow. Let that one sink in.

Quick math: the US has ~4,000 higher education institutions. 25% of 4,000 = 1,000. Mmmm hmmm.

Negative cash flow. 1,000+ institutions.

So that, along with the fear-inducing age demographics we are all grappling with (fewer traditional US students ahead), there is reason to be concerned and reason for the conference presenters to continue to ring the warning bell that has been sounding for nearly a decade. This has all been predictable and predicted.

Which brings us back to point #3 above: human beings don’t really like difficult conversations.

Which leads us to the importance of a cohesive team. The challenges we all must face right now, this year, and for the foreseeable future, require an aligned team. Those without that alignment are going to falter, a lot.

On the brighter side, it’s not as if human beings have never faced challenges before. The history of the world is full of stories of challenges faced and overcome. We have a responsibility to face the challenges before us now as those who came before us faced theirs – giving us the opportunities we have ahead.

Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Below you’ll find inspiring exploration of where we all go from here to make our institutions rise despite the challenging times. I’ve grabbed some of the best insights from the sessions that prompt us to explore, evaluate, plan…and then, since these are trustees, they hand it off to others to deliver. (That means you ; -) And don’t worry. We’re right by your side. We are up for it and eager to dive in.

To get the inside scoop on how your institution will face the future, read on

My favorite question to the trustees at the AGB conference:

If your org did not exist today, would you found it?

Basically asking: Is there a need in your community, or the broader world, for what you offer? An important question for trustees. An important question for you.

So here’s another good one: is what you offer what students need?

Institutions are facing the same challenge all services face at some point in their lifecycle: if a new product enters the market that offers the customer the same outcome but faster and cheaper, how can you adapt?

Certificates and badges are here and employers are embracing them. Adult learners and traditional students alike are seeing the opportunity to land the job they want in a shorter amount of time (9 months) and at 20% of the cost of a full degree.

So many institutions are stuck in a strange, head-in-the-sand moment where they are trying to tell their customers (students) what is best for them, rather than listening to the voice of the customer. That voice is saying: please stop telling me that a “well-rounded” education will serve me better over the long haul. When I find my 9-month certificate is no longer serving my needs, I’ll seek something new. I’ll get there when I get there.

It's easy to see how not reading the tea leaves has led higher ed to the tipping point we find ourselves in today. We can no longer ignore the changes we face.

It’s time to adapt your business model and rethink your value proposition.

Consider who would pay for what you offer and why. Listen to what your customers need and want. Try hard not to tell your customers what they need. True, Steve Jobs envisioned the smartphone and told the world what it needed. But education as a service is not a revolutionary tech gadget. The education industry cannot innovate and market the same way the tech industry can. Learning, in itself, is not received by consumers the same way a tangible product is. As educators, we can innovate, but different market conditions apply.

As you evaluate the business model that will work for your institution based on your vision and strengths, listen to your current students and alumni. Their voices will tell you how they are better for having attended. What about your institution made the difference? What did your institution do to prompt the changes that they truly value?

The conference consensus: with work, better days are ahead.

Clearly, US institutional progress has been slow, in part, due to the current level of discord (a mild word) in the US and frequently an inability to even engage in productive discourse. Many refer to our current phase as “divisive.” An understatement perhaps, but one the AGB conference attendees were willing to counter.

In fact, there was encouraging talk of universities as the perfect environment to model productive conflict. The idea of modeling the exploration and dialogue our society needs (on any topic). It seems we all need to re-learn how our local and global communities resolve the inevitable conflicts that exist and will arise among human beings.

With such rapid change and significant discord, there was talk among trustees and administrators of the role higher ed consultants play as therapists who bring knowledge and value, validating the struggle universities are facing. An acknowledgment that consultants add insight and confirm new options and directions based on deep experience, broad industry interactions, and data.

Hey, as industry consultants, that validation was nice to hear!

This was all part of the larger conversation of team mindset. Progress relies on leaders who rely on an aligned and supportive team. If you’ve got it, count yourself lucky.

The pace of change is only getting faster (another conference theme). Institutions must learn to be nimble and invest in options that offer extreme flexibility. The consensus: look for opportunities for growth and vendors who support that with contracts that can adapt as your needs evolve – and your needs will evolve, really fast, over the next few years and decades. The warning: avoid vendors tying your hands with rigid, 10+ year contracts.

Your next steps.

The Intead team knows this field and our business analysts can help you identify the enrollment growth options that are most valuable to your institution. Our consumer insight research may be just what your team needs to support the direction you think you want to go. And our marketing execution has the creative customization that engages target audiences and converts.

What we know is that if your team is not aligned and lacks a strong commitment, the next five to ten years are going to be really harsh. They don’t need to be. Be in touch.

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