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Strategic Issues Program

Higher Education

Unsettling Times: Higher Education in an Era of Change - Strategic Questions for College and University Leaders


Given the variety of types, sizes and structures of American colleges and universities, the Future of Higher Education panel issued its report with questions other institutions could use to structure its strategy discussions, instead of offering specific recommendations.  As with other panel reports, "Unsettling Times" is meant to be read in its entirety so that each proposal is understood in its entirety.

A View of Disruptive Transformation

1.            Could higher education go through a shattering transformation such as that experienced by the newspaper industry?

The Environment of Higher Education

2.            Does our institution have an ongoing means to monitor conditions in the environment of higher education?

Information Ubiquity

3.            What strategy will allow our institution to succeed in a world where others are giving away information for which colleges and universities charge high prices?

A Knowledge Society

4.            Can our institution capitalize on a growing global market for higher education?

5.            In what areas might the institution compete internationally and what level of investment would be required to do so?

6.            What are the opportunity costs or other risks that may make program expansion into global markets a less desirable strategy?

Increasing Prices

7.            Can our institution find a way to control rising tuition and fees while still maintaining educational quality?

8.            Can cost reductions be achieved without materially impacting the student experience in an adverse way?

Declining Affordability

9.            How do colleges and universities stay in business when their costs of attendance are rising at a rate 10–15 times greater than family income?

10.          How long will families be able and willing to assume significant debt burdens to send a child to college?

11.          Are there other models that might be considered to help students afford the cost of higher education?

Demographic Shifts

12.          Can our institution manage the net cost of tuition in order to attract rapidly growing demographic groups?

13.          Has our institution considered adjustments in recruitment, messaging, financial aid, student support, academic programs and other activities and processes necessary to attract and retain minority students?

14.          Is the culture of our institution supportive of students with minority ethnic and racial backgrounds?

Disruptive Innovation

15.          Do those in positions of leadership at our institution, including leaders of academic units, have a solid understanding of the way in which disruptive innovations emerge?

16.          Does the institution have a means to identify and evaluate educational innovations at an early stage and assess their potential ability to enhance academic and operational outcomes?

17.          Has our institution examined the opportunities and risks associated with competency-based education in terms of markets currently served by the school or as a potential mechanism for enrollment growth?

Tenure Policies

18.          Has our institution initiated a dialogue among trustees, the administration and faculty on optimizing tenure in a way that balances freedom of academic expression with a process that requires high-quality professorial performance and provides for necessary institutional flexibility?

Increased Competition

19.          Does our institution, and each of its academic divisions, have an ongoing process to identify both existing and new, potentially disruptive competitors?

20.          Do we have a means to identify the strategies being followed by nontraditional competitors and assess changes in market share?

Enrollment Challenges

21.          Is our institution located in a region that is likely to see a decrease in the number of high school graduates?

22.          If so, are strategies in place to deal with the prospect of reduced enrollment?

23.          Does our institution have an effective development program in place designed specifically to build endowment for scholarships?

24.          Does our institution have a formal policy on tuition discounting?

25.          If so, is the discounting policy financially sustainable in terms of the overall impact on the institution’s balance sheet?

26.          How does our institution compare to peers and other competitors in terms of tuition discount rate?

27.          To what extent does our institution as a whole, or specific academic units within the institution, depend upon international students to meet overall enrollment goals?

28.          Do international students at our institution come from a limited number of countries?

29.          If our institution or specific academic units are dependent on international students from a limited number of countries, are plans in place to mitigate the potential enrollment volatility associated with such concentration?

Financial Pressures

30.          Does our institution have an ongoing process of assessing financial results and analyzing such results in terms of the school’s overall strategy?

31.          Does our institution use a system of uniform pricing for tuition or do tuition rates vary by program or college?

32.          Are our institution’s tuition and fee levels established on the basis of achieving general parity with peer institutions?

33.          Are our institution’s tuition and fee levels established on the basis of demonstrated value of the school’s academic programs vis-à-vis those of competitors?

Circular Strategy

34.          Does our institution follow an enrollment strategy that depends on discounting tuition while increasing expenditures on facilities and amenities as a means of attracting students?

The Structure of Strategy

35.          Has our institution identified a conceptual model that will be used to guide the school as it embarks on the creation or refinement of strategy?

Institutional Perspectives

36.          Are our institution’s statements of mission, vision, values and goals consistent with the changing environment of higher education and realistic in terms of the resources available?

Institutional Assets

37.          Has our institution undertaken a careful, objective examination of its unique blend of assets—financial resources, competencies, capabilities and other resources—as a prerequisite to the development of strategy?

38.          Which, if any, of the institution’s assets are rare or unique?

39.          Can our institution’s resources be deployed in a manner that creates a value proposition that distinguishes the institution from its competitors?

Strategic Options

40.          Has our institution undertaken a formal process to identify a range of strategic options that are consistent with the school’s vision, values, mission and goals as well as its resources and capabilities?

Market Perspective

41.          Do our institution’s administrators, faculty and staff share a consistent market orientation that will be necessary to compete successfully in the changing environment of higher education?

42.          Has our institution made a careful assessment to determine whom it will serve and, equally important, identify markets in which it chooses not to compete?

Documented Differentiation

43.          Have we undertaken a process of differentiating the institution and each of its academic units in a clear and verifiable manner, and done so as a matter of the highest priority?

Demonstrable Value

44.          To what degree is our institution focused on creating academic and professional value that helps students create lives of meaning, purpose and accomplishment?

45.          Has our institution and each of its academic units established and disseminated clear and demonstrable value propositions on which each will compete?

46.          Does our institution consistently verify the value created by every academic program and follow a policy that programs failing to create demonstrably high levels of value over time should be revitalized or terminated?

Culture of Measurement

47.          Is there a strong culture of measurement across all academic units and key departments to support the documentation of value, outcomes, effectiveness and efficiency throughout our institution?

48.          Does our college or university encourage the use of independently verified metrics from credible sources as a part of the institution’s overall assessment strategy?

Institutional Flexibility

49.          Does our institution create a culture that supports institutional flexibility by examining governance and operating policies to be certain they support timely and informed decision making?

Financial Viability

50.          Does our institution have a process for examining the financial contribution margin of each academic unit and program?

51.          While not all academic units may generate a positive net return, is there a formal process to balance financial viability across the entire portfolio of programs offered by our institution?

52.          Do trustees, administrative leaders and faculty have an understanding of our institution’s balance sheet and other key indicators of financial condition?

53.          Has our institution’s balance sheet become stronger over the past five years?

Educational Innovation

54.          Does our institution encourage the use of pilot programs to judge the feasibility of new technologies and promptly adopt innovations that can add demonstrable value to students and/or the school?

55.          Does our institution provide ongoing support to faculty in the development and implementation of selected technologies?

56.          Does the leadership of our institution use view educational technology to achieve competitive advantage?

Serving Stakeholders

57.          Relative to other stakeholders, does our institution place its highest priority on students who, taken as a whole, provide the largest share of financial resources to the institution?

A Call to Action

58.          Has our institution established a formal process to communicate with faculty and staff to build a community-wide understanding of the challenges facing intuitions of higher learning?

59.          Is there a process whereby faculty and staff can actively engage with our institution’s leaders to discuss strategy in the face of a changing higher education environment?

60.          Has our institution actively engaged alumni in discussions about the challenges facing the institution?