Look to Finance and Enrollment Strategies for Sustainability and Growth

Independent colleges and universities are experiencing the impact of both rapidly evolving and ongoing pressures—including pressures on enrollments and finances. Several sessions at CIC’s annual Institutes explored new models for institutional sustainability and growth.

Alternatives to Mergers Explored

Top Takeaways

  • Institutions can capture many benefits of inter-institutional partnerships and alliances that are not full mergers.
  • Planning and effective governance are essential to the success of such approaches.
  • Maintaining institutional identify and autonomy differentiate mergers from partnerships, collaborations, and alliances.

 When asked whether the topic of merger had arisen on their campuses, members of the large audience for a 2022 Presidents Institute session on “Alternatives to Merger New Models for Sustainability and Growth” nearly all raised their hands. William C. Nelson, Registry Alternative Futures leader and former interim president of Episcopal Divinity School, noted that merger is not the only possible solution for institutions struggling to capture the benefits of greater scale and increased resources.

Speaker presenting from podium before seated audience
“Alternatives to Merger” panelists (from right to left) Christine Plunkett, president of Iowa Wesleyan University, Michelle E. Majewski, president of Marian University (WI), and William C. Nelsen, Registry Alternative Futures leader, with session chair Jo Ellen Parker, CIC senior vice president

Two presidents with experience in crafting relationships that represent alternatives to mergers presented case studies. Michelle Majewski of Marian University (WI) and Christine Plunkett of Iowa Wesleyan University described how forging partnerships and alliances with other institutions (both academic and nonacademic) had created benefits for their institutions and their communities.

Marian University formed a partnership with Ripon College (WI) to explore collaboration in operational areas such as the library, human resources, and purchasing, and in academic areas such as faculty development and new academic programs. The goal is to craft a strategic alliance that will lead to growth and improved financial health for both institutions. To date, noted Majewski, the effort has been energized by strong support by the president and trustees of both institutions and by grant funding to explore key opportunities.

At Iowa Wesleyan, the Southeast Iowa Higher Education Alliance, a distinct 501(c) (3) organization, has been formed to increase degree attainment in the region, expand enrollment, and support community, economic, and workforce development. The alliance connects institutions of different kinds, including a community college and a private liberal arts university, jointly committed to focus on regional economic impact and workforce development. This model, noted Plunkett, may be particularly promising in highly rural areas.

Nelson noted that arrangements that allow institutions to share processes, positions, and resources in pursuit of a shared goal are most successful when they are designed from the outset to preserve institutional identity and autonomy.

Hard Facts Presented on Institutional Performance and Financial Health

Top Takeaways

  • Leaders must understand the granular financial data of the institution in order to advance mission.
  • Failure to do so will lead to reactive, as opposed to strategic, decision making.
  • Although it will be necessary to make difficult decisions, data and transparency will help make them understandable and acceptable.

Presidents of CIC and New American Colleges and Universities (NACU) discussed strategies for institutional performance and financial health in the 2022 Presidents Institute workshop “No Margin, No Mission.” The discussion was frank—as co-facilitator Daniel G. Lugo, president of Queens University of Charlotte (NC), put it, making tough decisions may mean that, “If you want a friend, get a dog.” Staff performance metrics, reductions to staff and faculty, and changes to academic programs were all discussed.

Four speakers at front of room
“No Margin, No Mission” panelists Sean Creighton, president of New American Colleges and Universities, Daniel G. Lugo, president of Queens University of Charlotte (NC), Fayneese S. Miller, president of Hamline University (MN), and Scott D. Miller, president of Virginia Wesleyan University

Along with Lugo, Sean Creighton, president of NACU; Fayneese S. Miller, president of Hamline University (MN); and Scott D. Miller, president of Virginia Wesleyan University, offered sobering guidance. Inevitably, presidents must make decisions with which many constituencies on and around campus will not fully agree. Being fully transparent with data however, can help presidents weather the resulting storms by helping people understand tough decisions. Scott Miller noted the importance of creating an “entrepreneurial mindset” to help constituencies recover from and adapt to difficult changes.

Fayneese Miller noted that the process through which data are used to determine outcomes, especially around performance and personnel, is critical for the community to understand. The more open and honest a president is with how data will be used to determine if positions are filled or retained will help reduce anxiety and anger. But, she added, moving people to using data in decision making is a process in and of itself. The viability of the institution depends on using high-quality data to ensure the mission can be achieved and student success is placed at the center.

It’s All about the Money…Or Is It? Creating Fair Faculty Compensation Systems

Top Takeaways

  • Benchmarking is a foundational element for designing a fair faculty compensation system, and faculty members should be involved in the benchmarking process to ensure transparency and generate trust.
  • Transparency and building trust among faculty members is also vital when convening a task force for reviewing compensation.
  • Institutions should address staff compensation, especially if there are tensions between faculty and staff members on salaries and promotions.

Faculty compensation has long been a charged topic on campuses, and pandemic budget cuts have only made the situation more complex. An equitable compensation system supports faculty recruitment and retention, while low compensation can lead to low morale and distrust. In an Institute for Chief Academic Officers session on “Creating a Fair Faculty Compensation System,” three CAOs with experience in leading compensation evaluation and reform shared lessons learned and best practices for designing equitable and practical compensation systems. Presenters included Paul Haught, vice president for academics at Christian Brothers University (TN); Elissa Heil, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Wilson College (PA); and Tracy Parkinson, provost and vice president for enrollment management at Mars Hill University (NC).

A key question for Heil when starting this process for Wilson College was benchmarking, or “who are we in comparison to other colleges and universities?” Her team developed a list of eight peer institutions against which to measure faculty compensation, drawing on data from IPEDs College Navigator, the American Association of University Professors, and the College and University Professionals Association. Parkinson shared the value of perception exercises at the benchmarking stage, conducted by an outside consultant—how do faculty members think their compensation measures up against peer institutions, and how does this compare to the evidence-based reality? Haught supported this emphasis on faculty involvement in the benchmarking process, as transparency about how peer institutions are selected can help generate faculty buy-in for the evaluation results.

This focus on transparency and building trust among faculty members is also vital when convening a task force for reviewing compensation. Haught recommended selecting a small but inclusive group comprising not only representatives from the faculty and from major areas on campus, but also a staff member from the institutional research department. Having overseen faculty compensation reviews at two institutions, Parkinson was able to share the benefits of two models. At Coker University (SC), he convened a large, ad hoc committee with a seat at the table for all interested parties, but at Mars Hill University he is working with a standing faculty committee, which is smaller but well-trusted by the faculty. Parkinson noted that a smaller group could exclude some interested parties, so he encouraged Institute participants to create other avenues for faculty members to be involved in the process alongside the task force. Similarly, Heil recommended that the task force communicate regularly with faculty and staff members, even if the news is not positive.

The three presenters also reflected on how faculty compensation fits into larger contexts at their institutions. Haught and Parkinson argued that staff compensation should also be addressed, especially as there can be tension between faculty and staff members on salaries and promotions. Heil noted other ways institutions can support faculty and staff members, including by setting goals and designing a campus culture that speak to their experiences.

(Note: CIC’s Key Indicators Tool provides comparative data on faculty salaries at the assistant, associate, and full-professor ranks.)

Presidents, CAOs Prepare for Demographic Shift

Top Takeaways

  • Campuses need to consider new strategies to retain and enroll students as well as to ensure their academic success.
  • Due to the pandemic, this generation of students may be less prepared emotionally, socially, and academically then others; colleges will likely need to increase health and wellness resources.
  • From the recruitment of new students to the retention of current ones, presidents should remain engaged in how decisions made at the institution will affect enrollment.

Looming demographic trends indicate a declining number of traditional college-age students in the coming years, and the pandemic has negatively impacted enrollments on many campuses. But campus leaders can engage in effective practices to use the challenges of the last two years to chart new recruitment and enrollment directions, said panelists at the Institute for Chief Academic Officers session “College after COVID: Managing Demographic Trends.” Panelists included Bradley Fuster, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Keuka College (NY), and Nathan D. Grawe, Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences and professor of economics at Carleton College, with Matt McCoin, regional vice president at Ad Astra, moderating.

Grawe cautioned, “The future is now. The drop in fertility predates the Great Recession, and the shrinking pool of students already has led to mergers and other stresses.” The job of admissions officers needs to change, he said, “from simply finding students who tested well, to using additional information to contextualize paper records to identify talent.”

In addition to attracting new students, Grawe said campuses also need to develop new ways to address challenges they face with first-year students in particular. “Institutions will need to adopt a ‘change identity’ and be willing to adjust in order to be ready for these new students…. You’ll need to have hard conversations about who you are as an institution.”

Fuster remarked that first-year students today are having academic and social problems due to the pandemic. “This generation is special because they are unprepared emotionally, socially, and academically—they are in a different place.” To address these challenges, he said Keuka College “hired a mental health and wellness coordinator and marshalled all campus resources to push health and wellness into programs, classes, and residence halls.” In the context of cuts to the academic program, this decision was controversial.

Keuka received a $2 million grant in 2021 from the U.S. Department of Education to improve student success and outcomes. Fuster said that with excellent analytics newly available, they had “the first actual data-driven conversations tied to outcomes and student success.” This led to creating cross-functional teams between academic and student affairs, hiring a vice president for student development, and making “retention an all-hands issue. As a result, we now have a better than 70 percent retention rate.” Keuka also reorganized academic divisions and added new programs. “We connected what we were seeing in the headlines with what was ongoing on in the classroom. We developed degrees in sustainability, nursing, and public policy—all new areas of study, which helped us demonstrate our value.”

Grawe noted that “agility and change-management are crucial for making strategic choices for your institutions.” He added, however, that the pandemic highlighted “cracks in the shared governance model, and that stress increases those cracks. Faculty and staff may be displeased with decisions. With difficult choices, it is important to have more faculty and staff buy-in.” He noted that the need to move quickly to help institutions adjust to the demands of the time allowed for a great deal of change and innovation during the pandemic. This was done at the expense of programs and colleagues, however; moving forward, administrators should slow down and bring faculty and staff members to the table to help understand the decisions. “Transparency and honesty are key,” Grawe said.

In a parallel session held during the Presidents Institute, panelists offered insights on navigating the demographic shift and enrollment declines. The session examined strategies presidents can take to maneuver through a new landscape relatively unscathed. Presenters included Marc M. Camille, president of Albertus Magnus College (CT); Marsha C. Kelliher, president of Simpson College (IA); Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB; and session chair Joseph Jones, president of Fresno Pacific University (CA).

“Presidents are the chief enrollment officer,” Camille asserted, meaning that from the recruitment of new students to the retention of current students, a president must understand how strategies and decisions made at the institution will affect enrollment, and be engaged in the process.

An example was provided by Kelliher, who noted the importance of engaging the communities that institutions find themselves in. She shared a lesson Simpson College learned from an effort to become more national in scope. The national appeal never drew in additional students, but meanwhile, it did lead students who would normally come to Simpson from within the local region to apply elsewhere. By meaningfully re-engaging with the community and providing space and support for community events, the college was able to recover.

Camille and Jones offered examples of how institutions can demonstrate that they truly care for students and are working to understand the needs of a diverse student body. For example, Albertus Magnus engaged in a college-wide caring campaign during the pandemic, which involved calling each student to ensure they were doing well. And Jones underscored that students and families of color are interested in seeing themselves on campus; thus commitments to diversity cannot be limited to brochures and mission statements.