A recent survey of business officers, performed by the magazine Inside Higher Ed, revealed some troubling data.  A little more than one in four CFOs are confident in the viability of their institution’s financial model over the next five years.  It declines to about one in eight when the timeframe extends to ten years.  To quote a former US President, “I feel their pain.”  The challenge, however, is to move beyond the problem identification phase toward identifying what a different game plan might look like.

In essence, I want to talk with the one in four or one in eight who believe their strategy will win.  No doubt, some of them are from institutions that have established a well-defined niche within the mind of their constituency and benefit from the combination of oversold demand and well-honed capacity constraints.  Those would certainly be interesting conversations but I would then drill deeper.

I have spoken with some who have identified what the book Switch calls “bright spots.”  They have incorporated within the plan a constituent driven approach to developing their institution to meet the challenges of today head on.  I want to speak with more of these people and learn how they have overcome the longing to return to life as we once knew it, delivering instead a new pathway toward progress, success and mission fulfillment.  Let me share with you what I have learned so far from those who are overcoming the current tide of change.

First, they recognize the power of technology as a medium for teaching.  We’re not talking about creating a course full of PowerPoint presentations and clever injections of a video or two.  These institutions realize that their market, both traditional and adult, has grown up with technology, uses it constantly, has replaced a good deal of face to face socializing with it, use it to queue up movies and actually have adopted it as the primary expression of their life.  Facebook and its descendants are here to stay, as is Netflix.  Cable, the former bastion of technology in the home, might not make the cut in ten years.

Those of us who remember November 22, 1963 were prone to ask our kids to assist us with newfangled phones, computers and remote controls.  Now, ten year-olds are being taught by a late thirties mom or dad who are digital natives.  It’s not just nifty anymore, technology is an integral part of life for both the traditional and adult learner of today.

Second, moving onto campus and attending classes is just not practical for many students.  Though having a bricks and mortar presence remains a need, the classroom is no longer a singular space where learning takes place.  Newer expressions of media are not only more appealing to the student of today, they may be the only possible way for a student to enroll in advanced studies.

My son-in-law is a seminary student who is in a blended program at a nearby University.  Some days, he travels the hour-long journey to hear a professor lecture about this or that.  There is interaction within the class and he truly enjoys that.  But, as a dad who lives close to his wife’s work, online classes have proven to be a tremendous asset.  At a minimum, he can redirect two hours of commuting time toward reading, studying and preparing his posts and papers.  The online courses are nearly identical to in-seat, with a video of the professor on the left and his or her series of slides and illustrations on the right.  He can stop, rewind, take notes (on his IPad) or send off messages to other students, all in the comfort of his home office, while his toddlers take their daily nap.

Class sub-teams connect online for chat sessions where collaborative projects are coordinated and progress reported. Questions can be posted, with classmates responding or the faculty member, should it require a more experienced response.  The lecture is recognized for what it is, and what is has been for centuries; an experience where information is conveyed but not necessarily where the majority of learning occurs.

Third, technology may be considered recreational or administrative by some leaders but let me suggest that it can enhance the entire residential experience as well.  The all-campus email became a replacement of the tree-killing daily memo.  It just doesn’t cut it anymore.  Better to post a video on the campus website for today’s news and announcements.  A student worker can deliver needed information, with various guests providing entertaining ads, plugging social, spiritual and athletic activities.  Posting daily video could rescue information conveyance from the delete button, creating an opportunity for every budding extravert to produce the next viral infomercial.  “Did you see Jeremy on the news today?  He was awesome.”

Soon, technology will have to go beyond the one to one sharing of information bits.  Campuses will need their own chat rooms, an electronic forum for daily discussion topics about issues of campus / world importance, a way to share requests for research assistance or for rides here and there.  It’s called embracing technology, and students will be convinced that they have it much better than the other places they had considered going.  Some think it only applies to learning and recreation but technology has a lot to do with the living experience as well.  Soon, such a ubiquitous experience could be one of the primary differences between a good and a great campus.

Fourth, campuses on the move are identifying and delivering new programs to meet the demands of today’s learner.  More than just a technology conversation, new curriculum, majors and whole departments are springing up at the best institutions.  Added to this characteristic is the willingness to jettison that which doesn’t make sense anymore and the idea of a comprehensive roll-out, complete with marketing and student service components.  Today’s new program rollout is more akin to what is seen when Apple or Google introduce a new product.  We could learn from them.

Finally, (and I realize this is self-serving), campuses on the move have reduced as much variability from their forecasting as possible.  They break down their plans into specific, measurable processes and inputs.  Leaders own their part of the plan and report on how closely they are delivering staged results.  Surprises are fewer and of lesser magnitude.  Quantifying the variables is a critical first step, with realistic goals for each area and accountability for results.  These institutions know what is available for investment and what needs to be delivered to meet the plan. Excuses no longer exist for those who operate on an annual, budgetary crisis approach.

I’d be happy to talk further with you about this.  It is, after all, the right kind of discussion, among colleagues.

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