ACE conference addresses college sustainability in troubled times

This week, a panel of higher-education stakeholders gathered to discuss their greatest sustainability challenges during the economic downturn.

During a seminar this week at the American Council on Education’s annual conference, panelists addressed how colleges and universities continue to be plagued by the repercussions of the “Great Recession” of 2008.

A panel of higher-education stakeholders discussed their greatest challenges in dealing with the economic downturn. Chief among these, college presidents said, was achieving a delicate balance between strengthening their financial stability and maintaining good value.

San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman, who was appointed to the post in 2011, touted the value of resiliency and adaptation in troubled times. He spoke about having to contend with strict budget limitations, and having to find innovative ways to generate revenue in order to continue important research initiatives.

Hirshman said knew he couldn’t solely slash the university’s spending, which would only “devastate programs,” but instead focused largely on comprehensive fundraising campaigns. He asked his staff to brainstorm inventive ways to maximize revenue relative to cost.

“Pressure makes diamonds,” he said. San Diego State’s faculty rose to the challenge, and most initiatives they pursued were successful. Under Hirshman’s leadership, San Diego State has raised more than $391 million, very close to its overall goal of $500 million.

Though he and his faculty saw positive results, Hirshman described the period of change as “very difficult,” and filled with “tense conversations.”

“I’m not endorsing our revenue-based approach for every university,” he said. Synergies and mergers were two other options that he suggested universities consider.

Hirshman said he’s encouraged by California voters’ recent passing of Proposition 30, a decision to raise their own taxes to fund higher education. He said colleges now have the opportunity to promote meaningful, lasting change if they’re willing to rise to the occasion.

(Next page: How the SUNY system lowered costs during the economic downturn)

Nancy Kleniewski, president of SUNY Oneonta, also has faced sustainability challenges since the economic downturn. She described the SUNY system as the largest and “probably the most complex” higher-education system in the United States and said that SUNY is run more as a “loose federation than a system.”

In an effort to become more cost-effective, SUNY rolled out a shared services model in 2011 that aimed to capture efficiencies wherever they existed and maximize resources within the system. Some efficiency changes were system-wide, while others were regional. Kleniewski explained that the overall mission was to “encourage innovation and fresh thinking.”

The SUNY system also began to promote Shared Services Alliances, and opted to “share” three college presidents at six different campuses within the system. SUNY Delhi and SUNY Cobleskill were two such campuses that began sharing a president.

In this case, SUNY Cobleskill had been struggling to meet its enrollment goals, but once coupled with SUNY Delhi, those numbers began improving.

Each campus retained its provost and vice president of student life, but shared a vice president of business, among other posts. Kleniewski said that the partnership saved $600,000 at the end of its first year, but SUNY faced major push-back from critics and since has decided to reinstate separate presidents and staffs for each university beginning in fall 2013.

“The president is the persona of the institution,” said Kleniewski. Still, she believes that the SUNY system’s groundbreaking experiment is important, as it showed that both savings and sustainability can be achieved when administrators begin to think outside of the box.

Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), also has faced a tighter budget during worsening economic times, but he said he noticed an important trend: working adults and nontraditional students returning to college to expand their knowledge, and get a leg up on their job competitors.

By partnering with community-based organizations like Goodwill Industries International, NOVA aimed to increase postsecondary training of minorities in low-paying jobs. NOVA provides one semester or one year of postsecondary career training and boasts a 94-percent program completion rate alongside an 84-percent job placement rate within six months of program completion.

(Next page: How NOVA is designing pathways to college for high-risk high school students)

Templin said colleges must become more accountable for post-graduate job placements.

“We’re going to have to learn to own this,” he said.

Templin also focused on high-risk students. He faced challenges associated with serving a more diverse student body, and obtaining significantly better outcomes at a declining cost per student.

“We can’t accomplish that outcome by ourselves,” he said. “[We must] integrate with other institutions … jointly owning the results.”

By partnering with George Mason University (GMU), NOVA created the “Pathway to the Baccalaureate” program, which creates paths to college for high-risk high school students. The program prepares students for college and endeavors to make students’ transitions from high school to NOVA and, later, to GMU as smooth as possible.

Templin said that the “Pathway to the Baccalaureate” program blurs boundaries between high schools, community colleges, and universities.

With this program, “we’re jointly owning common outcomes across universities,” he said.

Rolf Wegenke, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (WAICU), explained that his association works with 23 private independent colleges to address lowering costs in a meaningful way.

“Collaboration is powerful,” he said. “By working together, we’re more powerful.”

Wegenke said that “change is hard” and that it all starts with college presidents—if they’re unwilling to test boundaries, then profitable change is unlikely. In the past, WAICU has worked with some colleges to rewrite their student health plans, and through doing so, the association discovered that it had tapped into considerable savings: In one instance, a college found that it could pay two-thirds less than it was currently paying for more precise care.

At the time, Wegenke said, many competitors dismissed WAICU’s mission, believing that because colleges had never before written their own health plans, it was impossible to change practices long ingrained in higher education; luckily, those critics were wrong.

“It took years to go from ‘that idea will never work’ to being nationally regarded as transformational,” he said.

Wegenke believes that technology will only continue to enable greater savings for colleges, and by consolidating costs through shared services, there are “massive amounts” waiting to be saved.

“Savings will ease the pain of change,” he said. “[WAICU] is not in the insurance business, we’re in the educational opportunity business.”

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