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Many years ago – and for many years – my family made an annual trip to Greenville Maine for a “week away from it all.” As part of the trip, we went on a whitewater rafting adventure down the Kennebec River. During the safety briefing the guides discussed the terrain, what to expect and not only how to stay safe, but what to do if you fell out of the raft and found yourself heading down a Class Four rapid all by yourself. They called it “Aggressive Self-Rescue.” I learned a lot from these safety briefings and some of those lessons seem applicable now in the world of higher education.

Like so many things in life that separate good results from not-so-good results, a bit of awareness, advance planning, and knowledge can make all the difference. They taught us, for example, to make sure your life jacket is on tight enough so it won’t come off if someone tries to lift you out of the water by said jacket; the helmet you wear (aka “your brain bucket”) may not be beautiful, but it may save your life, so wearing it at that rakish angle you like might just get you killed; keep your feet in front of you going down the river (to avoid being smashed into a big rock); keep your toes above the water (not below the water, where they can get caught between rocks and contribute to you drowning); avoid trees that have fallen into the river (they call these ‘strainers’, like those you use to strain spaghetti – you get the picture); and other not-so-intuitive practices.

One of the things the guides said every year that always stuck with me was, “Nobody cares as much about your survival as you do – and you should act accordingly.” The idea being that when you’re out of your element, it can sometimes be exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, depending on the exact situation, your preparation, your skill set, and your attitude.  

The higher education parallels are apt. The environment is increasingly turbulent, and different organizations are approaching the situation with varying levels of understanding, preparation, planning, and skill.- and some schools are being ejected from the boat (think school closings, financial emergencies, low/uneven bond ratings, missed enrollment targets, rising discount rates, lower state funding, etc.). There’s a lot of whitewater – and rocks – ahead.

So what does Aggressive Self-Rescue mean from an organizational perspective? A few thoughts:

  • Really understanding the terrain so you can anticipate – and plan for – what lies ahead. Understand what’s happening in the local, regional, national, and international higher education markets, as well as in the tech sector. Learn from past mistakes – yours and those of others.
  • Constantly updating your knowledge of the market – things can and do change quickly, and you’ll need to adjust accordingly. The rate of change is accelerating, students have more choices (and power), and there are a host of new competitive offerings.
  • Knowing your true situation. What are your trends (e.g., overall and program enrollments, student satisfaction and transfer rates, tuition discounting, margins, etc.) and what are they telling you? How might you build on your strengths? Partner with others? Invest in new capabilities?
  • Working with an experienced, reputable guide. They can help you interpret the data, stretch thinking, identify opportunities, and facilitate some tricky discussions and decisions. As Susan Fitzgerald of Moody’s said recently, “There’s a fundamental lack of understanding about the strains higher education is under. . . There are some colleges that are very realistic about the challenges they’re facing. There are others that still have their heads in the sand and think that things are going to get better.”
  • Getting everyone working together to think through options and create a plan. Have a diverse group look at the same data, discuss what it means, and help think about future scenarios to create a viable plan. Make it an imaginative and viable plan, not a wish list. Experiment, experiment, experiment. Don’t wait for the worst to happen before planning for the rough patches.

Other thoughts on how institutions can implement Aggressive Self-Rescue techniques?

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