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A resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most consequential presidential elections of our time … The uncertainty of the moment understandably has college and university leaders focused keenly on putting out fires and trying to anticipate future flashpoints. But while institutions across the country must continue to focus on the immediate challenges they face in operating day to day, leaders in higher education should be careful not to remain in a reactive mode. They must recognize that because of the pressures it has placed on institutional finances and prospective student markets, the pandemic will greatly increase the vulnerability of a broad spectrum of colleges and universities once it has subsided.

That means each institution should be feeling an increased sense of urgency to make longer-term strategic decisions -- about the academic program, student life, the education/career nexus, allocation of resources and other key areas of institutional planning -- in ways that will position it to strengthen enrollment and revenue in a post-pandemic landscape. That landscape will be even harder to compete in than everyone anticipated before the onset of coronavirus.

Over the past two decades, a number of colleges and universities have shown us the value of embracing long-term institutional strategy in the face of crises of varying kinds, from a slowly evolving crisis driven by long-term market trends to two of the most far-reaching crises of the recent past: Sept. 11 and the Great Recession. Agnes Scott College, the University of Chicago and Providence College each successfully overcame a significant crisis through a similar approach. They engaged in institutional planning that focused on the substance of the experience they provided, involved stakeholders across the institution and undertook a data-driven and systematic process to ensure that their strategies would bring success in the marketplace. While their approaches were similar, each of those institutions has a different lesson to teach us about why or how to engage in longer-term planning in a time of crisis.

Agnes Scott: Focusing Institutional Strategy to Increase Demand

In the mid 2010s, Agnes Scott was able to overcome an evolving crisis for institutions of its kind -- a significant erosion of the market for women’s colleges, exacerbated by the demographic, financial and competitive pressures affecting liberal arts colleges more broadly. It made impressive gains through a carefully planned and executed institutional strategy informed by an understanding of its markets.

Elizabeth Kiss, president of the college at the time, engaged the campus community in a process of intensive internal examination of its current strengths and distinctions as well as consideration of new programmatic opportunities. The institution conducted rigorous research with prospective students to determine which of these held the greatest promise of increasing enrollment. Findings from the study led to the development in 2015 of Agnes Scott’s distinctive Summit program, inflecting all students’ liberal arts education with a bold emphasis on global perspective and leadership development. The applicant pool grew sharply, the college drew record-breaking first-year classes -- up by almost half in four years -- student quality increased and retention improved markedly, as did net tuition revenue.

Chicago: Reaching Greater Heights in the Great Recession

The principles of market-informed planning that underlay Agnes Scott’s success apply not only to institutions facing serious challenges in the marketplace, but also to high-stature, highly resourced institutions reaching for even higher ambitions. The University of Chicago, for example, orchestrated a dramatic surge in reputation as an intellectual destination for outstanding undergraduates, as well as for graduates and researchers, during a previous crisis in our society.

Led by President Robert Zimmer, the university was determined to invest in growth, even as it became clear that an economic downturn was fast turning into the Great Recession. One goal was to shake off a number of anachronistic labels and give new meaning to the dynamic nature of the undergraduate experience at this intellectual powerhouse. While most of its peers were preoccupied with the repercussions of the recession, a team at Chicago carved out space to focus on identifying and testing academic, co-curricular and student life initiatives with the potential to transform market perceptions of the university, as well as the lived experience of its students.

Backed by market research findings, the university worked to heighten the dynamism of its residential life and campus community, increased its explicit engagement with students’ professional interests, and focused its messaging to reflect these and other advances. It also took the critical step of empowering highly talented enrollment and communications operations to expand the university’s outreach and get the word out. Applications increased from 13,000 to more than 25,000 in three years on their way ultimately to almost 35,000, the quality of applications (already extremely high) was even further elevated and yield improved. Bolstered by substantial growth in tenured faculty ranks, fundraising successes and innovative initiatives in its graduate and professional schools, the university's national ranking in U.S. News & World Report rose from ninth place in 2008 to fourth in 2012. The University of Chicago has stayed around the top five ever since.

Providence: Funding Strategic Investments in the Wake of a Deep Recession

Even institutions that have a solid strategy in place can benefit from determining how to move it forward when crisis hits. Providence College faced major decisions at the onset of the Great Recession. It had identified moves to make in academic and student life, but now it needed to figure out how to execute and fund them. The college had allowed its cost of attendance to fall relative to its primary competitors, seemingly a wise move as the economy intensified financial pressure on families. It conducted a robust study of prospective students, which determined, counterintuitively, that a substantial increase in price was feasible if combined with an adjustment in aid. The result would be considerable increases in net tuition revenue that the college could use to support a number of strategic objectives.

Raising price in the wake of the Great Recession was a tough call to make. But with solid research to back up their decision, the leaders of the college agreed that it needed to move forward or risk losing further ground in the market. At a time when other institutions were tightening their belts, Providence College focused on hiring full-time faculty in crucial areas and investing in an ambitious infrastructure plan directed toward its goals around the student academic and residential experience. John Sweeney, just coming on board as Providence College’s CFO at the time, told us he now sees this decision as “a critical turning point” that enabled the college to regain its reputation as a competitive choice by providing the resources it needed to move forward with its strategic plan.

Turning Points

The power of leveraging crisis to devise market-informed institutional strategy has certainly not been confined to the Great Recession and its aftermath. In the earliest years of the century, in the wake of Sept. 11 and the recession that began in 2001, Hendrix College launched its Odyssey program, bringing an intense hands-on approach to liberal arts education for all of its students and positioning itself to achieve significant growth in enrollment, net tuition revenue and philanthropic support. Now, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, Agnes Scott is pushing forward with new initiatives building on its Summit strategy. As President Lee Zak told us recently, “We decided that the strategic planning process was actually a good tool to have during this crisis. Right now, I’d rather put our foot on the accelerator than on the brake.”

What do we learn from how these institutions created turning points in the face of crisis? The lesson is not that others should emulate the particular programs these institutions developed, the buildings they built or a particular price point they set. It’s that making the right strategic moves today, in concert with the institution’s mission and priorities but also informed by what will work in its markets, can position a college or university for sustained success once the current storm has passed. It will also create competitive advantage over peers unable to move as decisively. The keys to success?

  • Devote time and resources to developing and/or refining institutional strategy in spite of the demands of the crisis.
  • Engage the campus, giving key members of the community a central role in the planning and implementation process and in gathering input from across the community. Offer the community something positive to work on and look forward to beyond the crisis.
  • Remember that the challenges and aspirations of most institutions cannot be addressed solely at an operational or marketing level. Be open to making substantive changes to the student experience that are consistent with the institution’s aspirations and capabilities but that push the boundaries of its broader strategic objectives.
  • Critically, test potential strategic thrusts in your own particular markets to determine which will position your institution to move its markets in tangible ways with respect, for instance, to enrollment, revenue and/or philanthropic support. Move forward on those that have the most promise.
  • Engage and empower enrollment, communications and advancement operations to capitalize on the strategy among your external constituencies. If you build it, they won’t come unless they know about it.

Finally, to paraphrase Lee Zak, put the pedal to the metal. Act with expedition to galvanize campus leadership and the community around the challenges you face, remembering that this moment presents decisive institutional leaders with a powerful opportunity to lead their institutions in new directions in ways, and within a time frame, that would not be possible under ordinary circumstances.

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