Can’t Afford Not To

Today's financial challenges have led many colleges to believe they can't afford to invest in new initiatives, but the right ones may be their best hope for the future, argues Mick Starcevich.

March 11, 2021
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The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a massive toll on the financial health of America’s colleges and universities. A decline in enrollments, buildings standing empty and unused, and the inability to run athletic programs this past fall have exacerbated a fiscal crisis already facing too many institutions.

At my own former campus, Kirkwood Community College, enrollment is down by 7.4 percent from fall 2020 to spring 2021, and current officials don’t expect it to recover overnight. Many institutions, Kirkwood included, have been left with no choice but to make incredibly tough decisions, including reducing their workforce.

Against this backdrop, it stands to reason that investing in any new initiative is a luxury most institutions feel they can’t afford. But my tenure at the helm of Kirkwood highlighted an insight that may come as a surprise to budget-conscious administrators: the right investments may be colleges’ best hope to weather the pandemic -- and, in fact, come out stronger.

Even in troubling economic times, the adage remains true: you have to spend money to make money. The financial health of higher education institutions won’t be improved by stopping new investments altogether but by finding the right initiatives to invest in. Of course, we can no longer rely on what used to differentiate our campuses: sports teams, a campus wow factor, campus facilities. Those are things of the past -- at least for now. Instead, colleges and universities must redouble their investments in imaginative resources that strengthen programs and empower faculty. Those investments can look different everywhere -- and if my experience at Kirkwood is any guide, they should.

When I was president and had the good fortune to draw on ideas generated by administrators, faculty and staff, we made some fairly unexpected -- if not unprecedented -- investment decisions, with the goal of building differentiated programs and additional revenue streams for Kirkwood. That included opening an on-campus hotel to both generate revenue and give our hotel/restaurant, hospitality and culinary school students a place to practice their skills.

It meant building a wind turbine to both generate power and help train engineering students, which has helped us build an innovative energy production and distribution technology program. It meant creating a winery and a fully operational equestrian center. It meant an endowed faculty chair program funded by both the college and donors to give our best instructors more time to pursue their passions and take leadership roles -- and to signal to faculty that we were willing to invest in them, even in times of economic downturn. It also included getting approval to open one of only three Apple Stores on community college campuses nationwide.

It wasn't always easy -- it's not exactly common practice to build a hotel. And we dealt with a little pushback from some skeptical board members who weren’t sure at first that such investments would pay off. But those proactive investments to deepen Kirkwood's strengths all paid for themselves and ended up increasing our revenue -- enabling me to leave the college in the healthiest position it had ever been in when I retired. These are the investments that take what we call a "vertical integration" approach: strengthening our programs while at the same time generating revenue that supports our institution at large.

Identifying Differentiators

Of course, that all looks different in the age of COVID-19. Proactive investment in your campus must take place against a backdrop of economic uncertainty, as well as a rapid shift to online education that has left many institutions struggling to differentiate themselves. In the coming months, you won’t see hotels or equestrian centers crop on college campuses. Instead, investment in technology will be the key differentiator. In my conversations with administrators and faculty members, I’ve seen a few examples of tools that have made institutions better prepared to navigate the new world of remote learning. Kim Coffman of Miami-Dade College, for instance, recently shared with me her enthusiasm about their investment in an online discussion platform designed to help build community even in remote settings. As she put it, “When we moved online, I no longer had my physical classroom, office hours or the ability to see my students and their reactions. Packback became our online community, allowing my students to stay connected to me and to one another.”

Choosing the right investment for your institution is, certainly, often easier said than done. It requires careful consideration of the needs of its myriad stakeholders: students and faculty, naturally, but also administrators, budget officers and the broader local community in which a college exists. The success of Kirkwood’s investments came from our commitment to a specific question: What are the strengths of our institution, and how can we deepen them? We used that approach to identify all the things that made Kirkwood stand out -- not just popular and successful academic programs but also the faculty members who went above and beyond for students and served as go-to resources for other instructors.

Figuring out what to invest in is, of course, just the first step. Gaining support for those new investment ideas can be difficult in normal circumstances, but it’s especially difficult in times of budget cuts. Having a sharp vision and tying that vision to a business plan is key. Remember that early wins breed trust; if you have a plan in mind, make sure to execute with confidence and strategy.

It’s also important to note that these investments pay dividends that are not just financial. When selected carefully, presented thoughtfully and rolled out with support from the campus and community, they can deepen an institution’s core competencies, differentiate a campus, build a halo of goodwill in the community (always helpful for fundraising) and ultimately increase profit that can be invested back in the institution. Thanks to our investments, Kirkwood has not just remained profitable but has, in fact, increased revenue and is now able to weather the economic storm that COVID-19 has brought.

Uncertainty makes most people clutch their pocketbooks tighter. But -- if you’ll forgive another cliché -- times of uncertainty can also be times of opportunity. It’s during such moments, like the one we face today, that the right investments can make all the difference.

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Mick Starcevich is former president of Kirkwood Community College in Iowa.

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