I wrote this piece in an hour last week and was excited to see that University Business posted it on their website – https://universitybusiness.com/whats-your-return-on-investment-to-your-university/
In the summer of 2019, after nine years, I left my role as the dean for student learning & engagement, to shift to an emerging area in higher education called institutional effectiveness, which is most commonly focused on using planning and assessment to improve the inner workings of the university. I was responsible for helping ~60 administrative units at Baylor demonstrate more intentionality in their work and better document that their unit goals were demonstrated in the form of improved effectiveness over time. This role, in some fashion or another, is rapidly becoming a part of almost every college in the nation. In part this is due to the fat that institutional effectiveness has been integrated in the regional accreditation agencies (which are the main accrediting agencies,) thereby requiring universities document efforts to improve over time to continue receiving federal grant and loan dollars for students.
Who wouldn’t want a more effective and efficient university? The challenge for universities is how to demonstrate improved operations. For example, does it have to do with increasing revenues, decreasing costs, improving public image or rankings, student success metrics, more academic and athletic awards and championships, faculty and staff pay above benchmarks, expanding institutional size, etc.? (for more on this topic, see the article, “The Story of One University Family.”
Most accrediting agencies ask that improvements are linked to institutional mission and goals. As most of us know, those goals are typically written so generically that if I stripped the names off mission statements, few, if anyone, would be able to tell the difference between most mission statements (and even most goals). Just as an example, read the three mission statements below and tell me which one is Harvard University, Clark University (which, by the way, is 45 miles from Harvard) and California State Long Beach College of Liberal Arts.
to educate our students to be global citizens and community leaders. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts education.
to educate undergraduate and graduate students to be imaginative and contributing citizens of the world, and to advance the frontiers of knowledge and understanding through rigorous scholarship and creative effort.
to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education. (see the end for the answer)
In short, the target is gigantic – it is like telling a child to come home with a passing grade. The reality of accreditation process is almost identical. Having been a part of reviews for seven different institutions the past few years, I have learned to stop offering much, if any, improvement feedback. My initial efforts to identify a variety of actions universities could take to improve their effectiveness were often met with accreditor feedback that our job was not to offer improvement ideas, but to determine if the institution met the lowest standard of compliance. I complied, in order to be invited to participate again, by removing my suggestions for improvement and basically writing a paragraph or two about how the university met the minimum standards.
Contrast this approach to measuring effectiveness with my last few months exploring the world of work with higher education consulting. After leaving Baylor University in January 2022, I set out on a journey to remain in or near Waco while working for one of the many quickly growing companies that exist to strengthen universities and prevent them from joining the increasing pool of closed universities. I was excited to finally put my 30 years of higher education experience to the test in a world where visible results were not only expected but required for job security. It might seem like this would be common sense but from my many years in higher education, it became clear to me that job security was typically only loosely linked to job performance and the best predictor of staying power was often agreeableness, compliance, and maintaining the status quo.
What I did not realize, however, was how essential my ability to demonstrate a concrete return on investment would be. In one job conversation, I was asked about the “book of business” that I would bring with me to the company. The truth was that I don’t know that I had ever conceptualized my work in higher education as a “book of business.” That being said, soon thereafter I created a one page document listing eight main areas with three ideas in each where I could help institutions increase revenue or cost costs. In addition, I learned that my experience in student success was often accorded respect, but was not that attractive to consulting companies. The challenge, as I understood it, is that the efforts needed impact to student success are indirect and not easily measured (see a potential solution to this issue in the article, My Million Dollar Idea.)
What universities are willing to shell millions out to higher education consulting companies, however, are direct measures to improve revenue and cut costs. My analysis of higher education consulting foci included: 1) increasing student applications and enrollment, 2) strategically using financial aid to increase student yield, 3) identifying academic programs that will most attract students and cost the least to implement, 4) expanding online degrees that require significantly less institutional overhead, 5) increasing external research dollars, 6) improving fundraising, and last, but technically first according to many of these companies, 7) selling promised technology solutions that will “revolutionize” colleges do business. In fact, as one company put it to me, “our consulting efforts are done with the underlying goal of getting a university to sign a multi-year, multi-million dollar deal in which we shepherd and oversee the adoption to new technology that will ideally change the way they do business.”
As I have come to understand it, my likely hiring will be linked to my ability to demonstrate that my salary is directly tied to the company’s revenue over time. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. Isn’t this the reality of the world? We “eat what we kill” is a phrase I have heard countless times from the consulting world in the past few months.
The result is that I keep asking myself this question: “Was it beneficial that I spent almost 35 years not thinking this way in universities?” Was I protected from the “natural selection” of failure (or success)? If so, was this good? I don’t think the answer is a simple one. What I do know is this, for far too long, most universities have focused on how to get more money – more money in the form of tuition, gifts, and government money. This resource aggrandizement is impressive, but increasing revenue rarely helps universities take a hard look at their actual value to students and society.
The research in Academically Adrift (2011) revealed that 45% of students, at the end of their second year in college, performed no better in their critical thinking and writing than when they entered college. Making people feel good about their choice of college is something most colleges have mastered. The real question I am currently learning, is when was the last time most faculty, staff, and administrators were asked to demonstrate their value to the success of the university?
The mission statements are listed in order as Cal State Long Beach, Clark, Harvard