Determining the “Can” and the “Should” of Higher Ed Initiatives

In a recent commentary about higher education governance, Bucknell University former president Brian C. Mitchell points out that colleges and universities often are hindered by their own processes:

The codification and execution of strategy — a key to the institution’s future — can be a long committee-based effort, governed by an academic calendar that precludes the agility and nimbleness that colleges require to become sustainable in a fiercely competitive market.

As a result, colleges can become “places of campus cultural inertia” that have difficulty determining when process needs to end and decision-making needs to begin.

LAWLOR’s own rule of thumb for deliberating change is that it’s time to decide after two questions have been answered: Can we do it? Should we do it?

“Can we?” most often involves studying whether a change is financially and operationally feasible for the institution—an inward look at the institution’s resources, infrastructure, etc. “Should we?” involves a more outward look because the answer so heavily depends on how the change will be perceived in the marketplace by targeted audiences as well as the general public.

Suppose a college is deciding whether to adopt a new policy for awarding institutional aid. It would want to determine the tuition revenue implications of the new policy to answer the “can we” part. But it would also need to consider, for example, how high school guidance counselors will judge the college when they see the new policy’s impact on the average net price broken down by family income level. If the result causes negative perceptions, then even if the college can do it, perhaps it shouldn’t.

The answer is not always the same for the “can we” and “should we” questions. But once a college has answered both, it’s time to make a decision.


Overcoming Governance Flaws

Mitchell says it’s time to “call the question on why colleges should continue to operate in a way that will not work for them going forward.” (Medium)

Rising Discount Rates

The average tuition discount rate at private colleges has been rising a percentage point per year, placing a net revenue strain on smaller institutions. (Moody’s)

Net Price Transparency

“Some colleges are totally unaffordable, and this tool proves it” reads the headline of an article about the updated Tuition Tracker website. (PBS)



Lawlor Recommends

In our conversations with senior leadership, we frequently note that marketplace conditions are dictating they move from discussing and discerning to doing. They must take calculated risks on their initiatives according to the realities of what can be done and what should be done. Ideally, their decisions are informed not only by financial and operational assessments, but also by market research analysis.

Taken together, if the data points show an initiative can and should be done, then the need to do it is reinforced. If the initiative can’t garner a yes on both the “can we” and the “should we,” then the search for an alternative solution is facilitated. And although there may be times when intuition is the “to do or not to do” tie-breaker, if it is to be an intelligent solution, then it still must incorporate market intelligence.