Informed Leadership of Private Higher Education

Senior-level enrollment management and marketing communications professionals gathered June 9 and 10 in Minneapolis for Summer Seminar 2016, sponsored by The Lawlor Group. The theme was “Informed Leadership: Thinking for the Future,” in recognition of the economic, demographic, and technological disruptions that have placed many senior administrators at private colleges and universities in a reactive position as they respond to marketplace realities. With families and students struggling to assess where they’ll get the best value for their college investment, an institution’s success in delivering and communicating value will depend on proactive and informed leaders who are actively thinking about the future.

As a catalyst for such leadership, the Summer Seminar presenters delivered market intelligence as well as doses of optimism and inspiration:

  • Former mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak, whose mother was a college counselor, opened the seminar by asserting that today’s high school graduates are part of “the most important generation we’ve ever raised.” Rybak is currently executive director of Generation Next, which works to close the racial achievement gap in Minnesota’s schools. As he looks across a rapidly diversifying community, he sees an opportunity to leverage the cultural fluency he finds in many of today’s young adults to benefit our nation’s economy. “This is a gold mine we are sitting on, if we get this generation right,” he said, advising the audience members to convince their college leaders that it’s demographically and morally necessary to get on board with reducing the racial achievement gap.
  • Typical characteristics and motivators of members of Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2010) were revealed by Dr. Corey Seemiller, assistant professor at Wright State University and co-author of Generation Z Goes to College. Among her research insights about Gen Z: They are growing up in an era of creative entrepreneurship as they see people’s side hobbies become revenue-generating, so their jobs are going to be largely self-created. They view themselves as loyal, thoughtful, responsible, compassionate, determined, and open-minded. They prefer to observe before doing, so they like demonstrations of how to do things. And they are more pragmatic than the Millennials—perhaps as an influence of their Gen X parents, whom they regard as co-pilots rather than helicopter parents.
  • It’s likely that members of Gen Z will set a new peak in terms of college enrollment numbers around the year 2025, according to Richard Fry, senior researcher at Pew Research Center—although Pew has not officially named this generation yet and has it spanning birth years from 1998 to 2014. Focusing on the financial and labor-market returns of going to college, he found that the wage premium of a college degree increased for Millennials compared to Gen X. The earnings of young adults (25 to 34 years old) fell from 1998 to 2015 for those with only a high school diploma at the same time earnings rose for college degree-holders. Millennial college graduates are also more likely to be married and more likely to own a home than their counterparts with only a high school degree.
  • During a panel discussion on the new timing of FAFSA filing under PPY, Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Susquehanna University, covered some of the still-unanswered big questions, such as: Will students/parents file their FAFSA earlier? How will universities respond to the new timeline? When will the Department of Education be ready to process and send data to colleges and universities? Nathan Mueller, principal at Hardwick Day, advised institutions to determine their tuition cost and institutional aid policy much earlier in the academic year to accommodate early FAFSA submitters. Phil Trout, president of the NACAC Board of Directors, predicted that more high school seniors may now start taking advantage of early action admission dates or may begin listing more colleges on the FAFSA. All of the panelists concurred that colleges and universities will need to adapt to a revised customer journey due to early FAFSA filings.
  • Surprising data such as only 36% of teens “enjoy using social media a lot” and 24% of teens go online “almost constantly” were shared by Amanda Lenhart, formerly of the Pew Internet & American Life Project and now principal at Amanda Lenhart Consulting and an expert on teen technology practice. She advised colleges to optimize for mobile, use multiple platforms, let incoming students connect with others before they arrive on campus, keep an eye on messaging apps, think about fair use when doing predictive analytics or using algorithms, and be transparent.
  • Zina Jacque, a former enrollment management professional who now serves as lead pastor at Community Church of Barrington, told the audience, “The truth about you is that you are fundamentally a teacher. We are transmitting the espoused and realized values of our institutions.” In a series of interactive exercises, she urged people to inventory their strengths and weaknesses as teachers and to maximize their power and effect by operating in their strengths. Yet she noted we shouldn’t try to hide our failures, because those are what we learn and grow from—and what other people can relate to.
  • Higher education journalist Jon Marcus described his current work at the non-profit news organization, The Hechinger Report, noting that they do a lot of data work at Hechinger. Higher education has lived in a world of trust, but now there’s skepticism because some claims made as truths don’t check out. “The world we live in now has people who care about the financial returns of a college degree, whether it should be like that or not,” he said. As a result, there is now more awareness about financial aid negotiations, more consumer empowerment, and a concerted push for more transparency.
  • Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, forecast a coming data revolution in higher education, with a move away from the analytics of classic economic measures and more toward stories of behavioral economic measures. Among the newly released findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index: Graduates who interacted with people from different backgrounds on a regular basis were twice as likely to say their education was worth the cost. Associate’s degree holders have better job satisfaction than bachelor’s degree holders, although graduate degree holders’ job satisfaction surpasses both. And “preparedness for life” increases if the college experience included emotional support and experiential learning.
  • To close the seminar, Erinn Farrell, general manager at the digital advertising agency space150 and recently named one of Minneapolis’ “40 Under 40,” spoke about the importance of owning your story at a time when authenticity is so attractive in the marketplace. Pulling together one’s own story takes confidence in pursuing a purpose, compassion in building a tribe, and collaboration in lifting up your tribe. And in order to be persuasive, focus on the “why” of what you (or as the case may be, your college) offer. Too many people and organizations lead with the “what” or “how” and thus fail to make a purposeful connection with others.

Keep an eye out for our soon-to-be released white paper that will feature detailed accounts of all of the Summer Seminar 2016 presentations.


Class of 2015 Outcomes

Six months after graduation, only 54% of the Class of 2015 had found a traditional full-time job, according to NACE.

Liberal Arts Outcomes 

study found that liberal arts majors have plenty of job prospects—as long as they also have some specific skills.

Liberal Arts Illuminated

Among the questions next month’s conference will address: “Why should people invest in a liberal arts education?”


Lawlor Recommends

Summer Seminar is always a catalyst for thoughtful and reflective discussions by a group of very informed leaders who are committed to continuous improvement—and succeeding in a very challenging market environment.

The consternation that has been so prevalent within the higher education marketplace, particularly post-recession, has fostered a variety of behaviors among senior leadership. Some are frozen in time, living in the past. Others are embracing tactical, generic band-aids that are short-term fixes. And then there are those informed leaders who have an edupreneurial strategic perspective that fosters intelligent solutions that lead to sustainable success.

Today’s marketplace realities are often a cause for senior leaders at colleges and universities to pause for moments of reflection. Winston Churchill’s phrasing of “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” often comes to mind. And yet when the dynamic professionals who are so committed to leading and to serving others with the experience of higher education engage in further reflection, gather informed insights, participate in active collaboration, and carry an optimistic spirit, they achieve renewed hope and confidence. Summer Seminar 2016 was definitely a moment in time that provided a foundation for this type of informed leadership and more preparation for thinking proactively and strategically about the future.