Bob Johnson's Blog on Higher Education Marketing

Higher education... traumatic change that won't stop soon

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What's the state of higher education in the United States?


"Traumatic change" might be the best two words to describe what's taking place right now and will continue to take place in the immediate future as available resources continue to shrink and schools from Yale University to San Francisco Community College adapt to meet the shrinkage.


Are people at your institution still whistling past the graveyard?  


Over the last two days I've made a quick "copy and paste" collection of news stories that illustrate the change. Had I started a week ago, this would be a much longer list. Here's the array that's come along in the sources I monitor, presented in the order received. No doubt I've missed a few.


  • Resistance to "hefty" salary increases for presidents in Idaho at a time of severe budget limitations, defended on the grounds that they are necessary to get the best leaders. Public universities everywhere can expect increased scrutiny of how money is spent. Stories like this only increase the intensity of that scrutiny.
  • A voluntary retirement incentive program at the University of Illinois flagship campus to reduce faculty and administrative numbers. In Michigan, we remember these well as part of an auto industry effort to reduce high salary commitments.
  • Williams College ended the "no loans in our financial aid packages" policy that many predict is the first of more to follow at similar institutions. Princeton started the "no loan" trend back in the 1990s to get better yield from middle class students not willing to go into debt for a Princeton degree, partly in the face of generous merit scholarships from second-tier institutions. Both reflected a resistance to debt levels in the face of higher tuition. How high can tuition discount rates go in the private sector to maintain enrollment levels?
  • "Soaring salaries" at the "very top of the pay scale" at regional Washington state universities from 2007 to 2009, compared to large tution increases at the same time. Another example of increased public scrutiny of how higher education spends money. 
  • A "financial state of emergency" in Nevada declared by the Board of Regents. Will academic program reductions be far behind? Reducing programs is underway now at many private and public institutions at both undergraduate and graduate levels.
  • Yale University freezes salaries for president, provost, deans and other high level administrators as a symbolic step to help cover a $100 million budget gap.
  • Cancelling an entire summer session program at City College of San Francisco to help balance the budget there. 

Shrinking Resources of Every Type


Almost everyone can add similar stories from their own states. Resisting the change underway is a foolish enterprise. Helping to shape the change is not. Cutting salary costs is underway. Cutting academic program costs is underway. The resources available to virtually every college and university, from Yale to the University of Illinois to City College of San Francisco will not be the same over the next 10 years as they have been for the past 20 years.


A New Brand Reality


"Brand strength" will not save individual colleges and universities from change. 


Careful adaptation to new financial realities (lower private giving, lower state appropriations, lower endowments, higher resistance to debt) will force higher education to focus on the "best of the best" at every institution. "Brand" might actually reflect real differences from one place to another as academic programs offered are reduced. That isn't necessarily a bad thing.


That's all for now 





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