You are here

Professional Opinion

Looking a gift horse in the mouth

Higher ed leaders should support President Obama’s “Plan to Make College More Affordable,” which could provide the impetus for the changes colleges and universities need to make to survive and thrive in the years ahead.
University Business, December 2013

From the perspective of a retired university president, the expressions of concern from most of America’s higher education leaders about President Obama’s proposed “Plan to Make College More Affordable” are a lot like looking a gift horse in the mouth. My former colleagues are portraying the plan as another potential serious intrusion on the historic autonomy of America’s colleges and universities.

The plan would change the way in which America’s colleges are financed by tying federal aid to student performance, compel states to spend more on public institutions, reduce the burden of student loan debt, and foster major changes in the ways students can choose to learn, e.g., MOOCs and competency- based education.

The core concerns of the leaders appear to be the validity of the rating system proposed and the idea of connecting institutional performance using this rating to the amount of financial aid its students receive. God truly is in the details, but I see the President’s proposals as constructive and having the potential—if they are received in this spirit—to serve as an important lever for a turn around of the current fortunes of America’s colleges and universities. Higher education leaders should join the president to develop a sound approach for strengthening and implementing his plan. Key issues that need more definition include:

  • What will the final list of measures of performance be? Those suggested by the president are variables that are already being measured or that would appear to be relatively easy to implement. But important academic outcomes including general education, the major and job placement have been left out and should be included. 
  • How will institutions with similar missions be grouped? The President’s plan indicates that performance comparisons will be made between institutions with similar missions, but little is said about how these groupings will be defined. 
  • How will these measures be connected with federal funding? How will this funding be allocated among the different institutional mission groups? And will this funding ultimately be articulated as an incentive for better performance as advertised? 
  • How will the accuracy and truthfulness of the results reported by institutions be assured?

The proposals contained in the Obama plan only hint at the profound change that will be required for American higher education to meet the nation’s manpower needs and at the same time substantially reduce operating costs. Indeed the work on the President’s Plan will only be the beginning and the easy part. The hard work will take place at the institutional level. The connection between institutional performance and federal funding, from an institutional perspective, could provide a powerful incentive and an important lever for institutional leaders to bring about the profound and rapid change so needed at their institutions.

Indeed American higher education is besieged with disruptive challenges on several fronts. They include:

  • Students and their families can no longer afford the cost of a higher education. 
  • The financial model currently in use cannot be sustained. 
  • Assessment efforts overall have produced little performance improvement. 
  • Most institutions lack the agility to meet rapidly the changing educational needs of the US economy. 
  • Most colleges and universities have not been able to leverage technology to transform learning or increase operational efficiency.

Strong forces inside of higher education have prevailed against confronting these issues head on. Institution boards and presidents, fearful of the consequences of doing so, have been reluctant to provide the strong leadership needed to overcome these forces.

Indeed to address these issues, institutions must develop a new definition of excellence, combining previously unattained levels of resilience (i.e., adaptability in the face of disruption) and world-class performance excellence. Institutions will achieve resilience by reimagining themselves in two fundamental ways. First, they will reinvent their existing programs so they address changing stakeholder needs and remain competitive in the face of disruption. Second, they will craft new programs that directly respond to the opportunities that come with disruption. Fueled by innovation and designed intentionally, these new programs will leverage the institution’s reputation, human resources, facilities, and relationships in fresh ways. Many of these programs will be dramatically different, even unrecognizable, as a current institutional offering and may compete with current programs.

To achieve world-class performance excellence, institutions must evolve beyond their traditional, loosely coupled, and siloed approach to a tightly integrated and systemic one. This new approach follows seven basic principles:

  1. strong, courageous and highly inclusive leadership;
  2. a focused strategic plan, with realistic assumptions, that includes a clear implementation plan with tight connections to the budget;
  3. a profound understanding of and focus on meeting institution stakeholders’ needs; 
  4. valuing and developing the people who comprise the institution’s human resources;
  5. collaboration with other organizations to achieve greater capacity and efficiency;
  6. relentless continuous improvement of instructional and support processes; and
  7. a laser focus on information, analytics, and results to gauge performance and target needed improvements.

A number of far-reaching changes are necessary to bring current practice into line with these seven principles:

  • Trustee and Presidential leadership must be strengthened and supported aggressively. Moreover, shared governance—with its implicit notion of faculty consent for change—must be transformed into shared leadership. With such leadership, all relevant members of the community participate in decisions ultimately made by the president and board and actively support the outcomes of these decision-making processes. 
  • Institutional strategy must be focused externally and on meeting the needs of students and other stakeholders. American higher education must abandon its current preoccupation with the needs of faculty, staff, and existing practices. A fresh approach is essential for institutional agility in disruptive times. 
  • Results and continuous improvement driven by these results must grow in importance, moving from begrudging implementation of assessment to using it to learn how to become a better organization on a continuous basis. 
  • A greater value must be placed on people, providing them with the training and skills they need to fulfill their full potential for the institution in a time of disruptive change. 
  • Leaders must place a laser focus on design and transformation; adoption of performance excellence can lead to greater student achievement, new revenues and cost savings. Together these can be used to attain budget reallocations and reductions totaling as much as 30-40%, making higher education affordable again. 
  • Greater collaboration and partnerships with other organizations/institutions will yield more rapid change, greater efficiency, program enrichment, and access to scarce talent and know-how. 
  • In this time of disruption, institutions must develop the capacity to cut quickly through internal complexities to achieve widespread and rapid change.

No institution threatened by disruption and wishing to thrive can afford to ignore the principles of resilience and performance excellence in the coming decade. These principles require investment and entail risk in the face of uncertainty. But for institutions threatened by disruption, the greater risk is to settle for continuing incremental improvements in existing offerings and capacities whose days are numbered.

From my perspective, President Obama, in his “Plan to Make College More Affordable,” has given American higher education a gift. He has outlined an approach, which fully articulated, could provide the impetus and the incentive America’s colleges and universities need to make the changes they must make to survive and thrive in the years ahead.

Tim Gilmour is president emeritus of Wilkes University in Wilkes Barre Pennsylvania. He and two colleagues, Donald Norris and Michael Speziale, will soon publish Excellence on the Edge: Resilience and Performance in Disruptive Times, which will detail the challenges facing American higher education and what must be done to address them.