Originally published: The Chronicle of Higher Education | By Jeffrey J. Selingo | Nov 8, 2017
Even as tuition prices keep rising further beyond the reach of many families — and financial aid fails to keep pace — colleges continue to use the same strategies to tackle this crisis. Their list of solutions, unfortunately, is all too familiar: Increase the tuition discount rate, raise additional private dollars to boost endowments, fight for more public funds, and recruit students who can pay a higher share of the sticker price, or in the case of public institutions, out-of-state students who pay higher rates and add income to the bottom line.
Besides being typical, these practices have something else in common: They focus mostly on revenue, not costs. In doing so, they fail to get to the root of higher education’s financial dilemma, which is the expense of maintaining campuses that operate like minicities with an array of academic programs and faculty to teach in them, an ever-growing catalog of student services, and complex administrative systems.
However, there is a better option: true collaboration with other universities, in areas from academics to administrative management.
In one sense higher-education partnerships are an old idea, with the most obvious examples being athletics conferences and the alphabet soup of associations that bring together institutions based on geography or mission. But few of the collaborations today involve colleges actually working together. Instead, at best, institutions work side by side, and usually only on a specific objective — to save money by purchasing goods and services together or on political lobbying. Even then, they typically keep competing in other areas like recruiting students, securing research grants, or hiring faculty members.
Maybe in a different era such parceled collaboration could be justified. Maybe for a long time the public ignored the fact that nonprofit education is tax exempt because it’s supposed to be a common good, rather than businesses fighting for turf. But the time for going it alone has ended.
The fiscal realities are not changing: Federal and state dollars remain constrained, family incomes are stagnant, and student demographics are shifting, increasing financial needs. As these conditions get tighter, fewer colleges can simply pass rising costs on to students or solve the pricing problem alone.
The evidence of risk is especially compelling for campuses that aren’t among the elites. In a 2016 study by Parthenon-EY Education to which I contributed, we found that more than 800 colleges exhibit a range of risks that jeopardize their survival. These factors include tuition discounts of more than 35 percent and high debt payments. Nearly 80 percent of the troubled institutions have fewer than 1,000 students, but 9 percent of them have more than 10,000 students.
There is a better way. Recently I produced a study that shows the promise of a fresh kind of partnership that could turn this situation around. What I call the “networked university” is about shared structures that capitalize on each college’s strengths. The digital revolution has made on-campus networks ubiquitous; now, through a new network, multiple institutions can link to reduce expenses while delivering essential services.
New models exhibiting these attributes are starting to emerge. They bring together institutions facing similar issues, no matter where they are located — or even whether they compete in the same athletic conference. Unizin, for example, includes 13 large institutionsthat seek to use shared digital services and infrastructure to simplify collaboration. Three member universities are now digitally sharing course content, providing it to their faculty to develop and assess courses.
Another example is the University Innovation Alliance, which focuses on improving college access to underrepresented and low-income students and which, like Unizin, was founded in 2014. Its 11 members include Arizona State University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Ohio State University. For a long time we have been hearing about the promise of technology to revolutionize education. Various MOOC consortia (Coursera and edX) are trying, and individual campuses are using technology in many creative ways, including for expanded distance, adult, evening, and weekend enrollments.
But these initiatives are only small signs of what technology makes possible. Colleges outside the elites and outside the public behemoths like those noted above could benefit the most by networking because combining certain fundamental activities through technology would reduce costs while advancing the core academic mission.
So how does an institution build a viable networked university? There are several crucial factors.
First, boards and presidents must decide that going it alone no longer suffices. In particular, boards at colleges that have tried the familiar revenue solutions without serious benefit to the bottom line should make collaboration central to presidential hiring and evaluation decisions. Leadership must embrace the philosophy that deeply integrated partnerships will strengthen, not weaken, the institution.
Second, colleges should identify peers with common goals, and without regard to geographic proximity, because today’s technology closes distance so effectively. In choosing prospective partners, colleges should seek out others that face urgent pricing challenges, occupy similar spots in the academic hierarchy, and share an interest in trying something new.
Third, networked universities should prioritize key administrative services in which sharing staff and technology will produce operating efficiencies. A sample list would include career services, international recruitment, academic advising, legal affairs, internet security, and the back-office operations of admissions.
For example, as colleges try to live up to students’ (and parents’) hopes that the cost of higher education will pay off in good jobs, more and more institutions are expanding career services — all focused only on their own students. This is an excellent area for networked collaboration because the set of job-hunting skills being offered to students is comparable across colleges of all kinds, the volume of employers available to campuses is necessary for success, and digital communications can link students and counselors in distant locations. So colleges can expand student opportunities while reducing costs and without affecting their academic core.
Fourth, faculty members must have confidence in these programs. A good place to begin earning that confidence would be through course-sharing across programs with low enrollments, such as languages, or in rapidly emerging fields — areas in which faculty have an interest in scale. Courses in data analytics or computer coding, for example, are growing fast, and the fields are ideally suited for cross-campus collaboration.
Why are such prospects for networking universities so important? In part because by definition there are only a few so-called elite colleges. And for too many of the rest, the ultimate alternative to meaningful partnerships is hope that the revenue-oriented solutions somehow finally work. But it doesn’t take a historian to know that if the model stays the same even as it falters, the dilemmas of the past will become prelude. Wheelock College, in Boston, is the most recent institution to confront the hard reality: to survive it is pursuing a merger with Boston University.
In the years ahead more colleges will be facing this predicament. It would be a shame if they decided too late that merging or closing were their only options. They could instead decide now to work with others to deliver their shared educational mission together.
Jeffrey J. Selingo is the founding director of the Arizona State/Georgetown University Academy for Innovative Higher Education Leadership and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center on 21st Century Universities.