Home » Uncategorized » We can’t afford what we’ve become: Higher ed’s woes.

We can’t afford what we’ve become: Higher ed’s woes.



Years ago during a strategic planning session a friend and colleague of mine stood up in front of a room full of people and declared, “we can’t really afford what we’ve become.” This friend and college was a Ph.D in Finance, had taught for thirty years at the time, and had served both as provost and vice president of finance. His comment stuck with me and I’ve never forgotten the somewhat sick feeling I had when I realized how accurate he was and how difficult the work would be to adjust.

Well, today, the reality of “we cannot afford what we’ve become” is more real than it was 15 years ago when I first heard this phrase.

With the exception of the wealthiest and most prestigious colleges and universities, the vast majority of colleges and universities must face this reality head-on.

And, as an enrollment manage, I know we can’t just grow our way out of this.

Here are a couple of charts to ponder:

Chart 1

Chart 2


See what I mean? We can’t afford what we’ve become. I am sure that there are some who would like to debate this, but the data seems pretty clear to me.

What should we do about this?

Inaction or hoping that things will turn around probably won’t yield very good results.

At some colleges we’ve already seen action. Some have eliminated programs, others have transitioned to adjunct faculty to deliver more and more of the academic program, and, we’ve even seen some colleges close. In most of these cases, there has been considerable gnashing of teeth.

Sadly, that is likely to continue since admitting that we’ve can’t afford what we’ve become hurts and is an uncomfortable admonition. But, let’s also be honest, the reason we can’t afford what we’ve become is directly related to the fact that there are not enough students who can afford what we’ve become. This is a reality.

I think that colleges that come to this realization and take action will be in a much stronger position.

Below are some of my thoughts about how I think some colleges will react. In my view, those that have a clear plan in each area will be the winners, while those who do not have a plan will be featured in the higher ed press.

Cut core costs—Colleges must cut core costs for student. They must develop orderly plans to make meaningful cuts to free up resource to continue to pay employees and deliver services students demand. Some programs (academic and co-curricular) will have to close. Some requirements within general education and perhaps even some majors may need to be reduced. Class sizes will need to increase. Some services currently offered will have to be cut or reduced. Nobody gets excited about this, I know.

But, this is reality for most of us.

Those colleges that will be successful navigating this pain are those, which develop plans transparently and involve all stakeholders in decision-making.

Consolidate—Consolidation may be attractive for some. Merging with a college or set of colleges with a similar profile and mission may enable some reduction in administrative costs. We’ve seen this in a number of public systems already and private colleges may need to do some of this in order to survive. Maybe a centralized admissions and financial aid office? Maybe one registrar? Maybe one German department? Maybe one president? Maybe one Board of Trustees?

While this probably won’t work for everyone, there are some colleges that will need to find a partner in order to survive. We can’t compete against each other indefinitely.

Those colleges with imagination about partnering with like-minder organizations in order to consolidate are likely to thrive during these difficult times.

Outsource—Colleges that have not explored outsourcing services will have to do so. This will painful, but it will be important as college think about cutting core cost and becoming more affordable.

Colleges that have transparent plans about outsourcing will be in a stronger position that those which reject the idea outright.

Clarify mission—Some colleges will have to change or re-focus mission to survive, while others may double-down on an existing mission. These difficult times will force colleges to think more clearly than ever before about mission, because we can’t continue to try to be everything to everybody; that’s what got us into the mess.

We’ve started to see a little bit of this with some college choosing to abandon undergraduate education altogether to focus on graduate education exclusively, while others have rejected adding graduate programs in order to focus on undergraduate education.

Colleges that have a confused mission during these difficult times are destined for infighting about resources in a time of diminishing resources.

I know this is pretty sober, but it’s reality and the sooner we realize it and take action, the better off we will be.

What do you think?

W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission


  1. Mary Dolheimer says:

    The pain of which you speak is one that many in K-12 have felt for years, and some have attempted to address the issue through the very means you’ve mentioned above. The pain is real . . .

  2. I agree….and we are challenged by exactly who has the responsibility to make these decisions. It’s easy to identify the President, Provost, or the CFO, but the reality is that colleges and universities are complex and require middle management to be an active part of the discussion. Make your department/program relevant today! It’s true that departments will point at others for the operational changes. But, it’s those that look in the mirror and change what they are doing who will take bold steps forward. The “it’s not us” mentality stifles progress. My two cents.

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