Higher Ed’s Challenges and Independent Schools’ Opportunities

by Peter Baron

“Let’s take our cues from higher ed. Inevitably, what they’re doing will trickle down to independent schools.”

I would be very wealthy if I had a nickel for every time I heard some version of that uttered.

But here’s the problem.

Do we want to follow their path?

Last I checked, there are some serious headwinds facing higher ed.

And in Brian Rosenberg’s piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Higher Ed’s Ruinous Resistance to Change, The academy excels at preserving the status quo. It’s time to evolve,” the former 17-year President of Macalester College beautifully articulates challenges to the higher ed business model.

(JFYI— the article sits behind a paywall; however, the Chronicle allows a limited number of articles per month for free.)

Just consider these four macro-level issues cited by Rosenberg:

1. The cost of providing the services at a traditional college or university is very high and has risen for decades more rapidly than inflation or the cost-of-living index.

2. At all but a handful of institutions with enormous endowments, revenue from students funds the majority of that cost.

3. There are not enough students who are both willing and able to pay the full cost of higher education.

4. There are not enough students, period.

Before I go any further, let me state this: There are good things to borrow from higher education; just take student recruitment strategies where they’re pushing the envelope in many instances.

But to instinctively look to higher ed as the revered older sibling and assume they’ve got it figured out, I’m not sure that’s wise anymore.

Their reluctance to change is placing significant pressure on their model.

Rosenberg makes a strong case, and I encourage you to read it, but I admit, it’s lengthy (clearly, he has a lot of ground to cover), so let me share two takeaways:

Embracing Change is Crucial

We often see a deep-rooted resistance to change in higher education even after COVID and the introduction of several innovative strategies. The magnetic pull of the status quo to return to the “old ways” was just too strong.

Rosenberg writes that it’s vital for leaders to break away from this pattern.

Changing age-old practices, like teaching methods and academic calendars, isn’t just necessary; it’s a step towards progress.

Just take teaching methods— he argues the lecture model needs to fade into the background in favor of a more active, hands-on approach to learning.

Is it any wonder that the demand for universities offering a more active approach to learning and work preparation like Northeastern is doing so well?

Financial Sustainability is Key

Not a terribly surprising headline, but with the rising costs and changing student demographics, Rosenberg writes that the current financial models need to be more sustainable.

I found this quote particularly interesting:

Inside Higher Education’s 2023 survey of college and university presidents is head-spinning. Almost 80 percent believe that their institution will be financially stable over the next decade at the same time as 72 percent believe that their “institution needs to make fundamental changes in its business models, programming and other operations.

It seems there’s some conflict. Is the model okay, or are they nervous? Which one is it?

What does all of this mean for independent schools?

Yes, we’re facing similar issues, but one of the advantages we have over our friends in higher ed is that we can be nimble.

We’ve got overhead, no question, but we’re not weighed down like larger higher education institutions.

The case studies I’ve shared of schools reimagining the model serve as proof.

Given the significant challenges facing the higher education business model, turning these stiff headwinds into opportunities starts with adopting a different mindset. They can’t hang onto the status quo.

And that’s where I see an opportunity for independent schools.

It starts by committing to upskilling leaders on every rung of the leadership ladder with business and entrepreneurial skills to chart a new course.

Let’s reference some stats I’ve shared in the past from NAIS Research: 2023 Hot Issues Survey: Challenges and Opportunities for Independent Schools.

  • 91% of the 310 heads of school surveyed remarked that “Ensuring the school’s sustainability” is one of their top challenges.

The more than 70 current and former heads of schools that I’ve spoken with agree.

This overwhelming consensus underscores the opportunity for us to embrace change.

Granted, our paths to answering the sustainability question will look different from school to school, but the foundational skills necessary shouldn’t.

If we instill business and entrepreneurial skills in our leaders over time, we can develop creative solutions better.

I believe that deeply, and it’s why I’m building MoonshotOS— to equip leaders with the business and entrepreneurial know-how, systems, and peer community to help ensure financially sustainable school futures.

Let’s chart a new course where higher education takes a cue from its younger sibling, drawing inspiration and guidance along the way.

Finally, Rosenberg recently published his book, “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”: Resistance to Change in Higher Education, where he examines the issue of change in higher education in far more detail.

I recommend picking up a copy.

Let me know your thoughts. I’d like to hear your takeaways.

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