Colleges do not fail because of competition, environmental changes or even declining or changing student demographics. Colleges fail when leadership ignores warning signs and becomes paralyzed by tradition or ignorance.
Colleges are businesses hidden in the mystique of academics. As a community of thinkers, innovators and educators, we should rightfully be proud of the role we play in contributing to an educated, open-minded and civil society. That being said, we also have a commitment to the communities we serve to provide jobs and prepare our neighbors for the workforce.
Beneath curricula and academia, colleges need to be viable and sustainable on a long-term basis. That requires that we create and follow strategic plans and budgets and, more urgently, adapt to the changing demands of an evolving globalized society of students who are, in fact, our customers.
Lessons from Sears and Toys R Us
Companies like Sears and Toys R Us folded not because of the Internet, but because they did not adapt to the changing environment. They did not identify the risks inherent in maintaining their standard business model to meet the needs of their customers or challenge their competitors. As a result, they did not have a fighting chance to retain market share.
Other retailers have made significant changes to keep pace with client demands. Time will tell if their actions positioned them for success, but for now, these businesses are thriving. Colleges should look to these businesses for lessons on how to maintain their long-term operating viability, and they need to start the process before warning signs become critical. Too frequently, I read announcements about schools across the country that have closed their doors.
At HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, we know our current business model is not sustainable over the long term. The average age of a student in our credit programs is 25 years old. Just over 75 percent of our students take classes part time while likely raising families, working and studying. Thousands of our students take online classes, and their demand for an online learning environment continues to grow. If our business model ignores the needs of these students, we, rightfully, will not survive.
Fortunately, HACC is paying attention. Two of our fastest-growing areas are workforce development and virtual learning. In 2016-18, we reviewed all of our programs, discontinued some and revamped others to help students graduate on time and maximize the number of credits that would transfer to a four-year school. But so much more needs to be done.
On all of us
All of us – faculty, staff and administrators – are challenged to think differently, consider other points of view and position ourselves in unfamiliar surroundings to ensure the college – and our students – thrive. We cannot afford a tepid attitude toward change. We cannot turn a blind eye to student feedback about inconsistent experiences or class availability. Our leadership team must lead the entrepreneurial spirit that encourages our overall long-term sustainability. I am encouraged and energized by those pioneers at HACC who challenge us all to embrace disruptive change.
The increasing pressure to provide students with an affordable education, historically low unemployment rates and the continued decline in high school graduates will challenge our operating performance for the foreseeable future. Higher education will struggle to deliver its mission under these conditions unless we are open to and implement radical change.
We all experience different degrees of change – some are subtle and unnoticed by the human eye, while others can be cataclysmic extinction events. Businesses and colleges are also influenced by changes big and small.
At HACC, we encourage colleagues to take calculated risks and embrace the reality that, sometimes, there are lessons to be learned from failure. However, there is a critical difference between making bold choices and stubbornly avoiding choices. When colleges choose not to act, they choose failure.