Monday, February 27, 2012

Guardedly Optimistic

At last week’s breakfast meeting with all the department chairs and deans, I talked about the enrollment situation for this semester and this year. A substantial increase in the freshmen class, strong quality indicators, and some of the best retention numbers in our history make for a very positive picture. And a Presidential Debate on our campus next fall, further helps enhance the forecast for next year’s entering class. After finishing these comments, I moved on to discuss Moody’s higher education forecast of January 20, 2012. Moody’s is not always upbeat but their forecasts provide a well grounded assessment of what is and what is likely to be. In this forecast, Moody’s notes that for higher education, there will be greater political scrutiny, more sophisticated consumers and donors, increased price sensitivity on the part of consumers, increasing need for institutions to differentiate themselves, and also an increased need to become more efficient. Moody’s notes the “ongoing bifurcation” of higher education with very strong undergraduate demand occurring at the lowest cost, most affordable, extreme and at the highest prestige, highest quality, extreme. They also point out that there is a notable softening in demand for graduate education. We are all aware of the lack of job opportunities in much of teacher education but there is also a softening of demand for legal education and for graduate business education. Add to this the growth of online education and the weakness of the less selective sector of private higher education plus the fact that increased tuition discounting is not sustainable and you have key points in the picture that Moody’s sees and is reporting on. What does it all mean? Is the glass half or more than half empty? Or with a reviving economy, is the picture more positive than it appears. The answer is yes. We have our challenges but we have an opportunity. As an industry, many of us work very hard to differentiate our products. Many of us work very hard to provide a quality education. Many of us are very sophisticated at recruiting, and we also strive to limit tuition increases to the smallest possible increase. On the other hand, tuition discounting is still becoming more pervasive. It may be unsustainable in the long run but in the short run many of us have no choice but to compete. The increasing consumer focus on the tuition rate in the competition between much of private higher education and much of public higher education especially challenges the private sector going forward. And online education clearly challenges all of us by bringing much more competition just a click away. My generation and others in close proximity in age can be sure that higher education as we know it will continue throughout our professional lives. For future generations of administrators and faculty, the challenges, however, are great. If those of us in influential administrative positions try to coast, much of higher education as we know it will be placed at risk. If we continue to differentiate and make changes that reflect changing times, if we continue to respect core values, if we limit tuition increases and maximize efficiencies, if we can operate in an increasingly online environment, we should be OK. My choice is to not be complacent; if you do the same, we can all be guardedly optimistic.

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