Takeaways from NAICU’s 2016 Annual Meeting

Solomon McCown President Ashley McCown and I had the pleasure of presenting at this year’s annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU), held this week in Washington, DC. As one of four sessions during the meeting’s Public Relations Academy, “Communicating around Title IX” provided tips on how higher ed administrators should be talking to students and other key audiences about campus sexual assault and, in many instances, subsequent Title IX investigations by the Department of Justice (as of this writing, there are currently 197 open investigations at 161 colleges and universities).

What makes the issue so challenging for administrators is that best practices are constantly evolving, as they’re being held accountable now more than ever for how they work to prevent sexual assault, support survivors and adjudicate complaints. This is just one of the major challenges currently confronting higher education. For some institutions, it’s more than their reputation at stake; it’s their very survival.

In another PR Academy session, Goldie Blumenstyk, senior writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know, warned that the American higher education system is at a tipping point: Demographics are changing, costs are rising and distance-learning pose a threat to the traditional model. Consider that, in the past two years, credit ratings agency Moody’s issued a negative outlook for the higher education industry as a whole, finding that 1 in 10 public and private colleges suffers “acute financial distress” because of falling revenues and weak operating performance.

Blumenstyk pointed to private colleges and universities continuing to raise their tuition discount rates, even as many of these institutions struggle with decreasing enrollment and declining revenue. In fact, tuition discount rates are at an all-time high and many school are using the strategy to a point that, according NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers), is “not sustainable.”

At a time when the average college grad is entering the workforce with $35,000 in student loan debt, one might argue that higher ed is dealing with a serious image problem when it comes to its value proposition. Today, one in six college loan borrowers is either behind on payments or in outright default and nearly 40 percent of graduates say their student loan debt isn’t worth it.

But while higher ed faces a serious set of challenges, some promising solutions have begun to emerge. Blumenstyk points to the rise of new business models such as mergers. Predictably, boards are struggling with the prospect of merging their institution with another. The rationale, however, is that joining forces with another school is a way to preserve the institution’s mission…when the only other option is merely struggling to survive.

Blumenstyk also has written about alternative-educational opportunities. For instance, a recent Huffington Post piece suggests “peripheral learning opportunities operating outside of traditional institutions, like boot camps and technical training programs, are proliferating. Students are increasingly interested in specific skills acquisition.” Other ideas include customizing curricula based on specific skills or a profession a student wants to pursue. These programs could be designed with input from promising employers, ensuring a steady pipeline of skilled workers. In addition, colleges and universities could expand life-long learning opportunities, offering classes available for alumni that provide credentials for valuable aptitudes, such as basic coding.

As we learned at NAICU this week, the challenges facing colleges and universities are many. It is, undoubtedly, those institutions that adapt and provide students with what they need to be successful in today’s increasingly competitive job market that will thrive and, perhaps, even grow.

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