The Higher Education Machine

By Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute


I receive emails and have emails forwarded to me of the many companies that provide consulting services to higher education. As a disclaimer, EPI provides consulting as well, mostly through my personal keynotes and workshops at institutions. However, the sheer scale of the third-party vendor arena is mindnumbing. Literally thousands of companies are vying to help higher education on a number of matters, including but not limited to: Strategic enrollment, retention, admissions, teaching and learning, customer relationship management, alumni donors, and financial aid including loan repayment. This is a small list, each one its own domain and industry.


This suggests a few questions. First, it makes me question in what type of shape higher education is to need so many consultants. Why is the expertise not able to be provided from within?

The answer is a bit complex, of course. Institutions go outside for help for a number of reasons. First, they can quickly get assistance by finding a capable consultant from the field. Second, if they choose correctly, they can find someone who has extensive experience—more than those on staff and with a varied composition of history and experience—to help identify problems and provide solutions. And third, and perhaps most importantly, most people do not trust the experience from within. This is a sociological phenomenon that plagues organizations and institutions. I was told so many years ago, and I paraphrase, that “an expert from within is never seen as a Pharaoh from afar,” meaning that outside people are always seen as more valuable than those from within the organization.

Sometimes it is very useful to have these external eyes and ears helping your internal teams. However, many consultants and experts will attest that some of the best ideas come from within. The problem is that no one listens to them.

The number of consulting firms is breathtaking. It is difficult to get away from the emails and mailers offering support. And from my vantage point, most of these are startups and companies less than five-years old. And—I find this surprising—that many of them are run by younger people without the requisite experience of a seasoned veteran from the trenches. They provide strategies and solutions without the history and experience. Not sure how well it works, but they exist so there must be an appetite within higher education.

As well, many of the new consulting firms are focused on technological solutions. I always thought that universities have long been engaged in the game of “one-upping” their competition by finding the best recruits via cutting edge analytics and CRM. These things work, but in the end, one must wonder if it is a zero-sum game. If everyone is playing the same game with the same types of tools, to who’s advantage does this play?

I believe that much of this is driven by two factors. The first being the necessarily evil, especially for private institutions, to balance their tuition discounting and seating a freshman class. This is the essential foundation of enrollment management, but it is an increasingly important piece of the puzzle that gets more difficult to do as the gap between ability to pay and net price expands each year. I also think that the mission creep of institutions and the interest in growing enrollment puts an added pressure on many institutions. All of this is happening in an era where enrollment is likely to top out while the economy is on overdrive.

Making things a bit worse is the sheer economy of higher education. From an economic perspective, it can easily be argued that there are too many institutions of higher education in the US system. Please refer to our June 7th EPIGraph that showcases the 6,502 Title IV approved institutions in the US, meaning that every one of them receives taxpayer supported funding via Pell grants and federally-sponsored loan programs. That is, all 6,502 institutions are publicly subsidized to some degree.

What has happened over the years is that higher education has created an external supplier culture that may actually dwarf the size of higher education itself. Food services, housing, books, supplies, and educational technologies are a few of the base suppliers of services on campus. Most food services on campus are provided by third-party vendors, and most institutions have multi-year contracts with a technology supplier for computers and other goods. Now we are seeing outsourcing of basic services, including recruitment. More recently, we have seen external companies offering academic and other advising for students—virtually.

And this begs my final thought. Now that we have suppliers providing actual academic content to institutions in the form of online synchronous and asynchronous lectures and courses, what is the purpose of higher education as we know it? This becomes a philosophical question about the purpose of a “higher” education. This is less about two-year institutions and more about four-year universities. Much has been expressed about the value of the residential experience on a college campus. Some have said, that for many students, the networking and friends built may be more important than the learning itself. Ask many employers and what sticks out to them about prospective employees is the name of the institution rather than the degree itself. People buy their future via the institution they attend.

If we take the upper echelon of institutions out of the equation for a moment and focus on the other institutions, do the same outcomes exist? Does the ROI of lesser versus higher institutions meet the same value? Likely not, but it doesn’t mean or suggest that the investment isn’t worth it to the individual. I, for one, was never a residential student. Out of those, three were public institutions and one was a highly-selected institution. Inthese four colleges I attended between the ages of 18 and 34, I was always the commuter. In the end, I still had my networks and I still had the experience. Just a bit differently, I suppose.

Go forward 10 years. How much of the services—including teaching—will come from beyond the campus? Will our college experience resemble anything we went through? What impact may that have on our future employees and citizens? And at what cost?



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