Business Practices (Achieving Administrative Excellence)
Cool Comes at a Cost
- By Dr. Scott D. Miller, Dr. Marylouise Fennell
- December 1st, 2014
Competition among peer institutions is the most intense we
have seen in over 30 years, with
the demand for student-centered programs,
services and facilities forcing significant shifts
in institutional spending. But such “cool” offerings
come at substantial cost.
It’s no secret that today’s Millennial generation
expects campus amenities beyond what
their grandparents and parents could have
imagined in their wildest dreams. Food courts,
shopping malls, fitness centers, state-of-the-art
athletic facilities, high-end residences and
well-equipped recreation attractions are not only expected, but
also essential to driving enrollment and retention. A student’s
168-hour week consists of 18 hours in the classroom and 50 sleeping;
for the remaining 100 hours, it’s up to us to partner with them
to provide the entire educational experience. Increasingly, many
colleges and universities are spending more to guarantee the attractiveness
of that experience.
Even with significant investments in these areas, many institutions
are seeing declining six-year graduation rates, especially on
small and rural campuses. Strained finances, pressures of juggling
academics, employment and extracurricular activities and a preference
for urban attractions all contribute to attrition.
All this suggests that to stay in the game, campuses must be
increasingly student-centered, and that means shifting spending
priorities. Many institutions have doubled or even tripled studentlife
spending to keep pace. Recent research suggests that student services
spending “has grown 20 to 30 percent at many colleges,
outpacing any other category,” as reported by Scott Carlson in a
July 28, 2014 article. He adds that “even if the amenities, activities
and support cost many thousands of dollars per student, especially
at elite institutions, they represent a college cost that students and
their parents have asked for — either explicitly or through their
decisions in enrollment.”
Family expectations of the college experience have also upped
the ante; we’re all familiar with the so-called “helicopter” parents
and even what some have called the “snowplow” families who
continue to be involved in their students’ lives even after those students
have matriculated. Common complaints directed to campus
administrators include lack of athletic playing time, students’ grades
and a perennial favorite, dining-hall food. New research by the Delta
Project of the American Institutes for Research and others reveals
some trends in institutional spending during the period 2001-2011:
- Four-year institutions’ investment in non-instructional student
services continued strong while “efforts to preserve instructional
spending were mixed.” Private institutions were especially
inclined to spend more on student services.
- Student support services and facilities are also part of the mix.
More first-generation, learning-disabled, special-needs and
nontraditional students often require increased counseling and
other student services to enable them to succeed. Colleges today
are serving new populations that either would not have matriculated
in earlier generations, or would have been underserved.
- Compliance with regulations is another factor in institutional
spending. Bethany College recently tallied the number of
mandatory report deadlines from accrediting and regulatory
bodies (and the like), and found that the number is in excess of
200 annually. For small institutions with typically thin staffing,
compliance — though a necessary and integral part of the
academic mission — is often challenging.
Although “cool” is undeniably costly, institutional investment
in student-centered areas is increasingly essential for colleges to
remain competitive in a volatile and aggressive enrollment marketplace.
The challenge, simultaneously, will lie in making needed
investments on the instructional side, to meet students’ career
This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.
Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk/Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was previously president of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. He is chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc. and serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.
Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.