In this episode of OMNI’s podcast “Power of People: Higher Education Edition,” our guest Michael Tracy, Founder of OMNI Human Resource Management, joined us to examine why some colleges and universities continue to thrive, and others find themselves struggling to attract students and, as a result, unable to meet their expenses.
Season 1, Episode 1: The State of HR in Higher Education
It is becoming evident that small and mid-sized colleges and universities are under extreme pressure. The number of 18-year-olds graduating from high school will be dropping, and schools that focus on traditional undergraduate students will have to fight for enrollment. On top of that, more first-time students are going online than ever before, and the big online schools like SNHU, Grand Canyon, and WGU are scooping them up. Extremely selective schools like the Ivy League are doing just fine, as are the large (over 30,000 student) R1 institutions. So, if you are a small open-access, liberal arts school with less than 5,00 students, the squeeze is on. You need to manage costs like never before.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, most of those schools cut their costs to the bone and are only slowly rebounding. That means the only significant cost they can flex are salaries and benefits. For the most part, benefits are what they are, so really, we’re talking about cutting jobs. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has to be done properly.
Colleges and universities need to ask themselves why a prospective student should choose them over their competitors. Hopefully the only reason is lower cost or closer geographic location. Every institution needs a hook, which could be one or more academic programs that are unique and exceptional and draw students who want that specific degree. Or they offer an exceptional student experience that students can’t get just anywhere. Ideally, they have both, but with neither, it will become increasingly difficulty to meet their enrollment goals.
In this episode of OMNI’s podcast “Power of People: Higher Education Edition,” our guest Michael Tracy, Founder of OMNI Human Resource Management, provided a restaurant metaphor for higher education. We all know about those local restaurants that seem to persist over the decades while other venues come and go. Those that are successful have three things in common: they only use the best ingredients, they have highly skilled chefs, and they focus their menu on the dishes that their customers want to eat. If they let the quality of any of these three things slip, the quality of the finished product drops and people stop eating there.
Michael suggests that higher education offers an interesting parallel. Schools that pay close attention to the quality of their incoming students, maintain a highly effective faculty, and only offer the programs that make them distinctive continue to thrive. Those that have lowered their admissions standards to attract more students, have an okay – but not remarkable – faculty, and continue to add new programs without ending others find themselves struggling for students and thereby are unable to meet their expenses.
Now, if you are an open-access institution, you may not have the ability to only select the best “ingredients,” but by ensuring a high level of academic support, you can address that. You still need outstanding faculty, and to teach only what needs to be taught. Dropping excess programs, while painful, allows you to reallocate those costs to where they are really needed.
Yes, there is a lot of pressure on small and mid-sized institutions to grow, or at least sustain their enrollment numbers while controlling costs. And yes, some of those will fail to adapt and will be forced to merge or close. But we also know that extreme pressure is what it takes to create diamonds, and some institutions will endure these pressures and turn into true gems.
Click here to listen the complete discussion from the episode.
Dr. Roger Dusing is a Senior Consultant and the Higher Education Practice Leader at OMNI. He previously served as Chief Human Resource Officer at Park University for eleven years. With over 40 years of HR experience, including 30 years in C-suite level roles, he now reflects his passion for higher education in his work to bring affordable, high-quality HR services to small- to medium-sized colleges and universities.
Roger holds a PhD in Business Management, with a concentration in Human Resources from Northcentral University, a Master of Science in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a BS in Industrial Engineering from Bradley University. He also authored the book “I’m Fired?!? A Business Fable About the Challenges of Losing One Job and Finding Another.”