Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Conference for Economically Vulnerable Institutions

Josh Kim wrote this week about the possibilities offered by a conference focused on, and starring, economically vulnerable colleges and universities.  

He’s at Dartmouth and I’m at a community college, so we’re looking at the idea from different angles.  That said, a few thoughts.

First, several such conferences already exist, but they don’t bill themselves that way.  The AACC, the League for Innovation, and even Achieving the Dream are all focused on community colleges, nearly all of which are economically vulnerable.  Each regularly features presentations on and/or by folks at colleges that have worked wonders on a shoestring.

But economic vulnerability in that context is a background condition, rather than a defining trait.  

Second, to the extent that a conference focused explicitly on economically vulnerable colleges, I’d expect two basic barriers to participation.  The first is cost; travel funding is usually among the first things to go when budgets get tight.  The second is reputation.  Higher education is a reputational business in many ways.  Students prefer colleges that they expect will still be around years from now; donors prefer the same thing.  “Coming out” as economically struggling beyond the norm could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Yes, Sweet Briar was able to shake the alumni tree for money when it threatened to close, but that was the exception; the more common story is of donors abandoning a college when the cause seems lost.

And that’s a shame, in many ways.  Leaders of struggling institutions have to be able to pivot quickly between stories of success that attract donors and stories of need that motivate savings.  The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but it takes real finesse to do both well.  In a more perfect world, there’d be room for such nuance.

Neither objection is necessarily dispositive, though.  Let’s say that the conference were regional and/or virtual, to reduce cost, and it centered on “fiscal responsibility,” rather than struggle.  What might that entail?

Certainly, some serious discussion of ways to control health insurance costs.  That’s the dinosaur-killing meteor of many college budgets.  

Affordable tech.  I remain perplexed that so many colleges still replace office PC’s, rather than going with chromebooks or dumb terminals.  Across a decent-sized institution, that change alone could save hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and that’s before counting reduced maintenance, disaster recovery, and virus-fighting costs.  This is seriously low-hanging fruit.  

Affordable back-office tech: the ERP, LMS, and the like.  

Furniture consortia.  I don’t know if you’ve priced classroom furniture recently, but it’s pretty alarming.  We can’t just buy any old thing, given accessibility needs.  I know that colleges compete on academic programs, atmosphere, and quality of the student experience, but I don’t see a barrier to collaborating on desks and chairs.


Professional development at scale, inexpensively.

Practical, affordable ways to implement renewable energy.  

Best practices in cheaply whittling down deferred maintenance.  If ever there were a useful area for higher ed research, this might be it.  

This is very much a top-of-the-head list, and hardly exhaustive.

Colleagues who work in the tuition-driven sector, what would you like to see at a conference that focused on the needs of colleges like yours?