Higher Education on a Cliff

Why and how Fraternity should be mobilizing in a crisis.

By Dawn Wiese

It’s mid-April 2020 …. Just writing that date likely speaks volumes about the swirl of thought pieces that are being produced right now about “state of X,” in every possible industry as the virus moves with speed into the Midwest and unemployment claims zoom past 10 million, and some say almost 20 million. 

My lens has been focused on higher education. In the early 2000s, American academic and business consultant Clayton Christensen, father of the theory of disruptive innovation (1997), predicted that higher education would soon face its major disruption and that it was the last industry to really experience it. By 2015, many in higher ed challenged his predictions, while, with little national focus, less-resourced schools were shuttering, and states like Georgia and Wisconsin were implementing rigorous re-alignments and mergers. But, now, higher ed faces a double whammy – an enrollment cliff and the virus. Higher ed is being forced into major disruption.  What does this mean for those who work on the student life side in higher education?  Faculty are able to teach virtually, but what about those whose work is grounded in interpersonal interaction?  And, specifically, since much of my professional work is focused on strategy and fraternity, what does this mean for fraternity?

With that as preface, here are my Top 9 Predictions and Recommendations for fraternity to best position itself for Higher Education 2020.

1. Higher Education will open this fall. 

If it doesn’t, higher education as we know it will never be the same.  The financial incentive to open is too high.  Higher education was just beginning to experience some financial recovery after repeated downgrading of its financial health, with gains primarily due to fundraising, which many attribute to the recently robust endowment gains for many colleges and universities (Moody’s, 2019).  Covid-19 changed that as Moody’s once again downgraded the entire higher education sector to “negative” in late March (Quintana, 2020).  Higher education has lost residential revenue this spring and from summer conference season. College towns are suffering from the economic impact of students vacating early and events like alumni weekends facing their demise. Moreover, residential revenues fund more than just the “residential” on almost all campuses.  Students who want online education have already had those options – at a much lower price tag.  For campus-based higher education to continue, it must re-open this fall. With that said, there are those that likely have already met their demise….

2. Higher education has already been vulnerable.

It’s important to understand the higher education landscape prior to Covid-19.  Tuition has already been raised to a point that many questioned the value of higher ed prior to this health crisis with, for example, as many as 50% of college graduates are in jobs that do not require a college degree (Cooper, 2018).  Tuition discount rates, the actual cost students pay after scholarship, loans, etc., have reached their breaking point at most schools. State budget appropriations are predicted to be halved in many states with the double blow of unemployment claims and less tax revenue.  And, now, a steep enrollment dive is upon us (Grawe, 2018).  It is important to remember how “big picture” decisions are made at colleges and universities.  Governing boards are ultimately responsible for the fiduciary viability of institutions. Governing boards are primarily made of business people who will be considering the financial bottom line. So, along with ‘higher ed must re-open,’ higher education was already on the ropes prior to Covid-19.  This leaves the door wide open for fraternity to do what it does best.

3. Fraternities Must Demonstrate Relevance

Fraternity must be relevant to members now, this summer, and ready for fall.  Remind students that Fraternity provides a network of support for them now and when they return to campus.  Students who have been forced home to their high school bedrooms to complete their academic year want and need to hear from you:  

  • Virtual chapter meetings
  • Informal and formal zoom chats
  • Virtual recruitment letting students know you want to know them better
  • Partnerships with organizations like Talk Space that provide virtual counseling services to students  
  • Alums reaching out to members and forming some connections.  

Now is the time when Fraternity can shine.  

4. Fraternities are the Best Model for Student Self-Governance and Leadership Development 

There are those who believe more staffing in higher education is the best way to serve students. Although challenging this will not win me any popularity contests within higher education, perhaps this isn’t so? Staffing and support for students on campuses has only grown over the last twenty years. According to ABC Insights, an academic consulting firm, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew at ten times the rate of tenured faculty positions from 1993-2009 and by the 2013 school year, there were slightly more campus administrators nationally than faculty. Are these many positions serving students what students really need?  

As shared by Lukianoff and Haidt in their New York Times Notable Book of the Year (2018) The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, “What is new today [on campuses] is the premise that students are fragile. Might such protective measures—however well-intentioned—backfire and harm those very students?”    

One of the grandfathers of behavioral science and college student development theory, Nevitt Sanford, presented the concept of challenge and support many years ago, writing,  “a delicate balance is needed because too much challenge or disequilibrium causes the student to retreat while too much support leads to failure to develop” (Roark, 1989).

Lukianoff and Haidt would argue that excessive involvement of “adult” in the lives of college students has only served to infantilize them. 

Suspect of Lukianoff and Haidt? The let’s turn to neuroscience.  Neuroscience teaches us that if we want productivity and success in people, move away from micromanagement and trust in people to produce good (Lambert, 2018; Zak, 2017). This is a time for Fraternity to offer what Fraternity does best:  provide laboratories for student self-governance, advised (not micro-managed), and mentored by other Fraternity men (staff and alums, alike) who recognize and practice that delicate balance between challenge and support.  

5. Fraternity as Partner to Higher Education

Remind higher education of the partnership Fraternity provides.  Higher education is going to face cuts in the fall.  Schools are already exploring furloughs, lay-offs, and possible changes to tenure (Whitford, 2020).   Perhaps Student Affairs divisions won’t face cuts to the degree that other areas will … but it’s unlikely.  This is a time to remind campus partners about all of the positives Fraternity brings to campuses and to encourage them to partner with you.  As shared by one fraternity CEO recently when reaching out to a campus:

“Retention is going to be a major issue for higher education – we can help.  
Loneliness, mental health issues and depression are an issue right now – we can help.  
Academic challenges with the loss of a support group is an issue right now – we can help.”

Fraternity IS an asset to campuses.  The job of Fraternity is to act on these truths. 

6. Educate your Board to Prepare Them for Strategic Directions, Membership Decline, Fundraising Downturn, etc.

Although there is much Fraternity can do to act on and stress its relevance, with the downturn in enrollment, Fraternity may experience downturn in membership, expansion/extension opportunities, and fundraising.  Make sure Fraternity boards understand this.  It’s a complex time. Be sure to communicate with your Board on how you are making the best out of a bad situation. Or, in the famous words that Winston Churchill may (or may not) have said, “Never waste a good crisis.”

7. Consider Strategic Operational Changes

Do you own your housing? When you own it, you’re less subject to the whims of higher education.  Strategically own housing. Do you have non-strategic budget excess?  Now is the time to trim where it makes sense. Has your organization considered merging with another organization to strengthen position?  Now is that time. Just as you’re educating your boards, go to them with solutions.  Or, as the old saying goes: “Don’t just bring me problems; bring me solutions.”

8. Don’t put too much stake in projections about Fall 2020

No one knows exactly what’s going to happen this fall and opinions change constantly and are based on (prospective and current) student opinions which are as fickle and uninformed as anyone else’s … see Item #1.  Again, the game is strategy.  Figure out several financial models now, combine those with strategic advances for your organization, and then act accordingly as you have a better idea about your organization’s own membership.  

And, last

9. Adopt a Winning Attitude

Positive people are like magnets, and confident leaders attract others.  While leaders must be realistic with contingency plans, Fraternity members want leaders who are helping them move to a better place.  No doubt this is a tough time but there’s plenty of good in Fraternity to capitalize upon.  The road to success is always full of difficulties, obstacles, and challenges but when people see a resilient leader, they are better prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. Optimism allows leaders to see beyond the problems, tackling them head on, regaining lost momentum, and moving forward. As shared by Victor Frankl (1946), a Nazi concentration camp survivor who went on to become a prominent neuroscientist, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”

Be smart, be informed, be strategic, and adopt a winning attitude.  All of that makes a difference.  

Meanwhile, want to talk strategy specifics?  Give me a call and send me a note: dawn@beingplaid.com. 

For more information on how I made my predictions, see my references:

Cooper P. (June 2018).  Underemployment Persists Throughout College Graduates’ Careers. Forbes.  

Christensen, Clayton M. (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail.  Boston, MA:  Harvard Business School Press.  

Frankl, V. (1946). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Goldstein, E. (September 15, 2015).  The Undoing of Disruption. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Grawe, N. (2018). Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lambert, K. (2018).  Well-Grounded.  The Neurobiology of Rational Decisions.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lukianoff, G., and Haidt, J. (2018). The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. NY, NY: Penguin Books.

Moody’s Investor Service. (Dec 10, 2019).  Outlook for US Higher Education Changed to Stable from Negative on Steady Revenue Gains. At: https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-Outlook-for-US-higher-education-sector-changed-to-stable–PBM_1207036

Quintana, C. (March 20, 2020). US Colleges Scrambled to React to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Now Their Very Existence is in Jeopardy. USA Today.

Roark, M. (1989). Challenging and Supporting College Students.  NASPA Journal, 26 (4). 

Whitford, E. (April 10, 2020). Here Come the Furloughs. Inside Higher Education.

Zak, P. (Jan – Feb 2017). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review.

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