Rising Above: 8 Steps to Success for Colleges That Want to Excel

By December 9, 2015 Best Practices No Comments

One of the most critical parts of our mission at Learning House is to help our partner institutions not just survive, but also to thrive in the competitive landscape of higher education. When evaluating potential partners, we look at what they are doing well, and also at their willingness to change and adapt to best practices. Many colleges and universities have the fundamentals down – they can deliver a strong online program, they know how to enroll students, and they can keep faculty engaged. But for those institutions that want to excel, they need to do more and be better.

Our partnership with Touro University Worldwide (TUW) demonstrates how flexible thinking and a willingness to embrace change can lead to big results. TUW was created in 2008 and was a small institution struggling with its online division. But in 2012, Dr. Yoram Neumann became CEO and Dr. Edith Neumann became provost. They revamped almost everything, including people, programs, pedagogy, hardware, and software. In the fall of 2012, they reached out to Learning House for help with marketing, enrollment, and retention. They embraced our thought leadership and took our recommendations to heart. As a result, as well as by implementing other strategies, they have almost tripled the number of online programs offered, increased enrollments by 700 percent in three years, and have gone from running a sizable deficit to generating positive net income.

Step 1: Develop Buy-In from Leadership

Meaningful change can only happen when it’s initiated and supported from the top. When presidents, provosts and deans all agree on the mission of the university, then plans for implementation can begin.

At TUW, one of the most critical factors in its turnaround was the trust placed in the Neumanns by the Board of Trustees. The Neumanns took that opportunity to completely revamp the online programs. They evaluated the curriculum, faculty, support services and marketing to identify what was working and what needed to change. Then, they made difficult decisions around staffing and budget allocation to help move the university in a new direction, one that prioritized online learning and a high-quality student experience. While the first year of their tenure was challenging, the changes they implemented have been successful, with the university more than tripling the number of new online students who enrolled over three years.

Step 2: Understand and Fix the Programs

It’s not enough to just offer online programs – everyone does that. To succeed, colleges need to offer the right programs to the right people in the right modality. That might be online programs with multiple start dates, or hybrid programs that offer a practicum to enable students to be licensed in their profession. Institutions should consider the outcomes they want to track, and then tailor programs to those outcomes. Is it job improvement? Job placement? Graduate school acceptance? Any or all of these outcomes are valid, but knowing the end goal is critical to making the right decisions.

Once the goal has been determined, it is time to make some difficult decisions. Whether it’s outsourcing marketing to revamping curriculum to cutting programs or faculty, the decisions won’t necessarily be popular, but they will be necessary. Colleges can expect some growing pains as adjustments are made, but at the end, they will emerge stronger than before.

Step 3: Implement Best Practices

Part of fixing the programs is creating a sustainable path for growth. The easiest way to do this is to use best practices to develop processes that will provide the best experience possible for the student. Best practices should be implemented across the board, from generating leads all the way through to graduation. TUW, for example, implemented a number of best practices, including 8-week terms, quick acceptance decisions, unambiguous and reasonable transfer credit policies and clear course maps. These changes, among others, have all increased enrollments and made them a strong player in the online space. The institution continues to refine policies as it gathers more data, ensuring that its programs are designed for an optimal student experience.

Step 4: Know Your Strengths

We’ve talked about this before, but to successfully market themselves, colleges and universities need to know what they do well. So often I hear universities say “Oh, we are high touch” or “Our students love the personal attention they receive.” These are true statements, but everyone says it. It’s time to dig deeper; for colleges to stand out, they need to understand the value that they bring. I recommend that colleges take an honest look at themselves, considering everything they bring to the table. Is it a robust alumni network? Partnerships with industry? Programs that are unique? Once a university has determined its strengths, share them with the entire institution. Base marketing, enrollment and retention strategies around these strengths. Live and die by the differences, not the similarities. This strategy can involve some uncomfortable conversations and requires a commitment to honesty, but it can bring forth invaluable insights.

Step 5: Be Urgent

Academia is steeped in tradition, and too often, I hear “Oh, that’s just how things work here.” That excuse no longer works, especially for smaller institutions without a lot of name brand recognition. Instead, these colleges and universities need to develop a sense of urgency. There is not a lot I can commend the for-profit institutions for, but one thing they do well is drive for success. They may use questionable tactics to drive to that success, but the urgency to reach their goals is always there. I am not recommending nonprofit institutions emulate these tactics! What I am saying is that developing a sense of urgency around success will help institutions implement change and become leaner, more efficient and more committed to success. Instead of wading through layers of bureaucracy, consider how to set politics aside and focus on achieving the mission. I know this is easier said than done, but I do believe it’s vital to success.

Step 6: Deliver Results, not Excuses

Part of shedding politics is to focus on outcomes, not pointing fingers. This goes back to my advice about being urgent; if institutions urgently want to find solutions, there won’t be time to worry about shifting blame. Instead, all efforts will go towards trying new things, evaluating results and refining processes.

Part of delivering results is creating a culture of accountability. If personnel (administrators, faculty and support staff) know that they are being measured on their success and held accountable for their decisions, they will be more motivated to produce. The flip side, however, is to also develop a culture in which it is okay to take risks and to fail. While no one likes failure, if the culture is one in which failure is considered unacceptable, no one will be willing to try new things or change. Instead, consider failure as a learning opportunity. What went wrong? How can it be improved? What changes need to take place to turn failure into success?

Step 7: Test, Test, and Test Again

When I am training for an endurance event, data is critical to how I train and, ultimately, perform. What I eat, what times I train, what my mileage is, and how my body performs all inform the decisions I make to optimize my training. It’s no different for institutions. For every bold, urgent action an institution makes, data should be collected. Did enrollments improve with more start dates? How many leads came from that television commercial? What classes have the highest dropout rates, and why? Everything should be measured, and then that data should be used to inform decision-making.

For TUW, we tried a number of marketing campaigns: Ads in faith-based magazines, recruiting specific populations, different kinds of media and more. Because we measured the results of all of our efforts, we were able to abandon those that didn’t work and focus our time and budget on those efforts that produced results (in their specific case, a scholarship campaign that has been extremely successful at generating not just leads, but student starts). This flexibility, based on data, helped ensure we were delivering the best marketing possible and increased the leads we sent to that client.

Step 8: Be Persistent

Success doesn’t happen overnight. It can be tempting to say “Well, we tried, but it didn’t work” and go back to the old, comfortable way of doing things. But by giving up too soon, institutions doom themselves to stagnation and, potentially, irrelevancy. Instead, be patient. Develop realistic timelines for seeing results and don’t panic at the first bump in the road. Although the changes I am recommending can seem difficult, those institutions that persist will see success.

While these are general guidelines for how colleges can approach change, every institution is different. What recommendations do you have? What are the critical components to help colleges and universities succeed in the changing world of higher education?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com