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How The ‘Iron Triangle’ Will Help Colleges Survive

Many colleges are facing unprecedented competition and declining enrollments, a problem that may still get worse before it gets better. The Iron Triangle approach helps schools combat this issue by aligning three core concepts for students and employers – accessibility, affordability and employability. It’s an approach that has helped many of our partners thrive in a competitive higher ed landscape. My thoughts on the Iron Triangle were recently published on EdTech Digest. Read the full article below.

In higher education, further disruption is on its way; prepare for it.
EdTech Digest guest column | by Todd Zipper

Many colleges are going to have to make changes.

That’s not the trope you’ve heard before with predictions about technology disruption or the rising student loan debt or other factors that may move higher education one direction or another. Whether those predictions take place or not, colleges will have to accept and adjust to demographic changes that will inevitably alter who and how they teach.

Unprecedented Changes Ahead

In the mid-2020s, the number of domestic, college-eligible high school graduates will decline. There will be fewer 18-year-old freshmen, known as traditional college students. Post-secondary education in the United States has already seen six years of decline, which is unprecedented in the country’s history.

With a growing economy and low unemployment – two trends that depress college interest – the added obstacle of fewer future students should concern a number of colleges.

This probably does not include big-name, highly selective institutions. The Harvards and Stanfords of the world will still have no trouble finding eager, check-writing students. And even if they do, many schools at that level can fall back on multibillion-dollar, tax-free endowments.

In Search of Students

But the other approximately 2,000 schools without an 11-digit endowment, those that depend heavily on tuition dollars from tuition-paying students, will have to find new students somewhere. In fact, with a looming decline, they must find new students just to maintain their current budgets and enrollments.

With the supply of foreign students also in jeopardy, the best place to look for new students is among non-traditional students – usually older, often working, frequently returning students. That sounds easy enough. But the rub is that, based on research we’ve done at The Learning House and we’ve heard echoed elsewhere, those students want and expect different things from college than traditional freshmen.

Non-traditional students are more sensitive to price. They pursue alternative, flexible programs that maximize access such as online or blended offerings. And, since many of them are already working, they expect educational experiences to help them advance their careers or start new ones.

The ‘Iron Triangle’

Those three things – affordability, accessibility and employability – are the Iron Triangle that tuition-dependent schools must master to survive the coming enrollment pinch.

The best part is that this Iron Triangle approach need not be a short-term bridge to the down-the-road boost in younger, traditional students. That’s because when the economy slows, as it absolutely will, colleges on the forefront of that triangle will be best positioned to attract both traditional and non-traditional students who are seeking jobs or career advancement.

That’s not just theory. Some schools have figured that out already, and they are adapting and succeeding.

Adapt and Succeed?

Concordia University, St. Paul, for example, broke into the competitive college market of offering an RN to BSN degree by designing an online program around busy schedules of nurses and in listening to healthcare providers in and around their core market of the twin cities in Minnesota. The program launched in 2014 with a competitive price and other key features such as transfer friendliness. It is now one of the top degree programs at the college.

Aurora University and Campbellsville University both noticed expected growth in social work careers and recently launched online Master of Social Work programs. The key to this degree, which is similar to other vocation degrees like nursing and teaching, is that to earn a certain social work license, students must attend certain CSWE-accredited programs. Aurora and Campbellsville’s flexible programs allowed online students to outpace on-campus counterparts. As a result, both schools now have more than 300 students in their programs – a sizeable number for smaller schools.

Demonstrated successes of the three-point approach are not limited to small private schools. State schools can, and should, make similar changes.

The University of West Alabama has used the Iron Triangle to support teachers who could see a 15 percent salary boost by earning a master’s in education. As a result, UWA’s graduate education programs are by far the largest in the state.

These schools intentionally designed programs around the triangle of accessibility, affordability and employability. That’s why these programs are working and are essentially fireproof against coming enrollment retrenchments.

This piece was originally published in EdTech Digest Oct. 8, 2018.

About Learning House

The Learning House, Inc. helps people improve their lives through education. As an academic program manager, Learning House offers technology-enabled education solutions designed to meet the needs of a dynamic global market. Solutions include Online Program Management (OPM), Enterprise Learning Solutions, The Software Guild, Learning House International and Advancement Courses. With a focus on data-driven decision making, Learning House is on the leading edge of higher education. Learning House provides expertise in research and analytics, marketing, enrollment, retention and instructional design. Through its broad portfolio, Learning House delivers more students, more graduates and better outcomes.