Chapter 8: Strategies for Creating a Business Plan for a Sustainable Future

by Stanton F. McNeely III, Ed.D.

Posted on March 04, 2024

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As presidents, we have seen these headlines from the past few months:

“Holy Names University Will Close in 2023”

“Cazenovia to Close in 2023”

“Stritch University in Wisconsin is closing after 86 years”

We have seen the common reasons:

“The university ‘has struggled to remain open as it faced rising operational costs, declining enrollment, and an increased need for institutional aid. Both COVID-19 and an economic downturn disproportionately impacted HNU students,’ the university said in a statement.”

These institutions of higher education share common backgrounds and missions: founded by religious groups with missions that guided them through the dynamic changes of the twentieth century, the challenges of the twenty-first century have become too much to fulfill their missions and display value to potential students and their families. And now they are withering away, one by one.

This is not to say that all religiously affiliated colleges and universities are on the verge of closing. Indeed, there are the top-tier universities that will continue to thrive. But even they have their own financial challenges that continue to mount.

I became President of the University of Holy Cross in July 2019. Located in New Orleans, UHC is sponsored by the Marianites of Holy Cross, a congregation of religious women who strive to be a prophetic presence in our ever-changing world and to meet the needs of the community. UHC was founded by the Marianites in 1916 to meet the needs for certified teachers in K-12 schools. Today, UHC is still heavily focused on the “caring professions,” including teacher education, nursing and health sciences, and mental health counseling. There are other programs (I am a graduate in accounting), but the majority of students (and alumni) are in these areas.

As a graduate of UHC, I followed a track that many reading this article may find familiar: I loved my alma mater and wanted to give back through service. I worked as a recruiter in admissions, got involved in planning and institutional research, and eventually made my way to becoming VP for Advancement. As is the case at our small, private, not-for-profit colleges and universities, I wore many hats, never a single one at any time. But we were called by the greater religiously-affiliated mission to contribute for the glory of God through our good work at the university.

However, the world is less religiously-oriented than ever, especially in American higher education. Almost daily on social media I see my fellow graduates from UHC celebrating that their children and grandchildren are going to large, public universities. And their children and grandchildren are enrolling at tuition rates lower than UHC, often with substantial scholarships, thanks to state funding. The value is no longer focused on the transformational experience of higher education; instead, the decision of where to enroll is based is the transactional packaging of who offers the prospective student the “best deal.”

UHC already had its financial challenges when I started as President. Its enrollment decline started in 2017, and debt and increased operational costs were putting a significant strain on cash flows. As in the case of the other institutions cited at the beginning of this chapter, the COVID-19 pandemic made those challenges exponentially worse, particularly with enrollment, our primary revenue driver. And, for us in south Louisiana, the impacts of Hurricane Zeta in 2020 and Hurricane Ida in 2021 (which closed UHC for three weeks at the beginning of the fall semester) compounded these problems to a much greater extent.

How can a tuition-driven, private institution with a mission from God compete in this environment?

We need a plan. A business plan.

In higher education, we love plans. We do planning at the minimum because of accreditation requirements, then we plan because our internal cycle that intersects with our accreditation cycle says it is time to do so. We want every single person connected to the university involved so we don’t upset anyone, and then we develop a massive document that is usually useless the moment it is published.

It is time for us to change. We need a business plan focused on results.

Our traditional plans often have broad goals to “grow enrollment,” “increase the endowment,” etc. Sometimes, but sadly not always, these traditional plans do indeed include results-oriented quantitative key performance indicators (KPIs). But many times, the plans do not have KPIs. And, in my experience, these traditional plans are almost never tied to the budget-planning process.

A business plan of three years (maximum) tied to the budget is a necessity. Along with financial KPIs, the business plan must also include quantitative results metrics in admissions, enrollment by programs, fundraising, and auxiliary revenues.

Rooted in mission, we must develop and implement a business plan for our universities that is twenty-first century in orientation, including strategies that embrace 1) partnerships and investments by those who hire our graduates; 2) dual enrollment pipelines for admissions; 3) optimizing online instruction for the working adult; 4) niche academic programs—FOCUS on key programs and be excellent at them, and don’t try to be all things to all people; 5) auxiliary income—use return on assets as a key performance metric.

1. Strategic partnerships and investments by those who hire our graduates

This is the most logical way to build resources beyond traditional sources like alumni and friends. For UHC, the healthcare sector has the capacity to invest in our nursing and health sciences programs (and they are already making this investment into our competitors). UHC needs to listen to these employers, meet their needs through our educational programs, and justify their investment into UHC, particularly for student scholarship aid and programmatic support.

2. Dual enrollment pipelines for admissions

The dual enrollment train is moving fast across the United States, particularly in public higher education. This movement accelerates the already fast-developing trend of high school students choosing large, public institutions of higher education over small, private ones. UHC has embraced dual enrollment (growing from three high schools in 2019 to 20 high schools by 2022) and is now focusing on dual enrollment pathways that align with our academic programs, such as nursing and health sciences.

3. Optimizing online instruction for the working adult

The “demographic cliff” of traditional age students is here, and the fastest-growing population of prospective students is the working adult. However, these students have plenty of options and are highly transactional when it comes to price-value, especially program quality and outcomes. Also, in the twenty-first century, they will not drive to a campus for class when they can be at home with their families learning online. Embrace online instruction for gaining a larger market share of the working adult population and not being limited to your geographic physical campus. In this competitive environment, emphasis needs to be placed on quality of programs and outcomes, as well as on the personal value of faculty-student relationships, to justify your institution as the one of choice for working adults via online instruction.

4. Niche academic programs – FOCUS on key programs and be excellent at them; don’t try to be all things to all people

In the twentieth century, we added academic programs, built buildings, and expected everyone to continue to come to our colleges and universities because we knew that our missions, quality of education, and prestige would continue to build enrollments. In the population boom of the post-World War II era, combined with increased access for historically disenfranchised populations, new students came to our campuses for decades.

As competition increased and the value of religiously-affiliated private higher education came more and more into question, we nonetheless added programs at the request of internal stakeholders and built expensive buildings to house them. Now those factors and costs have caught up to us, at the risk of our very survival.

Now, we must be lean and focused. A competitive market analysis to align program offerings that provide value to prospective students will lead them to choose our institutions based on successful career outcomes. It is essential for us to determine the right programs to keep, as well as the concentration of financial resources to invest in those programs for the long term. Programs of low enrollment now and for the long term need to be cut. Failing to do so will drain essential limited resources that need to be concentrated on viable programs.

5. Auxiliary income – use return on assets as a key performance metric

Colleges and Universities have always loved building more buildings. But we are horrible in optimizing them for revenue, especially when we need that revenue. Optimizing physical fixed assets (i.e., buildings) to generate revenue, in addition to traditional instruction, should be part of the business plan. This should also be performed as a 365-days-a-year productivity of assets to generate auxiliary revenue, not just during the traditional agrarian semesters.

These are a few examples of suggested strategies, though there are many others that may directly relate to your institution. In the interest of total transparency, we at UHC are implementing these strategies but still need to integrate them into a strong business plan for the university. And we will. We must.

We do not want to be a headline.