If I Had a Few Minutes With Your Board…

Securing an excellent relationship with your board may be the most valuable investment you can make. Of course, relationships with major donors may yield worthy substantial results, yet developing shared understandings with board members will advance the institution toward a successful future.

We are called upon from time to time to present to trustees about our work, strategies we’re employing for clients or creative solutions we’re proposing. A few weeks ago I was invited to present with my colleague and friend Ken Anselment, Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing at Lawrence University, to a group of board chairpersons from colleges and universities primarily in the Midwest. One of their very good questions was “What should we do when enrollment falls short?”I love the transparency and openness that question represents from these board chairs.

If I had a few minutes with your board, here’s how I’d respond to that significant question:

  1. Remember that you have only one employee, the president of the institution. If you are concerned about enrollment, direct your concern to the president who can then determine what action to take with the VPE. That’s not to say trustees should be shielded from the VPE (or vice versa). Indeed, healthy exchange will enable the board to clearly understand challenges, opportunities and strategies. It’s important to keep in mind, the board doesn’t manage the VPE.
  2. Be supportive. I’m not suggesting that you patronize a VPE for shortcomings. Trustees should have a clear understanding of market conditions, your institution’s position and the challenges of recruitment before becoming overly critical.
  3. Understand YOUR market. I’ve been in board meetings where trustees compare their situation to other market competitors. This can be particularly common in a year of downfall. If a competitor is more successful, it’s easy to start asking questions and pointing fingers. Be certain you understand the differences between your institution and others that may influence different in outcomes. Ask questions to better understand issues before dismissing enrollment shortfalls as a result of poor professional performance.
  4. Know what you are asking for. I hear a common set of expectations from trustees at almost every institution we work with: more full-pay students with higher academic profiles and reflecting greater diversity (and while you’re at it a few more males). While all of these ambitions may be important for your college or university, that combination may be unreasonable; first, because the market is competitive, and second, because the demographics don’t support that profile. Ensure the priorities are clearly laid out.
  5. Consider a net tuition mindset. You can’t spend a discount rate. You must know what your programs are generating in terms of income. The practice of raising the rate of tuition a few percentage points each year is outdated and unsustainable.
  6. Invest in “onlyness.” In his book, Zag, my friend Marty Neumeier suggests that clear market position ideally describes a mind space that only your institution can occupy. You may need to consider offerings that more clearly distinguish you from competitors. Institutions like Agnes Scott College, Concordia University Irvine or Ohio Wesleyan have created experiences that occur only at those institutions. If you offer the same experience as your competitors, you’ll need to compete on price. Try your best not to go there. What is your “only”?
  7. Accommodate risk. You’ve likely seen the demographic work presented by Nathan Grawe of Carleton College (Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, 2018). His charts quickly illustrate the need for speed. If you depend on a traditional population of high school graduates, you have a handful of years before that audience begins to dissipate for a span of a dozen years. These next few years give you time to plan to be smaller than you are today or create something remarkable and irresistible in your market. (Side note: be certain your VPE is presenting accurate, current and relevant demographic data with your board.)
  8. Build endowment as quickly as possible. You’ll need to make a compelling case for your endowment and how you plan to use those funds to sustain your institution. The schools at the top of the food chain have made excess dollars a thorny issue for higher education, but you’ll need to depend on your endowment more heavily in the future. Endowments are for rainy days and a storm is coming.
  9. Make meaningful connections for the school. One of the greatest gifts a trustee can make (beyond multiple and sizeable checks) can be introductions that yield healthy relationships with new potential donors and influencers. Your fiscal responsibility that accompanies your role as a trustee includes your ability to lead the institution to new resources for enrollment and advancement.
  10. Find partners. We live in a time when strategic alliances can open doors to success; better and faster than trying to “go it alone.” Find other institutions, corporations and businesses, government agencies, foundations and other outlets to strengthen your efforts in boosting enrollment. Develop cooperative programs, share resources (faculty, space or facilities, for example) and share expertise liberally.

Sure, I’d also likely suggest they call RHB for help, but I’d start with those ten tidbits of counsel.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.