Current Issues

Not for-deficit

Posted on January 7, 2012

I just finished up a two day visit to the Council of Independent Colleges Annual Presidents Meeting — think lots of blue blazers, gray hair, and white wine and you sort of get the picture.  I was presenting on the changing regulatory environment, especially as it pertains to online learning.  Covered things like state registration, credit hour definitions, and gainful employment.  Now that’s a topic that creates a crowd on a Saturday morning.  Maybe not the Who in Cincinnati in 1979 (that’s a test allusion), but more people than I would have guessed for a Saturday 8:45 session.  I think it’s because so many of the smaller private colleges there are trying to figure out the online market and desperately seeking new revenues.

SNHU has emerged as the poster child for building a large scale online program and we were cited often.  Someone in my session asked, “How are you any different than the big for-profit companies we tend to disdain?”  Ignoring the faintly confrontational tone of the question, I reminded the questioner that we have no shareholders, quarterly reports, pressure to maximize profitability, and no individual can get wealthy from our success.  That is an existential difference that changes everything.

We have been undeniably successful (by the way, not-for-profit does not mean for-deficit), but look what we have done with the surpluses generated by COCE.  We have made major investments in improving the quality of the online offerings.  In the middle of a recession we offer award winning benefits and raises that outpace inflation.  We now direct millions more towards scholarship support for UC students.  We have made our campus so much more attractive.   We remain a non-profit and it makes all the difference in the world.

My favorite aspect of any presidents’ meeting?  Ask any president, “Hey XXX, how are things at your campus?” and you will always get a big, confident smile and some variation of “Never been better!”

Now you might know that they are about to have a vote of “No Confidence” from the faculty, they they are running massive deficits, their athletic program has run amok, and students are doing the naked limbo on the main quad fueled by Red Bull and Vodka, but you’d never know it from them.  We are all such cheerleaders for our institutions.

Back in 2009, when the full impact of the recession was being felt, discount rates were skyrocketing, and enrollments were down one of my dearest friends, president of a small college being hammered at the time, and I agreed that when we were asked the question we would be honest,  Another president walked up and we asked him the question and he predictably responded with an enthusiastic, “Things are great!”  Then he asked us “How are things in your shop?” and my friend said, “Just dreadful!” and I chimed in with “Awful at my place!” (remember when we had to cut programs and pare back budgets having missed our freshman number by a wide margin?).

He paused, somewhat wide-eyed, and then blurted out, “Oh my God, we missed our enrollment numbers, my scholarship budget is shot, and I have to stop a building project.  It’s a mess.”   I think we gave him permission to be honest with the people most likely to be sympathetic.  We were all navigating, rough and unknown waters.

If you think about it, a university is a complex system with many moving parts engaged in work that oftentimes defies quantification and grounded in the messiness and creative chaos of human beings and culture.  At a time of enormous change, pressure, and forces often beyond our control.  Yet we too rarely hear: “I’ve got a mess on my hands and I’m struggling to figure it out.”

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