If you are a campus leader, and you are promoting to get your institution to “the next level” through shrewd strategy, think again. Or maybe don’t, because keeping your job is predicated on saying you can do it, even if you can’t. But I digress. My point is that when it comes to higher education, there is a folly in competition. Most of the time, anyway.
Want to boost your campus’ research income? Good luck. The universities that win the most federal grant money mostly
keep getting the money year after year. Investing in research to get to the next level can boost your productivity in the short term, but few campuses see sustained improvement relative to the field. It’s hard to become the next Stanford. It’s damn new impossibly, actually. The field is pretty darn stable, and there is limited scope for strategic action.
Want to vacuum up online enrollments? Good luck. While this market is not so stable, it is starting to consolidate. A new paper
by John Cheslock and Ozan Jaquette shows that large-scale providers - places like ASU and Southern New Hampshire - are getting a larger chunk of the maker share, especially of out-of-state online students, even as the market grows. Online enrollments are consternated in relatively few places relative to in-person programs. So while recruiting lots one out-of-state student might not net you cash, you might not be much more successful recruiting out-of-state enrollments at all. Sure, a few places are going to win and could win big. But most places are not going to become online mega-providers. Or at least it does not seem that way right now.
Want to become a strategic investor and grow your endowment to make it to the big time? Good luck. Campuses that already have mega endowments
have an advantage when it comes to growing their war chests further. Your number might come on the MacKenzie Scott roulette wheel, but it also might not.
The expectation of leadership.
My point is that we don’t have much evidence at all that strategic competition can dramatically improve institutional fortunes. Not much or not often anyway. So why are campus leaders so committed to the idea that they can do it? Why does your president think they can pull it off? Presumably, because they are expected to. It is part of the corporatization of higher education and the executivization (that is not a word, is it?) of senior administration. Colleges and universities are now expected to do things. That’s why they have a brand; to get things done.
Side note: Under a previous president, my university had ads on the parking lot gates that read: “Who will raise the bar? Spartans Will.” They are gone now.
Anyway, a college can’t just be. It has to be. It has to be going somewhere. It has to be going to the top, to change the world, to deliver a brighter future. (For the record, I am pro brighter future.) And college executives are tasked with delivering on all of that to being. So they do strategy, and so they compete, even if competition doesn’t do much in the way of getting to a brighter future. Even it causes friction and leaves some in-state and low-income students behind.
Edited on September 5th to correct errors.