Risk-Taking and Truth-Telling: Take-Aways from the 2017 CIC Presidents Institute

by Rick Bailey
January 10, 2017

This post was originally published on

This year’s CIC Presidents Institute’s concluding session featured a panel of presidents who demonstrated leadership in a time of significant transformation on their campuses. Elizabeth Kiss of Agnes Scott College (GA), Walter Kimbrough of Dillard University (LA) and Jeffrey Docking of Adrian College (MI) served on the panel hosted and questioned by Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed. Striking, but not surprising given the panel participants and the tenor of the conference, was the transparency of the responses and story-telling. All three presidents referenced the challenges of risk-taking and the positive power of truth-telling. And these themes seemed to summarize and serve as an exclamation point for this year’s PI.

Throughout the conference we heard the call for greater risk-taking. The lead keynote Kevin Warren of Xerox reminded his audience that opportunity was the flip side of risk, offering a clarion appeal for private higher education to rise to the challenges posed particularly by employers to broadly equip students for the world—and life—of work. Later in the conference, columnist James Stewart of the New York Times and the New Yorker hailed the theme of truth-telling as a hallmark of colleges and universities like those represented by CIC. His experience as a student of the liberal arts at DePauw opened his eyes to the value of not only knowing the right answers but knowing the right questions. These two big ideas were evident throughout the conference agenda.

This year, RHB was represented on the program as a result of our collaboration with The Lawlor Group in conducting the 2016 Independent College Presidents Survey that measured the perceptions, interests and practices related to marketing on these campuses. We concluded data collection in October of last year with an excellent response; more than 22% fully completed the lengthy survey.

For the presentation at CIC, I was privileged to share the podium with Carole Arwidson, Vice President and Director of Market Research of The Lawlor Group, who gave an overview of our survey findings and Wendy Libby, president of Stetson University, who introduced the topic and concluded with her perceptions of the role of marketing in higher ed, based on her real-life experiences.

Four top-level marketing implications from our survey findings

While the results of our study yielded many topics for discussion, I’d like to focus on four areas for consideration under the category of “Work To Be Done.” Let me say at the outset that, like any solid study, our findings raise and lead to more conversation and better questions for future discovery. Still, these survey data show some areas of interest and concern that merit attention and repair.

Naturally, given our shared areas of expertise, the survey that RHB and Lawlor conducted focused on marketing issues. Bear in mind that the questions we formulated for this study stemmed from comments and conversations John Lawlor and I were having with college and university presidents. Most of these conversations included questions presidents had about how they fared in relation to their colleagues; and many of these questions were not part of collaborative conversations that one might have at a CIC Presidents Institute or similar venue. We heard a need for a metric of shared interests and concerns as well as solutions related to market pressures and sensitivities. Other surveys have been conducted to measure a host of management and leadership factors. We differentiated this survey by formulating questions related to marketing interests and activity.

1. Demonstrate value, don't just talk about it.

First, what is clear from the study is the direct connection between marketing and the economics of managing an institution of higher education. When asked about their greatest marketing challenges externally, the presidents who participated addressed issues related to the cost of higher education, both in terms of their abilities to manage and sustain their institutions and their ability to convince others to pay for it through tuition or gift income. Whether real or perceived, as indicated by both “ability to pay” and “willingness to pay,” the cost of higher education requires some convincing of audiences. Presidents are highly challenged by the marketing messages necessary to communicate both value and worth. This has been an ongoing challenge for higher education. An increased call for accountability by students, parents, employers, accreditors and government has led to some collective virtual scrambling to support our claims with data. Perhaps slow response to do so has allowed others to accumulate data on behalf of consumers, some that may often seem unrelated to the missions of many institutions. The challenge for higher education and particularly independent colleges and universities is to satisfactorily present an argument of value to our audiences and demonstrate it. These arguments should be shaped not only by our values and ideals for transformation, but also by our audiences’ transactional values.

I appreciate the definition of marketing given by Philip Kotler of the Kellogg School, which is simply exchange. Marketing requires at least two parties, each of whom has something that the other wants or needs. Parties must agree that these exchange components are of equal or greater value, and they must be able to find each other in order to make the exchange. Often, higher ed institutions have failed to articulate how their offerings are of equal or greater value to the cost of time and money being asked of their audiences.

A few suggestions may be in order:

  • CIC has been very helpful in gathering and dispensing data to support the effectiveness and, frankly, superiority of non-profit liberal arts education. Your audiences both internal and external need access to that data.
  • We noted from the data a weakness in research to support new endeavors. Invest in your own market research. Study your own audiences to hear what their interests are. What are they expecting of you? What is of genuine value to them? Don’t assume that success at another institution can be mirrored in your environment.
  • Begin the conversation about paying for college earlier in the recruitment cycle. A year in advance of enrollment is too late. Offer expert counsel, services and education to help families prepare for the cost of higher education. By assuming it is a families’ responsibility to figure out how to pay for college, you are shutting off a revenue stream. Equip families to be able to pay. Give them reason to be willing to pay.
2. Imagine better solutions for affordability and take risks to implement them.

Second, and related to the first, it would appear from this study that independent colleges and universities have been insufficiently daring and experimental in pricing models. This is somewhat understandable. Only a few examples across the country have given any indication of new opportunities for success. Many have tried alternative paths with moderate or little success. Without sufficient evidence of workable options, the willingness to try seems to have been thwarted. While the dangers may seem to outweigh the opportunities, by not exploring alternatives, the sustainability of some institutions is on the line.

The future is open to new ways of thinking about pricing and affording a private college education.

Exploring net revenue models that depart from our traditional norms, such as differential pricing by program, offering guarantees or decreasing tuition may require bravery for those who operate in less selective circumstances. We suspect that the realities of market shifts will force change of thought and generate new courage to experiment in order to survive. It may be better for some to be brave now. (There’s that risk-taking theme again!)

I was heartened by the session I attended featuring Michael Alexander from Lasell College, Carol Leary of Bay Path University and Shirley Mullen of Houghton College. These three are part of a growing collection of presidents committed to experimenting with new models for revenue generation. These forerunners reflected fresh thinking and creative energy that must be emulated by others.

Again, we offer a few suggestions:

  • Consider alternate pricing models. Assume that an increase in tuition each year may not be your best option. Increasing tuition annually is not necessarily the way toward a balanced budget.
  • Consider ways that you can cease offering unproductive or unprofitable programs. This is particularly difficult for liberal arts colleges who maintain departments inefficiently to comply with established norms. Consider cooperative programs with other institutions.
  • Consider new revenue sources. How could your facilities better generate income in off hours? Who beyond students and faculty might need services you offer already? Could you create revenue-generating streams through business startups within academic programs? What about senior living with educational offerings, renting short-term work studios, offering library resources for those who work at home, or short-term art studio spaces, as examples?
3. Align your offerings to reflect a distinctive and authentic market position.

Third, several of the questions in the survey addressed the perceptions of product, price, place, promotion and people (the 5 P’s of marketing). Of these, product development and definition was clearly the highest priority both in current investment (time, energy, attention and perhaps money) and in terms of future interests. We are observing institutions who are innovating by adding or invigorating programs such as general education and core curriculums as well as making additions to their lists of majors. Look at Summit at Agnes Scott, EPIC at Earlham or Q&I at Concordia-Irvine.

Our suggestions?

  • First, articulate a clear market position for your institution against which you can measure behaviors to own that position. Be willing to examine competitors, both public and private, and seek ways to differentiate. Give your markets a clear reason to choose your institution.
  • Consider how your current academic and co-curricular experiences confirm and prove your market position. Recalibrate or reinvent if necessary.
4. Engage campus marketing professionals more effectively in planning.

On a closely related note, we saw an interesting data point indicating that, while program development was of the highest priority on the marketing agenda, less than half of the institutions engaged their marketing officers in shaping those program experiences. Likewise, we noted that less than 50% of presidents indicate success in achieving their goals with the introduction of new programs. We’ll have to do more study to see if there’s a correlation there.

Marketing teams are called on to promote, but are insufficiently part of the crafting of the experiences that define an institution, particularly academic experiences. To us, that speaks to a limited understanding of marketing. If indeed the 5 P’s are relevant to successful marketing, we would encourage, advise and admonish a rethinking of marketing’s role on campus. Granted, some of the marketing research and planning occurs within an academic department, but we would suggest that your marketing teams be appropriately engaged prior to the announcement of new offerings. Let marketing have its rightful place in your strategic planning.

More suggestions:

  • Consider the makeup of the marketing department on campus. While these departments are relatively new to higher ed, it may be time to rethink the role of marketing on campus. Given the apparent equating of marketing with promotion, it may be understandable why many CMOs are public relations professionals or journalists. Perhaps those roles may be better filled with strategists who will work with a team to advance your institution, not just promote it.
  • Include marketing in your program development and pricing conversations across campus. Allow your campus marketers a voice in strategic planning to develop tactics to address the design of the new offering as well as the implications for delivery, pricing, promotion and the engagement of people.

The CIC Presidents Institute represents one of the most respectful and collegial conferences we attend annually. The transparency of the speakers, the engagement of those attending and the positivity amidst gravitas leaves us, in sum, with a hopeful view of the challenges ahead and anticipation for the 2018 conference.

Indeed, our hope is that the data from the Independent College Presidents Survey aids in shaping a brighter future—marked by more risk-taking and truth-telling—for all of private higher ed.

This post was originally published on

Return to Intelligence