The Financially Sustainable University

The Financially Sustainable University
The financially sustainable university
A focused strategy can help colleges and universities reinvent
their industry and stop spending beyond their means
By Jeff Denneen and Tom Dretler
Jeff Denneen leads the Americas Higher Education practice for Bain & Company
and is a partner in the Atlanta office. Tom Dretler is an executive in residence
with Sterling Partners and is board chair and co-founder of the Alliance for
Business Leadership.
The authors would like to thank Jeff Selingo for his contributions to the report.
Jeff Selingo frequently writes about higher education and is the author of the
forthcoming book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What
It Means for Students, due from Amazon Publishing/New Harvest in spring 2013.
Copyright © 2012 Bain & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
The financially sustainable university
The reason is simple: Approximately one-third of all
colleges and universities have financial statements that
are significantly weaker than they were several years
ago (see Figure 1).
Few industries in the United States have achieved
unquestioned global leadership as consistently and
effectively as our higher education system. US colleges
and universities are the cornerstone of our economic
prosperity and the key to realizing the American dream.
Thirty years of growth have confirmed the sector’s
leadership and vibrancy—the result of demographic
and economic factors combining to lift higher education even higher.
On the balance sheet side, the equity ratio (equity as a percentage of assets) is down—sometimes way down.1 On the
income statement side, the expense ratio (expenses as a
percentage of revenue) is significantly up.2 And, to make
matters worse, endowments have taken a major hit and are
not likely to see the type of year-over-year growth they were
accustomed to seeing in the decade before the recession.
Despite this success, talk of a higher education “bubble”
has reached a fever pitch in the last year. The numbers
are very familiar by now: Annual tuition increases several
times the rate of inflation have become commonplace.
The volume of student loan debt has surpassed $1 trillion
and is now greater than credit card debt. Most college and
university presidents, as well as their boards, executive
teams and faculty members, are well aware that a host of
factors have made innovation and change necessary.
The translation: Institutions have more liabilities, higher
debt service and increasing expense without the revenue
or the cash reserves to back them up.
In the past, colleges and universities tackled this problem
by passing on additional costs to students and their
families, or by getting more support from state and
federal sources. Because those parties had the ability and
the willingness to pay, they did (see Figure 2). But the
recession has left families with stagnant incomes, substantially reduced home equity, smaller nest eggs and
anxiety about job security. Regardless of whether or not
families are willing to pay, they are no longer able to foot
the ever-increasing bill, and state and federal sources
can no longer make up the difference (see Figure 3).
Still, at the majority of institutions, the pace of change is
slower than it needs to be. Plenty of hurdles exist, including the belief that things will return to the way they always
were. (Note: They won’t.) But the biggest obstacle is more
fundamental: While leaders might have a sense of what
needs to be done, they may not know how to achieve the
required degree of change that will allow their institution
not just to survive, but also thrive with a focused strategy
and a sustainable financial base.
Leading change is challenging in any organization. But
in higher education, it’s markedly more difficult. If the
stakes weren’t so high, incremental improvements might
be enough. But they aren’t, and that’s become abundantly
clear. Change is needed, and it’s needed now. What
follows is a road map for college and university presidents
and boards of trustees, explaining the scope and depth
of the situation, the key actions required and—most important—what it will take to succeed in leading change.
Financial fade
Which schools are spending more than they
can afford? Explore the data in our interactive
graphic at
The liquidity crisis facing higher education
If you are the president of a college or university that is
not among the elites and does not have an endowment
in the billions, chances are cash is becoming increasingly
scarce—unless you’re among the most innovative.
The financially sustainable university
Figure 1: Change in equity vs. expense ratios for US colleges and universities
Decrease in equity ratio (percentage points)
Increase in expense ratio (percentage points)
Note: To see which schools are in each segment, go to
Sources: Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2006–2010; Bain & Company and Sterling Partners analysis
Figure 2: Higher education inflation (2001–2010)
Average tuition as % of median earnings
Median annual
Sources: US Bureau of Labor statistics (BLS); IPEDS; Bain & Company and Sterling Partners analysis
The financially sustainable university
Figure 3: Educational appropriations per FTE, US (fiscal 1985–2010)
Educational appropriations per FTE (constant $)
Source: State Higher Education Executive Officers
Which institutions are at risk?
Reversing the “Law of More”
Presidents who want to give their institution a stress test
can simply refer to the list of questions provided in the
box on page 7 (see sidebar). From a financial perspective, highly selective institutions don’t need to worry
because they possess pricing power (although they may
be concerned that their mission will suffer if they must
make compromises to the need-blind admissions policy).
Well-endowed institutions or those with strong financial
statements through prudent financial management are
also fine, because they have ample resources to serve
as “shock absorbers.”
Much of the liquidity crisis facing higher education comes
from having succumbed to the “Law of More.” Many
institutions have operated on the assumption that the
more they build, spend, diversify and expand, the more
they will persist and prosper. But instead, the opposite has
happened: Institutions have become overleveraged. Their
long-term debt is increasing at an average rate of approximately 12% per year, and their average annual interest
expense is growing at almost twice the rate of their
instruction-related expense (see Figure 5). In addition
to growing debt, administrative and student services
costs are growing faster than instructional costs. And
fixed costs and overhead consume a growing share of
the pie (see Figure 6).
But what about the others? The data is clear: A growing
percentage of our colleges and universities are in real
financial trouble. And if the current trends continue, we
will see a higher education system that will no longer be
able to meet the diverse needs of the US student population in 20 years (see Figure 4).
This cost growth is at odds with the concept of the experience curve, which holds true in almost every industry.
The experience curve indicates that as a company’s or an
industry’s cumulative output goes up, cost per unit of
production will go down. A prime example of this is
The social and economic implications of that are staggering.
The financially sustainable university
Figure 4: Projected tuition levels based on historical trends
Indexed to 100–year 1983
6.5x CPI
College tuition
3.2x CPI
Medical care
1x CPI
Note: Housing costs—owner’s equivalent rent; all metrics based on US city averages and are seasonally adjusted; forecast based on compounded annual growth 1983–2010
Sources: BLS; Bain & Company and Sterling Partners analysis
You might think you’re doing many of those things
through your strategic planning process, but too often
that is not the case. Colleges and universities frequently
aspire to be the same thing, with a focus on moving up
to the next level and gaining greater prestige. It can be
far more about “me-too” as opposed to carving out a
unique strategic position. As a result, most of the strategic planning that happens in higher education is on
the margins and not focused on making the hard decisions
that will ultimately lead to success.
“Moore’s Law,” the principle that the number of transistors on a computer chip will double approximately every
two years. The semiconductor industry has maintained
this pace for decades, leading to consistent increases in
computing power and cost reductions for the technology
that is at the heart of the digital revolution.
The natural question for higher education, then, is what incremental value is being provided for the incremental cost?
To reverse the Law of More and create a more differentiated and financially sustainable institution, innovative
college and university presidents are doing four things:
Developing a clear strategy, focused on the core
Reducing support and administrative costs
Freeing up capital in non-core assets
Strategically investing in innovative models
Focusing on the core
The healthiest organizations—from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups to academic institutions—operate
with a discipline that allows them to stay true to their core
business. The core is where high-performing institutions
invest the most and generate the greatest returns. It is the
area where they are the clearest about the value they add.
It is the domain where they are the most differentiated
and the place from which they derive their identity. In
The financially sustainable university
Figure 5: Higher education and the “Law of More”
Increase in key components of higher education cost base (CAGR 2002–2008)
Property, plant and equipment
Interest expense
Longterm debt
Sources: BLS; IPEDS; Bain & Company and Sterling Partners analysis
Unfortunately, many institutions seem to be headed down
that path. But by focusing on the characteristics that are
truly distinctive and channeling resources to them, institutions can positively improve their performance and
get on the path to long-term sustainability.
short, the core is the strategic anchor for the focused
company or the focused university.
In any industry, there are three primary paths to competitive advantage: differentiation, low cost or structural
advantage. The trick in pursuing a differentiation strategy
is truly understanding your unique core and then focusing resources on it. An implicit part of having a focused
strategy is not only defining what you are going to invest
in, but also clearly articulating what you are not going to
do. If institutions try to pursue too many areas of differentiation, they’re likely to invest too broadly and, thus,
reduce the return on investment for precious capital.
Reducing support and administrative costs
Boards of trustees and presidents need to put their
collective foot down on the growth of support and administrative costs. Those costs have grown faster than the
cost of instruction across most campuses. In no other
industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this
rate—executives would lose their jobs.
We recognize that focusing on the core is hard to do,
given the history and culture of universities—authority
is often diffuse and people don’t like to say “no,” especially in the absence of any definition of value. But the
worst-case scenario for an institution is to be relatively
expensive and completely undifferentiated. Who will pay
$40,000 per year to go to a school that is completely
undistinguished on any dimension?
As colleges and universities look to areas where they can
make cuts and achieve efficiencies, they should start
farthest from the core of teaching and research. Cut
from the outside in, and build from the inside out.
Growth in programs and research, increasing faculty and
student demands, and increasingly cumbersome compli-
The financially sustainable university
Figure 6: Relative expenditures in US higher education (1995–2010)
Relative share of expenditures per FTE enrollment
Admin. &
Student services
Admin. &
Admin. &
Admin. &
Student services
Student services
Student services
Public research universities
Private research universities
Sources: IPEDS; Bain & Company and Sterling Partners analysis
university’s central IT department. In similar cases,
outsourcing data centers would be a good solution.
Third-party data centers, whether they are managed
or cloud-based, could provide more sophisticated
solutions, higher levels of security, greater flexibility
in capacity and lower cost than internal solutions—
all with greater accountability and less politics.
ance requirements have all contributed to the growth of
administrative costs. The reasons are often very legitimate.
But as new programs are added, old programs often are
not curtailed or closed down. The resulting breadth of
campus activities creates too much complexity for staff
to manage with any efficiencies of scale. Units don’t
trust one another or the center to provide services, and
incentives are not aligned across the campus. These issues ultimately manifest themselves in multiple ways:
Fragmentation. Data center management is a good
example of fragmentation on campus. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the
central IT group managed fewer than half of the
servers on campus in its data center. For the servers
located in the colleges, fewer than half were managed
by college IT groups—the rest were considered
“hidden” at the department or faculty level. Despite
the inherent data and security risk of having so many
unmanaged servers on campus, faculty members
were very skeptical about turning over control to the
Redundancy. At the University of California at
Berkeley, as on many other campuses, procurement
was managed at the department level. There were no
product standards, and each department negotiated
its own vendor contracts. A sample of purchase
orders showed that the same item was being bought
for as much as 36% more in some departments
than in others. By centralizing and standardizing
more of its procurement going forward, Berkeley
expects to save more than $25 million per year.
Unneeded hierarchy. Most campuses have too many
middle managers. Before it reorganized, Berkeley
had average spans of control (the number of employ-
The financially sustainable university
You might be at risk if….
1. You are not a top-ranked institution
Your admissions yield has fallen and it’s costing you more to attract students
Median salaries for your graduates have been flat over a number of years
Your endowment is in the millions not billions, and a large percentage is restricted
2. Your financial statements don’t look as good as they used to
Your debt expense has been increasing far more rapidly than your instruction expense
Your property, plant and equipment (PP&E) asset is increasing faster than your revenue
You have seen a decline in net tuition revenue
Tuition represents an increasingly greater percentage of your revenue
Your bond rating has gone down
You are having trouble accessing the same level of government funding
3. You have had to take drastic measures
are consistently hiking tuition to the top end of the range
have had to lower admissions standards
have had to cut back on financial aid
have reduced your faculty head count
data is poor, silos are strong and performance management is virtually nonexistent.
ees reporting directly to a manager) of around four,
compared with more than six for average companies
and closer to 10 for best practice companies. Fixing
spans and layers, as well as better defining roles,
empowers an organization, reduces bureaucracy
and significantly boosts productivity.
Misaligned incentives. Unlike the corporate world,
where profit and share price (mixed with a pinch of
anxiety about pay and job security) ultimately help
create alignment, there are fewer mechanisms within
a university to improve alignment across the campus.
Universities tend to operate as a federation of colleges,
and colleges as a federation of departments. Budget
models are complex and the flow of funds convoluted. The people who manage budgets often have
limited options to influence the entities responsible
for consumption and, ultimately, costs (e.g., many
campuses don’t charge departments for electric power
based on consumption). Despite a culture of openness, there is surprisingly little transparency because
Complexity. Simply put, campuses engage in too
many activities that require too broad a skill set
to effectively deliver in-house. Take IT application
management, for example. Not only does it need
to support classroom and research needs across a
diverse set of disciplines (history, music, law, engineering, biomedical sciences), it also has to cover
functions (finance, HR, research administration,
registrar, libraries, student services). If that weren’t
enough, IT also has to serve industries beyond the
core academics, including bookstores, retail food,
debit cards, hotels, museums, stadiums, publishing
houses, veterinary hospitals and power plants. A
single IT group would have a hard time managing
all of that well, given the expertise required, leading
to either poor service delivery or fragmented, subscale and costly delivery.
The financially sustainable university
Physical assets
Outsourcing more of the non-core activities would reduce
campus complexity and cost. Third-party providers typically have greater scale capability and skill because the
outsourced service is their core business, enabling them
to deliver the same or better service at a lower cost.
Many institutions own other physical assets that could
also be converted to cash through sale and leaseback
arrangements or outsourced service contracts. In most
IT outsourcing deals, for example, the service provider
buys the client’s IT assets (infrastructure, equipment,
facilities and so on) up front and then provides service
on a long-term contract.
Ultimately, in order to reduce administrative costs without
diminishing service—and perhaps even enhancing it—
campuses will need to consolidate subscale operations
by creating shared services or outsourcing; improve processes by eliminating low-value work and automating
more; refresh the organization by streamlining spans
and layers and improving performance management;
and strengthen controls by updating the budget model,
modifying policies and increasing transparency.
Hard assets like power plants and cogeneration facilities
offer campuses another opportunity to free up capital, as
commercial power companies may be interested in
acquiring those assets. There is also a growing class of
private equity investors looking to infrastructure investments to provide low-risk, stable cash flows to balance
out their portfolios. By selling these assets, campuses
could free up tens of millions of dollars in capital.
Freeing up capital in non-core assets
Another significant opportunity for institutions to
strengthen their cash position is to better manage their
assets. Whether it is real estate, physical assets or intellectual property, colleges and universities are involved in
a number of activities where partnerships with thirdparty providers would allow for financial relief and
improved performance.
Intellectual property
Many college and university presidents feel that technology transfer offices are the custodians of some of
their institution’s most underleveraged assets. Indeed,
US colleges and universities spend some $92 billion
each year in R&D and realize approximately a $2 billion
annual return on those investments. Conversely, intellectual property companies that manage the patent
portfolios of technology giants such as Microsoft typically
get returns of several times their clients’ original R&D
investment. Some of those companies are beginning
to look at the higher education sector as an area where
they can make a major impact and bring innovative
products to market. By partnering with intellectual
property companies in the private sector, colleges and
universities could tap into a lucrative new source of
revenue to strengthen their balance sheets and support
other mission-focused organizational activities.
Real estate
US colleges and universities collectively have more than
$250 billion worth of real estate assets on their balance
sheets. In other real estate–intensive industries, such as
lodging, restaurant and healthcare, organizations have
consistently found ways to turn a portion of these assets
into cash by selling and leasing back, without losing their
ability to use the real estate in the same way as before. At
some colleges and universities, real estate represents the
single largest asset on their balance sheet. The former
president of a large land grant institution in the Pacific
Northwest expressed one of his biggest frustrations during his tenure: He had been sitting on $2 billion worth of
real estate assets, but he hadn’t had the opportunity to use
any of it to improve his university’s financial situation.
Converting even a small portion of an institution’s real
estate assets to cash could change its strategic trajectory.
Strategically investing in innovative models
College and university presidents are well aware of the
“disruptive innovations” that are changing the landscape
within higher education. According to a 2011 survey by
the Babson Survey Research Group in collaboration with
the College Board, online enrollment grew at a compound
The financially sustainable university
istration. The concept of shared governance, combined
with academic autonomy and tenure, leads to an organization where broad change cannot be mandated. Instead,
change on a large scale can only be achieved by working
with the faculty to build a compelling case and a clear
path forward—one that supports the mission of the institution, but copes effectively with fiscal constraints.
annual growth rate of more than 15% per year between
fall 2002 and fall 2010, increasing from less than 10% of
all higher education enrollments to just more than 30%
during that period. A recent Bain survey of 4,500 students
also indicates growing online enrollment: Approximately
45% of respondents had taken an online course.
The rapid growth of online education has changed the
game in a number of areas: value proposition (flexibility
for students), economics (higher fixed-cost percentage,
but lower fixed-cost dollars), marketing and recruiting
(increasing reach) and outcomes and assessment (better
tracking and measurement). Nearly two-thirds of the
college and university leaders at more than 2,500 institutions surveyed by the Babson Survey Research Group
said that an online strategy is critical to the long-term
success of their institution. Yet surprisingly, less than
50% of responding CEOs had included online programs
in their campus strategic plan.
Based on the many conversations we’ve had with campus
leaders, it’s clear that they generally know what to do,
but really struggle with how to do it. To implement a
strategy that allows the organization to focus on the core,
reduce costs, outsource and monetize assets, and develop
online and lower-cost programs, institutional leaders
need to bring key stakeholders on board and be clear
about roles and accountability.
Bringing key stakeholders on board
One university chancellor told us, “20% are always
going to be on board with me and 20% are always going
to oppose, regardless of what the change is. The trick
is getting the 60% in the middle to first engage and
then buy into the change.”
There is no question that the online market is rich with
opportunity, but until you have defined your core strategy
and identified significant capital to invest in creating
academic value, you will not survive in the online arena.
For some institutions, rushing into the online space
too rapidly to grow enrollment and create new revenue
is another me-too strategy. There are already too many
entrenched players and new entrants with significant
capital in the market for an undifferentiated strategy
to succeed.
By nature, faculty members tend to have a low tolerance
for business administration and change that disrupts
their routines. But most faculty members are also evidence-based decision makers who care deeply about the
educational mission of the institution they serve, and
this is an area where the president and the faculty can
find common ground. There are a few truths that may
or may not be self-evident to faculty, but that the president
should have ample evidence to support. These truths are
1) there is no status quo; 2) effective change needs to be
institution-wide; and 3) budget doesn’t always correlate
with value.
As online courses enter the market and employers begin
to accept “badges” and other credentials (further decreasing demand for traditional degrees), the price students
will be willing to pay for undifferentiated brands will
continue to fall. While this won’t be a problem for elite
institutions like Harvard and MIT, it represents a significant challenge for most colleges and universities.
There is no status quo
Leading the change necessary to be successful
Too often, stakeholders believe that the current cash
crunch and need for change is a temporary phenomenon
that will subside as the economy continues to improve.
But those who see things this way probably haven’t been
exposed to the data presented here and in other reports
that show convincingly that this time is different. Faculty
Creating change on campus is harder than creating
change in a corporate setting. In the corporate ecosystem,
power resides largely with the executive team and cascades down. In academia, power usually emanates from
the faculty and works its way toward the central admin9
The financially sustainable university
resources, discretionary budget allocations are typically
the most effective tool. At one university, the provost
provided two budget alternatives to each dean and supervisor. The first was to move forward with the changes
suggested by the administration’s “transformation team.”
The second offered a flat cut to all units if they did not
want to participate in the transformation program.
The flat cut in the second alternative was significantly
higher than the savings that would be achieved by participating in the transformation. The logic behind this
was simple: If any unit abstained, savings would go down
for everyone. But by working together across the institution, more could be achieved with less pain.
and other key stakeholders must be shown clear and
compelling facts to disprove the “return to the status
quo” notion and to clarify the corresponding negative
implications and consequences of inaction.
Change needs to be institution-wide
The magnitude of the challenges being addressed is too
great and the organization is too complex for changes to
be restricted to certain corners of the campus. Scale
matters when you are trying to minimize the cost of
administrative functions, and few departments or colleges
on a campus have enough scale to achieve real benefits.
The support of key stakeholders must be elicited across
the organization.
Budget does not always correlate with value
At UNC, the central facilities administration spearheaded a clear example of what can be achieved by
working together. The project’s goal was to improve
classroom utilization in order to accommodate a growing
student body without the need to build new buildings
or renovate old ones. Based on an analysis of classroom
utilization, the current space could meet anticipated
demand, with a higher degree of coordination among
the departments, the faculty and central administration.
Many classrooms on campus had been scheduled and
managed at the department level in nonstandard blocks,
and some faculty had been starting their classes on the
half-hour on days when the format for other classes
started on the hour—effectively taking two time slots for
a single class. The administration offered an inducement:
In exchange for standardizing class schedules and allowing nondepartmental usage of their classrooms, the
administration would pay for technology upgrades. It was
a win-win situation: The cost of the additional technology was significantly lower than the cost of building
new classrooms, and the departments got upgrades
they couldn’t have funded from their own budgets.
Beyond capital savings, the teamwork and standardization saved the university $800,000 and gave it more
flexibility in negotiating its overhead rate with federal
grant-making agencies.
But working together across the institution does not
mean that all campus activities have equal value. Part of a
president’s vision for change will need to address where
the institution will place priorities that are consistent with
its mission and differentiated strategy. For example, in an
organization that plans to reduce overall costs, it’s quite
possible that some departmental budgets will increase,
while less strategic ones will be cut more significantly.
On the administrative side, budget cuts are always perceived as service cuts. Given the way services have been
delivered—fragmented and subscale—that’s probably
true. But going for greater cost efficiency does not necessarily mean that effectiveness has to decline. Poor
operations take longer to perform the same task, require
more people to get the work done and tend to have significant quality issues, leading to rework and customer
frustration. By building scale operations with the right
expertise, process and tools, campuses can reduce cost
while actually improving service levels.
On the academic side, given how difficult it is to define
and measure value, the underlying rationale supporting
academic budgets is rarely called into question. In the
normal budgeting process, all departments typically
receive what they were awarded the year before, plus a
small increase for inflation. This is how one department
at a world-class university ended up with a faculty-tostudent ratio of greater than five to one, including majors
and doctoral students.
In other cases, it may be necessary to apply a set of
consequences in order to effect change. Given the scarcity
of resources and corresponding competition for those
The financially sustainable university
Role clarity
Given the concentration of power and autonomy in the
individual departments, the tendency within many
colleges and universities is simply to assume that all
departments should cut equally from their budgets and
return those funds to central administration. While
this approach is politically defensible as being “fair”
and leaves autonomy with the units for deciding how to
achieve savings, it is not particularly strategic and creates
distorted incentives for managers. In this model, highly
effective managers who run lean operations are forced
to cut muscle while less effective managers simply trim
fat. This leads to a culture where people unnecessarily
hoard resources so that they have something to give
back when asked.
Several years ago, at one major research university, a
plan that made the organization more efficient and
saved it money was put in place. Then it was undone.
Countless hours and millions of dollars were lost due
to a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities.
For some time, multiple departments at the university
had been managing their own unique contract with the
same learning management system (LMS) vendor. Each
unit had an independent software license, a different
software update version, its own server to run the application and an independent employee to manage the
system. It was fragmented, redundant and inefficient,
but it allowed for independence. Then as part of a campus
change initiative, all the departments agreed to have
the central IT office manage a single university-wide
contract with the vendor. As part of the move, the central
office renegotiated a single license, put all units on the
same software version, had them share server space and
gave a single employee the task of managing the system.
The result was significant savings for the university and
better operability.
Another example of budget versus value can be found by
looking at Cornell University’s decision to consolidate
five different economics departments, which had been
spread across multiple schools within the university. All
departments were well regarded, but some were stronger
than others. When the decision was made to create one
top-ranked economics department, some of those departments were essentially eliminated, while others were
fortified in the transition. This change enabled Cornell
to further its mission and to better serve its students,
while also producing significant overall cost savings.
But then things broke down. What hadn’t been made
clear during the change was who had ultimate decisionmaking authority over classroom technology within
individual departments. Approximately one year after
the change, when central IT informed the departments
that the university would be switching LMS vendors,
the departments were irate. Feeling that it wasn’t central
IT’s call, the departments demanded their individual
contracts back—and got them. The savings were erased
and trust was eroded. However, if at the outset it had
been established which party was being given decision
rights over vendor selection, the collaboration would
have been much more likely to succeed.
Being clear about roles and accountability
One of the biggest challenges in academia is the lack of
alignment and trust that frequently permeates campus
environments. There is a perception that departments
and units can’t effectively collaborate because they don’t
understand one another’s objectives, priorities and needs.
The mistrust is compounded by a sense that outcomes
aren’t measured appropriately, which leads to a lack of
confidence in other departments. All of this contributes
to academic units desiring independence and adds to the
level of difficulty in driving coordinated institutional
change. But this can be corrected by taking needed steps
to clarify roles and create a culture of functional and
individual accountability.
While faculty members have incredibly high standards
around teaching, research and publishing, which are
reinforced through peer review, grading and win rates
on grants, they tend not to apply those standards and
The financially sustainable university
expectations. Based on subsequent interviews with campus managers, it was clear that there were more than 10
underperformers on campus! Colleges and universities
can put more rigor behind individual performance
management by developing metrics for evaluation that
everyone can understand and apply consistently.
rigor to the administration in their own departments.
Although many of them are quick to point out the flaws
of central service providers, they do not recognize the
same shortcomings within their own units.
Creating functional accountability is the best solution to
breaking down issues of alignment and trust so that
institution-wide solutions can be implemented. First, as
the LMS example highlighted, it is critical to articulate
roles and responsibilities, including decision rights, for
each functional unit. Once that is clear, service-level agreements can be negotiated between the functional service
provider and the units. These agreements should clearly
spell out what level of performance is expected. Finally,
service quality dashboards can be created. These dashboards can be broadly published to create transparency
about actual operating performance versus agreed-upon
goals. This transparency can help overcome suspicion
and distrust about how decisions are being made.
The Law of More needs to be overturned. Universities
simply cannot afford to increase costs in nonstrategic
areas and take on more debt, if they want to survive.
It is imperative that universities become much more
focused on creating value from their core. That will require having a clear strategy, streamlined operations, a
strong financial foundation, trust and accountability, and
a willingness to invest only in innovations that truly
create value for the institution.
Higher education in the United States is at a tipping
point. In its time of need, the leaders of our colleges
and universities have a tremendous opportunity to reshape and reinvent an industry that is directly linked
to our economic prosperity and the hopes and dreams
of millions.
Beyond functional accountability is individual accountability. Because of the decentralized nature of colleges
and universities, many roles cross functional boundaries.
Universities also tend to be culturally averse to providing
critical feedback to staff. At one university, of the more
than 6,000 performance reviews on file from the prior
couple of years, fewer than 10 were rated as not meeting
That time is now.
Equity ratio = total net assets (assets – liabilities) divided by total assets
2 The asset ratio is calculated by dividing net assets by total assets and measures the strength of an organization’s balance sheet. Net assets is a term that indicates the remaining assets
on an organization’s balance sheet after removing liabilities. The expense ratio is calculated by dividing an organization’s expenses by its revenues and indicates the financial sustainability
of a business. Simply put, an organization’s expense ratio is an indication of its ability to cover the expenses endured by cash inflow.
Shared Ambit ion, True Results
Bain & Company is the management consulting firm that the world’s business leaders come
to when they want results.
Bain advises clients on strategy, operations, technology, organization, private equity and mergers and acquisitions.
We develop practical, customized insights that clients act on and transfer skills that make change stick. Founded
in 1973, Bain has 48 offices in 31 countries, and our deep expertise and client roster cross every industry and
economic sector. Our clients have outperformed the stock market 4 to 1.
What sets us apart
We believe a consulting firm should be more than an adviser. So we put ourselves in our clients’ shoes, selling
outcomes, not projects. We align our incentives with our clients’ by linking our fees to their results and collaborate
to unlock the full potential of their business. Our Results Delivery® process builds our clients’ capabilities, and
our True North values mean we do the right thing for our clients, people and communities—always.
About Sterling Partners
Sterling Partners is a private equity firm with a distinct point of view on how to build great companies. Founded
in 1983, Sterling has invested billions of dollars, guided by the company’s stated purpose: INSPIRED GROWTH™,
which describes Sterling’s approach to buying differentiated businesses and growing them in inspired ways.
Sterling focuses on investing growth capital in small and mid-market companies in industries with positive,
long-term trends—education, healthcare and business services. Sterling provides valuable support to the management teams of the companies in which the firm invests through a deep and dedicated team of operations
and functional experts based in the firm’s offices in Chicago, Baltimore and Miami.
For more information, visit
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