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Many institutions fear they won’t endure the industry’s state of radical change. But a sustainability plan built on that very change may be the key to survival.

Industry trends

Four Pillars of an Effective Sustainability Strategy in Higher Education

  • Yuliya Ostapenko
  • 8/15/2018

In the current higher education environment of declining enrollment, reduced government funding, and rapidly changing student demographics, colleges and universities across the country have one overarching question: Are our current mission-driven operations sustainable amid these jarring changes? At the heart of this question is the legitimate concern that their institution won’t endure into even the near future.

But what, exactly, do sustainable operations look like? If you ask a variety of people what sustainability means, you’ll get a variety of answers. Some will talk of environmental responsibility, others of long-term financial survival, and many of philanthropy and community service. All these perspectives are valid. But in its purest, most comprehensive form, sustainability should encompass all of those concepts and more.

A strong sustainability strategy is built on four pillars of good stewardship

It’s true that higher education is in the midst of major change, most of it being driven from disruption in funding, affordability, social consciousness, and generational shifts. In our work with higher education institutions, we’ve come to understand that successful administrators and board members view sustainability as dependent on four critical pillars of good stewardship: economic, environmental, social, and governance. These pillars are formed from change itself and may very well be the antidote to the problems that they create.

Economic stewardship

With reduced government funding and increased tuition discounting across the industry, economic stewardship is more important than ever to your college or university’s long-term sustainability. Taking a holistic view of how economic value is generated — and how it is distributed — will make a big difference in your future. Some considerations in support of this approach are:

  • Contracting with the most qualified and cost-effective suppliers in the market rather than defaulting to business as usual in vendor selection
  • Ensuring equal pay among staff and faculty
  • Hiring responsibility-minded instructors and administrators who are committed to economic sustainability
  • Measuring professors’ success based on their contributions to their students’ learning, rather than on credentials and compensation levels
  • Engaging innovative thinkers to develop recruiting and fundraising strategies
  • Offering students exceptional internship and volunteering opportunities that impact the lives of others in a positive and beneficial way

Environmental stewardship

Faced with outdated infrastructure and long-deferred facilities maintenance costs, some colleges and universities try to execute a never-ending strategy of cutting necessary expenses and putting off critical projects without realizing the short-term and unsustainable nature of these decisions. Others take an opposite approach and enter into pricy but supposedly environment-friendly construction projects or partnerships for reducing energy consumption without undertaking a robust cost-benefit analysis.

The fact is, you need to keep your campus and its operations in the modern era, and you can do it without breaking the bank or destroying the planet. Environmentally sensitive efforts can often be achieved for less by upgrading your existing real estate and infrastructure. These days, collaboration is taking on creative and exciting new forms, including some unconventional public-private partnerships and engagements in the “gig” economy, where there is no shortage of qualified consultants who can help develop long-term sustainable solutions for affordable fees.

Social stewardship

Higher education institutions are rightly concerned with their social impact on students and their families, employees, and the surrounding community. Diversity, nondiscrimination, freedom of expression, and volunteer effort are only few of the considerations. Be proactive and ask all of these communities what they expect from you today, tomorrow, in five years, and thereafter.

Don’t get caught up in thinking that simply offering more online courses and degrees will appeal to the coming generations of students. Instead, evaluate the ways they learn, what they want to learn, and what knowledge they are going to need in the nearest future. Redesign curricula to eliminate courses and programs that have become outmoded or irrelevant, and incorporate concepts that connect technical learning with meaningful, purpose-driven applications in their respective disciplines. For example, teach business management principles and theory — and also the ways they might responsibly be put to use to help others.

Embrace the possibility that not every student will graduate, and that may be okay. Rethink the importance of “student success” and focus on the concept of “student experience.” Each student is unique, and customizing your programs and graduation requirements may help them achieve success on their own terms.

Governance stewardship

Decision makers play a crucial role in your institution’s life. Revisit the composition of your school’s governing body. A healthy mix of seasoned people with a lot of experience and younger generations of disruptors and innovators will result in better solutions to the issues your college or university is grappling with. Set high standards of 100 percent active participation by various boards and committees and the members’ commitment to the long-term sustainability strategy. Have the board members and management take personality assessments to ensure that a healthy dialog and brainstorming are possible within a group of people in charge of the decision-making process.

Embrace change to build a sustainable future for your institution

Sustainability is about being self-sufficient while fulfilling the mission of the organization in the long term. Institutions of higher education should embrace the future cohort of socially responsible, empathetic, and value-added-demanding students. They will still want to go to college five or ten years from now. Their experiences may look very different: Some will spend two or four years on campus; some may take a mix of in-person and online courses taught by the highly qualified gig economy-embracing teachers; others will take conscious breaks in the course of their study to pursue volunteerism or other personal goals. It is up to you to envision what that college experience is going to look like for your students, and that should form the foundation of your sustainability strategy, built on these four pillars of good stewardship. Be aware, though, the world is watching, ranking, and evaluating your institution to assess its longevity and impact on the students you serve and society at large. And that is why sustainability really matters.

How we can help

CLA’s higher education professionals are eager to research and explore the various sustainability strategies employed at colleges and universities across the country. We can connect you with peers to share experiences, develop innovative ideas, and identify best practices to adapt and flourish amid profound industry change.