Adopting a growth mindset in higher education

January 29, 2021
| Articles

By: John Farrell | January 29, 2021

To fortify a healthy and sustainable financial infrastructure, higher education leaders need to adopt a growth mindset and accelerate financial and operational decision-making and implementation processes across their institutions.

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has created enrollment, revenue and safety challenges for higher education institutions. The problems are exacerbated by new expenditures such as physical changes to campuses to ensure the health and safety of students and technology updates to set up distance learning. Most colleges and universities have had to make significant cost reductions, restructure operations,and institute tighter financial management. Unfortunately, these actions only address the problems of the here-and-now and provide little or no long-term solutions.

In order to fortify a healthy and sustainable financial infrastructure, higher ed leaders need to adopt a growth mindset and accelerate financial and operational decision-making and implementation processes across their institutions.

A growth mindset is defined as having a singular focus on revenue and program advancement. It’s what drives small businesses and large corporations every single day. In other words, a growth mindset means shifting the perspective of a school as only an educational facility and realizing it is also an enterprise—whether that is not-for-profit or for-profit.

With a commitment to growth by a university, significant innovations in education, learning technologies and student services can occur, advancing the institution and driving it beyond survival. This mindset can energize the incredible talent and creativity within the institution, and reinforce faculty and staff commitment to excellence.

Developing new programs, accelerating implementation processes

A critical aspect of adopting a growth mindset is expanding one’s offerings to meet consumer demand. In a college setting, this means reevaluating what else an institution can provide to current and prospective students. This may mean new or updated majors or minors, certificate programs, graduate programs or continuing and professional education. It could also be growing online and hybrid learning offerings—an area that many schools could leverage recent experience in because flexibility around remote working environments is unlikely to disappear, even after the pandemic is behind us.

A growth mindset will also necessitate accelerated decision-making and implementation processes across the academic and administrative elements of the university. A vast majority of colleges and universities have institutional barriers to change that typically make developing new programs a cumbersome process. In fact, more than once, institutions have taken years to develop a perfect academic program only to find that a delayed launch cost them market position, reputation and revenue (enrollments).

However, the pandemic has demonstrated that institutions can make quality changes and improvements quickly should the need arise and this lesson presents institutions with an opportunity and reason to more quickly innovate and deliver in-demand and contemporary educational programs.

Post-pandemic—as well as in a growth mindset—factors for success will be accelerated decision making. the willingness to change current programs, and develop new ones. For the majority of universities, revenue growth is the new starting line, committing to a growth mindset and focusing on the future—for all of the semesters ahead.

Leveraging faculty, aka a university’s growth engine

Schools can and should take advantage of their in-house resources and talents—professors, administrators, admissions etc.—to create a task force that understands the needs of every stakeholder from employers to students to faculty. To that end, nobody understands students’ needs better than their professors, which is why faculty should be tasked with advancing the school’s portfolio of programs to reflect the demands of students, corporate partners and non-profit employers. Great educational environments, programs, classes and research emerge when the faculty are truly engaged in their development and delivery.

In a higher ed institution, faculty are a school’s growth engine. They are a school’s center, giving it life and serving as the catalysts of change, both in and out of the classroom. Simply put, the most important partnership within a university is between the faculty and administration.

In order to adopt a growth mindset, institutional leadership must recognize faculty as the growth engine—the part that keeps it running, moving forward and in tune with its most valued customers—and there can be no time wasted in engaging faculty in an effort to drive real, significant, and sustainable growth.

Transparency is key

When engaging faculty and other staff, it is critical that leaders communicate clearly and are transparent in the breadth of the financial difficulties, as well as clearly state their objectives. A school will fail if employees do not have the support and commitment of the growth engine. In many situations, provisions within academic policies, faculty handbooks and collective bargaining agreements may need to be modified, perhaps on an emergency basis.

Shared Governance must encompass shared responsibility for the future of the university, and, as changes are made, all parties will need to be transparent and drive the shared goals, benchmarks and schedules and continue to engage the departments, colleges and one another to deliver the desired results.

A mindset for continued success

The financial crisis facing higher education institutions, exacerbated by or brought on by COVID-19, has demanded the complete attention of higher ed administrators and trustee boards. Most have taken actions to stem the bleeding but these steps have been focused on the near-term. Colleges and universities need to think beyond the here-and-now and begin building now toward a sustainable future. This means embracing a positive perspective and adopting a growth mindset to help foster future success.

John Farrell is a managing director at Carl Marks Advisors.

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