The Business of Higher Education

Higher education is a business!

There, we said it. Yes, we know, it’s taboo. We stand by it anyway. Higher Ed’s economic impact rivals, or in some cases is the largest employer in any given area.

While higher education institutions are in the business of learning first and foremost, they’re also a business in the most traditional sense. Higher Education institutions have employees (faculty and staff) and customers (the student), and managing both through the lens of a business can go a long way in optimizing resources and keeping the idea that the student experience matters or that customer satisfaction is always at the forefront.

This does not require abandoning the best interests of employees or students in a profit-driven approach. It means taking the best of business processes and practices and weaving those concepts into how administrators manage higher education institutions. In short, adding a little “business sense” to the practices and procedures as well as performance expectations of faculty and staff.

Too often, institutions of higher learning have a less-than-optimal approach to management. Many institutions are shackled to decades-old processes and traditions; in private business, the only way to thrive is to constantly tweak and change processes because businesses understand the world is constantly changing and new approaches are always needed to remain viable, or someone else will capture their coveted markets with fresh new offerings.

Technology has changed the game for everyone. If you believe a student-focused revolution is coming, you are probably already losing this game. It’s already here. Social media and websites like have brought student satisfaction and engagement into the spotlight. One viral round of bad publicity for an institution can send student recruitment and retention numbers into a downward spiral, a spiral that can be difficult to recover from. Businesses are grappling with social media in a big way and have for years.  Businesses are always researching what’s coming, adjusting plans to minimize the negative impacts of a changing world, and leveraging those changes to their benefit.

When a college or university fails to meet up to student expectations, not only do they lose those matriculants, but now they let others know. That’s why it’s important for administrators to consider all stakeholders in their strategic plans. It’s important for them to add a little “business sense” to their management style so institutional/consumer satisfaction can radiate from the top down.

But what does that look like in practice? How can administrators use business practices to increase efficiency on campus and, thus, increase overall institutional satisfaction?

Adding “Business Sense” to Higher Education

Truly great businesses put people first. Businesses understand that if the customer is not satisfied – they are dead.  Sustainability is completely focused on consumer satisfaction, and today’s savvy students are no exception.

Institutional Brand

Good marketing for any business, be it a giant tech start-up or a college or university, starts with the Who are you marketing to and WHY should they attend your institution. It is important that the consumer understand who you are and why they need you.  Failing in this messaging will cost you plenty. When it comes to running a business, good leaders, and good businesses, have a clear mission, and they’re transparent

Team Questions

Why do you want to be an administrator? Whom will you serve in your role? Why does the work you do matter?

A Mission-Driven Business Plan Can Help Give Higher Education Institutions Focus

Every successful business has a clear mission. At colleges and universities, a clear mission should drive the work of every single employee on campus. From the janitor to the faculty and the campus president, everyone should be on the same page when it comes to the institutional mission.

Creating a mission should be more than an administrative publicity stunt. It should be something that’s purposefully discussed at every meeting, all year long. When assigning workload, it should be clear how the work serves the institutional mission. For example, does your institution mandate faculty members to serve on committees so that they fulfill the service requirement of their contract? Or are you assigning them to meaningful, mission-centered committee roles that add value and purpose to their job performance? Hopefully, it’s the latter because if it’s not, it is not – mission-driven work.

Additionally, when it comes to faculty performance, is your team evaluated based on contributions to the success of the institution’s overall mission goals and performance? In business, especially in EOS business frameworks (or Entrepreneurial Operating Systems frameworks), the mission drives employee goals, and performance is evaluated on those goals each quarter (or semester, in this case). So often, faculty members are overwhelmed to “do it all” because institutional expectations seem unclear. They are expected to achieve goals that may seem indirect to them Leadership must connect the dots, so to speak, so what is being asked is clear. No ambiguity. Just the facts.  What is expected of each team member to achieve the overall goals of the institution? 

Let’s be honest; it’s impossible for institutional team members to “do it all” every semester. In some semesters, the focus may change slightly however, the mission should not., if deadlines are looming, those should be the focus – temporarily. Helping team members focus on 2-3 goals each semester may be helpful, and evaluating them only on those defined goals would help increase efficiency and output and would also help build morale as teams who have a clear understanding of what is expected of them tend to perform more confidently relieving them the stress of uncertainty.

Focusing on how an institutional mission impacts each member is just one piece of the puzzle. Unlike traditional business models, the interactive nature of higher education means student buy-in is just as important to a healthy campus climate.

Every institutional mission statement should…

  • Be student-focused
  • Set clear expectations (for leadership, faculty, staff, and students)
  • Be outcome-focused (set clear SMART goals for employees)
Using Transparency to Build Trust on Campus

Every honest, caring business and business leader is transparent. Transparency means more than revealing the numbers behind the annual budget. It’s a discussion of the why and the how. Why were specific financial decisions made? How were those decisions considered?

A truly transparent leadership process is collaborative in nature. Using a transparent approach means identifying the problem publicly and asking for solutions publicly.

Decisions made in isolation tend to fuel vagueness. Sharing as much as practical with team members builds a sense of unity and drives better results. A transparent process allows for some feedback. It allows for all stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students, and community members, to have input and is the sage way to the much-coveted “buy-in” which improves commitment, performance, and goal achievement.

Top leaders gather information possible, from all stakeholders possible, before making decisions. That process requires effort. It requires a process to be put in place to gather input. It requires less hurried decision-making and more strategy behind strategic planning.

Administrators can operate transparently by…

  • Discussing challenges, not just successes, in an open, public forum (and actively listening to feedback)
  • Be open about institutional financial challenges to your team. (whether that’s a faculty member, the student paper, or a community member)
  • Ask for input from all stakeholders to solve challenges

A Trusted HigherEd Advisory Team

At Oracle, we specialize in helping higher education institutions optimize human capital and solve challenges for campus communities. Our trusted team of advisors can help your institution achieve strategic initiatives and put policies and practices in place to help overcome institutional challenges and increase student recruitment, engagement, and retention.

Our mission is to provide best-in-class solutions to the problems higher education institutions and their students face. We offer a broad spectrum of professional advisory consulting services backed by research, including Student Life Optimization, Facility Optimization, Campus-Wide Communication Optimization, Student Experience and Engagement in Campus Housing, and more. So whether your institution needs help building a strategic plan or finding solutions for campus housing, you can contact the Oracle Real Estate Group for personalized higher education support today.

Ready to take your Student Engagement Programming to the next level?