How Higher Ed Institutions Are Strategically Managing Change

It is no secret. Higher education institutions are facing unprecedented challenges that are forcing strategic changes. Since the onset of the pandemic, institutions have grappled with financial sustainability concerns exacerbated by falling enrollment rates and political pressures on academic freedom. As dissatisfaction among higher ed employees rises, there is growing concern about retaining faculty amid widespread burnout.

In response to these pressing challenges, higher education institutions are engaging professional services to help them effectively navigate turbulent times. Rather than simply reacting to immediate crises as they arise, institutions are hoping to anticipate and plan for future uncertainties, implementing forward-thinking strategies to address both short-term hurdles and long-term sustainability.

Recently, EdSurge spoke with John McGrath, Director of sales and strategy at Alight Solutions, where he specializes in the education and government sectors in the firm’s Workday Adaptive Planning practice. McGrath’s background as a former budget manager and director in both for-profit and not-for-profit higher education and experience in financial and operational planning consulting across various industries positions him well to support higher ed institutions as they address planning challenges.

“We implement a forecasting and reporting tool that aggregates data to inform solutions,” says McGrath. “But we don’t just implement the software; we provide advisory services around change management to help organizations reach their goals.” He explains the importance of proactive measures supported by data analytic tools, like Workday Adaptive Planning, to align resources with an organization’s strategic priorities.

EdSurge: How do higher education institutions balance the need for tuition increases with the imperative to remain accessible to students from diverse economic backgrounds?

McGrath: One common approach from higher education institutions is tuition discounting. For first-year college students, the average tuition discount rate is 56 percent. That is impactful when considering an annual tuition of $50,000!

It is critically important for institutions to ensure that students are aware of available programs to help fund their tuition, whether state and federal grants such as Pell or private gifts through fundraising efforts such as academic or athletic scholarships.

In addition to implementing tools to help with workforce planning, what other creative tuition pricing strategies and alternative revenue streams have higher education institutions explored to enhance enrollment and maintain financial health?

One option is transparency-based tuition, which does not include hidden fees, such as an activity or a student government fee. Many colleges have taken another approach with a flat tuition structure, where the tuition charged today is held constant throughout the student’s education.

Another interesting approach is subscription-based tuition, which eliminates the cost per credit and allows students to take as many courses as desired over a set term. The challenge here is that it requires the incoming class to backfill a faster timeline to graduation, but it enables students to graduate with a degree at their own pace.

A third option is a try-before-you-buy, where students can sit in for three weeks of a semester, get a sample of what the program is like and then determine if they want to continue. Using these different pricing strategies requires the institutions to establish various scenario-based planning structures to ensure feasibility and financial responsibility.

Alight’s Workday Adaptive Planning

How can institutions effectively attract and retain top talent while mitigating the negative impact of vacancies on workforce morale and turnover?

Institutions must have an effective workforce planning strategy in place. One common strategy for both recruitment and retainment is offering flexible work arrangements, either fully remote or hybrid approaches, to promote a healthier work-life balance. The flexibility of working remotely or knowing you can take unexpected time off is important for mental health. Other wellness programs are expanding, including fitness classes, mindfulness sessions, stress management workshops and counseling services, contributing to increased employee satisfaction.

For recruitment purposes, it is helpful for candidates to see employees with tenure across campus. But it is also important to establish transparent recruitment processes that make clear the criteria for employment, the time needed from interview to offer and the specific role expectations. Once employed, it is important to recognize and reward individuals when they take on additional responsibilities outside of their scope.

Another key strategy involves adopting a multi-layered approach to workforce feedback, which challenges the traditional top-down model. Institutions like Harvard advocate for feedback to be multidirectional, incorporating both top-down and bottom-up perspectives. This fosters a supportive leadership culture that comprehends campus dynamics and provides enhanced support accordingly.

Workforce planning strategies such as these foster collaboration between different departments and highlight efficiencies or improvement opportunities. For example, with communication between Human Resources and Finance, they are able to coordinate a quicker backfill strategy, decreasing the time and resources it would take if planning strategies were not set in place.

Once an institution is ready to make the transformation, how can it overcome stakeholder resistance and successfully adopt systemwide changes?

The integration of various new systems, such as Enterprise Resource Plannings (ERPs) like Workday, to enable institutions to shift from reactive to strategic approaches requires significant change management. Systemwide changes tend to provoke a natural human reaction of resistance. Stakeholders question, “What’s in it for me?” This is known as the WIIFM factor. To ensure greater buy-in, institutions can employ a few strategies.

First, there must be clear and transparent communication about the system change, including the goals, benefits and likely impacts. An educational institution’s lifeblood is its faculty; getting their engagement early in the process is critical. Explore how implementation will improve workflow, productivity or student outcomes, or enhance collaboration among faculty. Provide reassurance that this change will positively affect the organization and highlight specific personal and professional benefits.

Second, there must be training and support for all involved. Ask about employees’ specific needs and tailor implementation support to ensure those resistant to change can overcome their concerns. Cultivate advocates for the implementation who will motivate others and celebrate the successes during implementation, even if they are small. Recognition really helps foster a positive culture for change and innovation.

It’s important to remember that no system will be perfect upon implementation, so soliciting continuous feedback from individuals around the organization helps adapt and refine the approach and ensures continuing success.

One great aspect of higher education institutions is their collaborative nature. Whether it be financial planning, enrollment planning or IT planning, they share experiences and solutions across the industry. We just need to have systems in place to leverage that collaboration and communication.

Institutions are navigating challenges with resilience and innovation, embracing strategic changes to ensure long-term sustainability. By leveraging professional services and implementing forward-thinking strategies like transparent tuition pricing, flexible work arrangements and multidirectional feedback mechanisms, these institutions are not only adapting to current uncertainties but also positioning themselves for future success.

At Alight, we are committed to supporting higher education institutions in their journey towards strategic change. Whether through our expertise in financial planning with tools like Workday Adaptive Planning or our comprehensive advisory services, we stand ready to partner with institutions to navigate challenges and seize opportunities for growth.

For more insights on how Alight can support your institution’s transformation, visit our website today. Together, let’s shape the future of higher education and empower your digital transformation.

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