Colleges Take the 'Business Course'

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, Ann Meyer explains a growing trend in higher education. More and more institutions are facing an increasingly competitive landscape and are using business principles in their marketing and operations to attract students, improve their financial position, and maintain a competitive position in the marketplace. The importance of embracing business principles is summarized nicely in a quote from the article:

“The business side of all of higher education is increasingly important,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, director of Cornell University’s Higher Education Research Institute. Heavily dependent on tuition, many independent colleges are, as Ehrenberg puts it, “on the financial bubble.” They need to pay attention to larger trends and react by carving out new niches, he said.

The article highlights the accomplishments of two small independent colleges in Illinois, Elmhurst College and North Point University. Led by entrepreneurial college presidents, these institutions used marketing, communications, and sound business decisions to create new institutional identities and reposition themselves in the competitive marketplace. The results are impressive – increased applications, higher enrollment, revenue growth, and surging endowments.

The institutional changes made by these two institutions were no doubt made using one of the most powerful tools available in higher ed, data. The question is, how does an institution leverage its data to make the right decisions. The answer, by employing the right analytic techniques and business intelligence tools to identify improvement opportunities and measure success against strategic goals.

Let’s take an example from the article. Elmhurst College has been able to attract students with higher test scores and grades, and in the process boost its selectivity. How is this done? One way is to utilize business intelligence tools to closely monitor the institutional funnel (i.e., number or prospects, applicants, offers, and enrolled). At the same time, selectivity and recruiting goals must be set and progress should be tracked and reported annually against these goals. Higher powered analytic techniques can also support these initiatives. For instance, predictive models can be used to identify quality prospects that are likely to accept offers of admission.

This is just one example of how business intelligence and data are used to support strategic decisions. Businesses have been leveraging these tools for some time and now colleges are relying on them to compete in this increasingly competitive market.