by Robert Kelchen
Because I am a higher education nerd and regularly teach a class on the organization and governance of higher education, I brought several new books on higher education topics to read this summer on a trip to the Jersey Shore. (Fun aside: the television show by the same name resulted in a New Jersey state law limiting taxpayer compensation for speakers at public colleges.)
One of the beach reads was How to Run a College (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), which is marketed as “a practical guide for trustees, faculty, administrators, and policymakers.”
Written by one former private college president (Brian Mitchell of Bucknell University) and one current private college president (W. Joseph King of Lyon College), How to Run a College focuses on the types of institutions these two leaders know best. Private colleges only serve about 15% of all college students, but many of the topics in this book are certainly relevant to other sectors of higher education. And with the main text of the book checking in at just 149 pages, this is written as a quick introduction on some key aspects of running a college.
Finances and Budgeting
The authors place a heavy emphasis on the finances of running a college throughout the book, and this is reasonable to expect given conversations about college closures and mergers over the last several years. The book’s introduction mentions that concerns about financial viability and the relevance of the curriculum have been around throughout the history of American higher education.
The goal of the book is to get stakeholders in colleges to think through their viability, and be willing to innovate before they run out of money or students.
Chapter 2 provides a brief summary of the typical budget model for a college. The authors give a helpful description of how endowments operate. The typical perception is that endowments are giant pots of money that can be used for any purpose, but most colleges have relatively modest endowments that are highly restricted in their usage. Fundraising operations are generally small at most colleges and unrestricted gifts are extremely difficult to get, yet the chapter on advancement (chapter 4) does not mention this important information.
Since most private colleges are heavily reliant on tuition dollars to balance their budget, the authors begin chapter 3 by noting that enrollment means revenue. Colleges have to strike a delicate balance between bringing in enough students who can pay close to the full sticker price (often, legacy students and athletes), and trying to enhance racial and socioeconomic diversity. This is even tougher for colleges that have little flexibility in who they admit due to fiscal realities.
A theme throughout chapters 3 and 4 is the importance of carefully-crafted marketing plans for recruiting both potential students and potential donors. Chapter 4 includes a discussion of the importance of social media, the mention of which makes more than a few trustees, administrators, and faculty members shudder. However, as social media platforms continue to grow in importance, it is more imperative than ever for individual stakeholders to have their own accounts and be aware of the college’s overall brand strategy. Marketing to prospective students will become even more important over the coming years, thanks to changes to college admissions officers’ recruitment practices following a Department of Justice investigation, that will allow colleges to poach students from each other beyond the traditional May 1 deadline. The next version of this book could include an entire chapter on marketing, as this is a blind spot for many readers.
Another focal point of the book regards the implications of higher education’s traditional shared governance structure, in which faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees all have a voice in how colleges are run. Chapter 1 serves as a useful primer regarding shared governance, especially as many trustees are used to a more corporate model and many faculty members do not fully understand the role of trustees. A special challenge of shared governance, as detailed in chapter 5, is getting faculty members to fully participate. The authors note that 9-month or 10-month faculty contracts slow down governance, but they are silent regarding how to solve this issue. Another issue that is not mentioned in the book—but is salient to faculty—is whether time spent on service is rewarded in the tenure and promotion processes.
Student Success & Satisfaction
Chapters 6 and 7 focus on different aspects of the student experience in higher education. Chapter 6 examines student life (as the authors note, this means retention). There is a strong focus on the financials, as student services, facilities, and residence halls can be expensive and are blamed by some for so-called “administrative bloat.” They recommend tying student life directly to the college’s mission and assessing regularly, as well as having a clear value proposition for anything that they offer. Chapter 7, on athletics, is similar in tone. The challenge with both of these aspects is how colleges can push back against requests for more services or teams and step away from the arms races. The authors provide no clear answers on that point, apparently hoping that data- and mission-driven decisions satisfy angry students and alumni.
The final two chapters of the book focus on ways to make private colleges financially sustainable in the long term. Chapter 8 tackles collaborations in higher education, and the authors provide multiple examples of back-office partnerships as well as efforts to share courses across campuses. While both of these ideas are crucial to helping bend the cost curve, they are fraught with political pitfalls from students, faculty, and alumni. Again, the question of how to get consistent buy-in from the campus community is left unanswered.
Chapter 9 concludes by calling on colleges to adopt a new revenue model. The authors say that trustees are far less prepared than faculty or administrators to govern due to a lack of training and infrequent board meetings, and I would also add that colleges with a large proportion of trustees who are alumni run the risk of seeing their alma mater through rose-colored glasses. The authors call for a comprehensive rethinking of enrollment size and programs offered, but this is a slow turn to make due to long-term costs of existing facilities and tenured faculty. They also call for faculty to move more quickly in the shared governance process, without detailing the changes needed for this to happen.
While this book was a nice and breezy beach read for someone who studies higher education for a living, I decided not to use this book in my class this year. (In a semester-long graduate course, I have time to go into more detail on these topics than the book offers.) But I do recommend this book as a quick primer for people who are looking to learn a little bit about how colleges work in an accessible format.
About the author
Robert Kelchen is an assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University. He has written for Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, The Journal of Higher Education, and Educational Researcher; and is the author of Higher Education Accountability. He is frequently quoted in the media, including The Washington Post, National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Politico, and has been recognized as one of the most influential faculty members on social media by Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Professor Kelchen holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and finance from Truman State University, a master’s degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and a PhD in educational policy studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.