May 13, 2021 | 4 minute read

Tags: administration, college closures, college enrollment, coronavirus, enrollment decline, ethics, ethics in education, ethics in enrollment

A Report from the Frontlines

By John MacIntosh

It has been six weeks since the launch of the Transformational Partnerships Fund, a philanthropic initiative providing a safe, confidential space for institutions of higher education to discuss and explore student-centric partnerships and grants to help defray the associated out-of-pocket costs. A number of people have asked us how it’s going so far.

Here are offer five initial observations from the frontlines:

1. There is a lot going on. We’ve already received more than 40 grant inquiries with more coming in daily. These inquiries run the gamut from mergers and acquisitions (both nonprofit-nonprofit and public system-nonprofit) to affiliations, and from shared academic and/or administrative services to the deepening of articulation agreements. While each case is unique, some consistent themes connect them. These include interest in delivering complete and relevant academic offerings, a desire for cost reductions, avenues for better addressing the needs of nontraditional students (adults, near-completers), and improving the connections between community-college and four-year institutions.

2. It’s not all about “do-or-die” transactions. Many institutions are wisely – and quietly – looking for incremental improvements which, while neither “absolutely necessary” nor “necessarily enough,” are the right student-centric options to explore right now. In most cases these initial discussions are worthwhile on their own while also providing a foundation from which further joint action could be taken in the future.

 3. There is a temptation to try and muddle through the current challenges. Even institutions that are convinced they will be in dire financial straits in three- to four-years’ time report challenges in convincing trustees and other stakeholders of the need for timely action. “Too late” starts earlier than many people think given the time required for thoughtful exploration. In higher education, a surprising number of discussions falter in the 11th hour, leaving institutions with limited time to develop a Plan B. The ability for others to learn from these break-ups is limited by the ironclad nondisclosure agreements and threats of litigation. Many of our conversations to date have focused on what type of exploratory process (including outside help) will help the institutions to reach the right decision on a timely basis.

4. Successful transformation is a team sport at each stage. Exploring transactions like these requires strong and unified leadership from the President, CFO, Provost and General Counsel. It also needs at least a few trustees who remember that their core function is, in the words of Princeton’s late president Bill Bowen, “to raise the most challenging questions – the ones no one may want to hear – and then pursue them relentlessly until satisfactory answers are forthcoming.” Following through on transactions means standing firm as a team in the face of the inevitable opposition and blow-back—negative publicity, alumni anger, and more. While trustees must shoulder much of this load, accreditors and the state attorneys general can be allies in the work. Implementing partnerships takes real money which can be a powerful barrier without outside support from public or private sources.

5. The ethical issues are real. Education is not toothpaste. Students and their families are not just customers. Faculty are not merely staff. Institutions face real ethical issues as they navigate a challenging environment. Is it responsible to admit new students without high confidence that they can graduate on time and with adequate resources? Is it ethical to withhold information from prospective students which, if disclosed, might deter them from enrolling? What obligations does an institution have to other institutions and their students?

Most American colleges were established between 1825-1900. The fact that so many have done so much good for so long is remarkable and should be a source of pride to the institutions themselves, and to all those involved in higher education.

That said, we need to acknowledge just how difficult it can be to transform such long-standing enterprises. The narrative must change from one of “failure/distress, winners/losers, doom/gloom” to one of natural, student-centric evolution that builds on institution strength.

Very few of us have been a leader, trustee, faculty, staff, or student of an institution grappling with transformation. Unless we’ve been there and done that, let’s withhold judgment and bring compassion – or better yet, resources – while keeping students front and center as we support institutions in doing what needs to be done.

John MacIntosh is the Managing Partner of SeaChange Capital Partners. SeaChange manages the Transformational Partnerships Fund which was established by ECMC Foundation, Ascendium Education Group and The Kresge Foundation to support colleges and universities interested in exploring partnerships that could fundamentally improve how they operate and serve students.

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