View from the Board Chair: Putting Student Success First amidst Fiscal Challenges

By Marvin E. "Bunky" Wright    //    Volume 22,  Number 3   //    May/June 2014

Entering the 2010–11 academic year, Missouri’s public universities faced what some educators called “a perfect storm” for higher education. While the state of Missouri was considering 15- to 20-percent cuts in funding for institutions of higher learning, the number of high-school students entering college was declining, and the state was in the midst of one of the worst economic downslides since the Great Depression. Additionally, the governor called on public education to meet a goal of 60 percent of all Missourians earning a college degree by 2025. That placed the University of Central Missouri (UCM) in a situation of truly doing more with less, and doing it better. It also was increasingly clear that, absent significant changes in our current business model, a greater number of Missouri families would not be able to afford a college education.

My colleagues and I on the UCM board of governors realized our traditional business model—addressing funding shortfalls through measures such as across-the-board budget cuts and tuition increases—was no longer sustainable. We were committed to finding a business approach to effectively deal with declining state support while making student success and college affordability UCM’s top priorities. Taking full advantage of AGB expertise and resources, as well as the tremendous vision and energy of then-new university President Charles M. Ambrose, we developed the Strategic Governance for Student Success Model.

Future-focused and closely aligned with the university’s mission, Strategic Governance is designed to help address fiscal challenges while improving the student experience and the value of a UCM degree. As we continue to navigate through a tough economy and adapt to new state initiatives, such as performance-based funding for higher education institutions, the model has given us an efficient and effective tool for making cost reductions and decisions about the availability and delivery of instructional programs. It also has served as a foundation for developing a performance portfolio to gauge how we are doing in areas such as access, affordability, college completion, and engagement.

Tested in 2010–11, Strategic Governance allowed us to develop an institution-wide strategy for linking resources to objectives. We built in strategic resource components such as a focus on: new sources of revenue, including an aggressive strategy for increasing student enrollment; academic program vitality and productivity; and strong attention to fiscal management. We have since witnessed a significant transformation, with UCM now better poised to weather financial challenges in an ever-changing economy. This is partly due to a successful academic review, which included intentional and aggressive steps like moving from five colleges to four, reducing academic departments from 33 to 25, and implementing a comprehensive administrative review in only 90 days. Without hurting the quality of our education, we generated nearly $7.8 million in savings from fiscal years 2011–13, and in fall 2013, UCM celebrated its third consecutive record-setting enrollment, with the highest number of students in our 143-year history.

An important internal tool that has emerged through Strategic Governance is Learning to a Greater Degree, a powerful strategic positioning platform that helps us communicate the key elements of UCM—engaged learning, future-focused academics, worldly perspective, and culture of service—that make us distinctive within a highly competitive regional higher education environment. Our goal is to graduate students within four years, which not only helps meet state college graduation goals, but reduces the overall cost of a student’s education. Today, while operating at the 2000 level of state support (in real dollars), we are educating and graduating the most students, while also keeping tuition increases at the lowest in the nation—below the CPI at 1.6 percent annually for the past five years.

Through their oversight, boards should help public colleges and universities explore new ways to meet challenges posed by dwindling state appropriations. Development of new business models and strategies in higher education are not only essential to the bottom line, but necessary tools for ensuring student success and college affordability.

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