Paths forward in higher ed’s uncertain future

Scott Galloway’s predictions are compelling. Here’s what many universities can do next.

If you work in higher education, no doubt you’ve seen Scott Galloway’s evaluation of universities’ ability to Thrive, Survive, Struggle or Perish as a result of their strength as an institution in the face of a pandemic. If you’re morbidly curious, you might also have read the comments to his blog post, many of which are focused on questioning the data.

But more interesting questions to focus on for university leadership is not whether Galloway’s data is factually accurate, but instead, “Where are we as an institution, really? Is there a way to seize opportunity in the face of adversity?”

When you are thriving, go further

When I look at the universities who are in Galloway’s Thrive bucket, I am struck by the fact that many aren’t top 10-ranked. Everyone understands that Harvard has the luxury of a large endowment, more applications than it knows what to do with, and a strong, differentiated brand. These qualities will fare them well through the pandemic. But Boston College, Clemson University, and Middlebury also make the list. Through many different measures, including endowment per student, interest in the school, student experience, and tuition, they are identified as strong enough to weather the storm.

The understandable knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic for many colleges will be to batten down the hatches and focus on operations and crisis communications. But for some of the “sneaky strongest,” it may be an opportunity to invest confidently in bolstering brand and external communications to pull further away from the pack. Because many institutions will be turning inward, it will be easier to gain share of voice with prospective students and guidance counselors—who will be craving the information they need to feel good about their decisions and recommendations now more than ever. As Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, said, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” There’s no reason that universities can’t follow suit.

When you’re in survival mode, turn to your fans for support

When I look at the universities in Galloway’s Survive bucket, two thoughts come to mind:
1) there are many top-tier institutions on the list and 2) it seems directionally that a low endowment per student drives the difference between the surviving and thriving categories. I know what you’ll say: economic downturns make it hard to raise money. But there are a couple of fundraising opportunities even in a down market:

  • Create your own team of Avengers. Not everyone is doing poorly. Different from typical annual fund outreach to all of your alumni or a big, bold comprehensive campaign, there may be an opportunity to thoughtfully identify those donors who can still contribute significantly, and invite them to be a part of the team to buffer the university’s needs through a hard time. And then craft a thoughtful engagement strategy that invites them, informs them, and thanks them in a way that treats them like the heroes they are.
  • Focus on building a culture of philanthropy. Few schools focus on building the pipeline early enough to reap the rewards at points when they need their donors most. Downturns are a reminder that it helps to have superfans who understand the value of philanthropy to a university. But that understanding doesn’t happen naturally. The best time to start the education is while students are enrolled by
    • Raising awareness of how their student experience is shaped by philanthropy while they are experiencing the benefits
    • Engaging students in thanking donors
    • Keeping young alumni engaged in ways beyond donating to keep the ties strong

With thoughtful messaging and precise communications strategies, universities can, as Ryan Holiday says in his book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, “steal good fortune from misfortune. Not ‘be positive,’ but learn to be ceaselessly creative and opportunistic. Not: This is not so bad. But: I can make this good.”