The Traditional Higher-Ed Business Model – An Unsustainable Tradition

I have touched on some of the major challenges to traditional higher education in prior blog posts. Now lets look at the traditional business model. As a professional services business, the higher ed design is inverted compared with the commercial model. There are far too many owners (tenured faculty – the rainmakers) compared with workers (support faculty – the troops). It is an inherently “low leverage” model – about 2-3 support faculty for every tenured faculty member. A commercial professional services business would be closer to 10 troops for every rainmaker. Consequently, the model has little ability to achieve productivity gains causing inflation to be transferred to customers. Commercial businesses would adjust the number and experience level of support professionals to balance career aspirations with cost control. The inability to adjust employment mix, and related cost, is the main reason for stress in the model when pricing becomes inelastic – as it has been since at least 2008. 

There are two main levers of productivity in the traditional higher ed model – student/faculty ratio and the level of funded research. Being low on both measures is a recipe for distress. Being high on both measures creates financial flexibility and options for the institution. There is also the cost of administration, which must always be driven to a lower percentage of revenue.

Lets start with student/faculty ratio. For the most part, this metric defines an institution. Is it high-touch (single digits to 1) or high-volume (high teens/low twenties to 1)? At high-volume, the cost structure per student is generally low and the leverage factor is generally high – creating flexibility when needing to address financial challenges. It is just the opposite for high-touch institutions.  The lower the student/faculty ratio, the harder it is to cover cost inflation with productivity gains. Consequently, cost increases must be passed on to students – straining the value proposition. At some point – many would say it is now – higher prices for the same outcomes cannot be justified, causing lower demand. The lower demand starts a bottom line crisis that can only be addressed with cost cutting – an always-difficult situation for a traditional institution.

Is research the silver bullet? It could be! The profit from funded research activity can cover a lot of imbedded cost.  This is another form of leverage – where the fixed costs of buildings and faculty are used to produce more dollars. A high-touch institution with a high research mandate can, in many cases, blend the best of both to offset higher costs from inflation. This allows for increased competiveness on the value proposition.

Although administrative functions are not leverageable per se, the cost to deliver high quality services can be minimized by deploying techniques long-used by commercial businesses. Techniques such as standardization, automation, consolidation and integration (“shared services”) are ways to save money and improve effectiveness. No institution can justify high admin costs as part of the value proposition.

The market place will ultimately insist on a sensible balance of cost and value. It will take a partnership with faculty to push productivity toward research and/or larger classes, and accept a more efficient admin model. Those partnerships are often difficult to forge – but not doing so could mean unsatisfied careers and customers. The institutions that can offset inflation with productivity gains will be sustainable. The ones that cannot – will not.

Robert M. Tarola, CPA, CGMA
Right Advisory LLC
Twitter: @rtarola



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s