Event Recap: Thoughts from the 2015 NACUBO Annual Meeting

In the days since the NACUBO Annual Meeting in Nashville, we’ve had time to reflect and deliberate on the speakers we heard and the conversations we had with industry colleagues. As higher education providers barrel ahead in an industry landscape characterized by ever-diminishing funding and expanding innovation, this year’s theme, The Tempo of Change, spoke to the realities of today’s higher education environment. We returned home with a trove of insights that has spurred a number of connections to our client work and the business and operational issues that we tackle on a daily basis. Several sessions in particular stand out in our minds as we reflect on the week’s events:

University Mergers and Consolidations

We heard two fascinating yet differing perspectives – from an academic officer and a credit research analyst – on the strategic and business implications of mergers and consolidations in the field. The speakers emphasized that while merger and consolidation activity among colleges and universities has historically been fairly limited, they expect the pace to pick up significantly in coming years, perhaps reaching double-digit percentage increases.

The session focused on the impact of mergers and consolidations on an institution’s financial strength, which made for a unique interaction between two speakers with differentiating vantage points. Interestingly, they agreed on the importance of proper communication, a dedicated project team and a clearly defined timeline to circumvent the anxieties that can plague organizations throughout the merger process. From our own experience, we know that institutions cannot ignore their unique cultures as they explore merger options.

Maximizing Resources for Student Success

Today, organizations must be more nimble than ever before, making real-time changes to ensure that resources are allocated effectively. Sometimes, our old financial models don’t yield the right results amid the industry’s rapid transformation. We heard from a panel of professionals on the need for a deep understanding to assess how an organization goes about allocating resources to student services and, more broadly, education services.

Particularly energizing was one panelist’s discussion around shifting focus away from the traditional “one size fits all” approach in order to deliver services based on the needs of each student segment and to maximize each student’s potential for success. This allows for student segments requiring more intensive support to receive the right resources, which can increase retention and academic performance while reducing costs associated with those students already on track for completion.

Accreditation for Minority-Serving Institutions

Preparing for and navigating the accreditation application process can present many unforeseen challenges for minority-serving institutions, many of which can be pre-empted with proper planning and assessment ahead of time. We attended a lively forum on the subject, where presenters emphasized the application process as an opportunity to focus on the institution’s story and its strengths, using the strongest available data to support conclusions. In an increasingly competitive and often underfunded landscape, it is the institution’s responsibility to demonstrate that it meets mandatory criteria, not the reviewer’s responsibility to interpret that the criteria are met.

Many of the forum’s higher education attendees reported trouble completing financial audits in a timely manner; making it difficult to ensure that their financials were valid when submitting applications for accreditation. As such, we’ve given ample thought to the importance of establishing processes to monitor financial stability and keep institutions on track before, during and after the accreditation process.

Looking Ahead: Conclusions from Speaker Wes Moore

In a thought-provoking conclusion to the week’s events, Mr. Moore, a former U.S. Army officer turned author, spoke about decision-making processes and reflected on powerful lessons he has learned. He recalled a mentor who helped him elevate his expectations of himself, emphasizing that we are not a product of our environment, but rather a product of our expectations. The discussion fostered a parallel between Mr. Moore’s experience with a mentor guiding him toward a productive change and the work that we as advisors do for clients helping them achieve success in an evolving business landscape.