Why Academic Administrators Should Learn Business Speak

Why Academic Administrators Should Learn Business Speak

Which college majors are, on average, the smartest?
Philosophy majors, followed by physics and astronomy, economics, and math majors, score the most standard deviations above the mean on the GRE.

Which college majors make the most money mid-career (who have not earned a graduate or professional degree)?
Economics, engineering, and math majors rank highest, followed, yes, by philosophy majors.

Which college majors experience the fastest salary growth?
Philosophy majors, naturally, trailed by math, econ, poli sci, and, believe it or not, art history majors.

As Matthew Yglesias, the widely read economics and policy blogger and journalist with a Harvard B.A. in philosophy, has observed, a philosophy degree signals intelligence, which is why leading tech firms like Google often hire philosophy majors to manage algorithm developers, computer graphics and visualization specialists, coders, and others with technological skills.

Studying epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics, it turns out, isn’t just valuable in itself, but as a proxy for other attributes, above all, logic and rules-based thinking.

Gut instinct, hunches, and intuition are generally poor guides to decision making. In today’s challenging economic environment, it’s essential for academic administrators at all levels to acquire a firm grasp of data-informed decision making and academic program evaluation and management.

A good place to start is Robert Gray Atkins’s Start, Stop, or Grow , an eminently digestible guide to understanding academic programs’ financials, course and department economics, shifting patterns of market demand, and strategies for deciding which programs to launch, sustain, sunset, or grow.

This book also describes the process that campus leaders should follow if they hope to strengthen their relationship with the faculty and enhance their institution’s financial health by optimizing costs, increasing retention, and pursuing growth strategies by initiating new majors and entering into new markets.

Let me note, at the outside, that the Atkins book is in part a sales pitch for Gray Associates, a higher education data analytics, software, and strategy consulting firm. In general, I am reluctant to refer to literature that can be dismissed as self-interested or self-serving, but in this case, let me make an exception. The information this book provides is far too valuable to be dismissed as puffery, sales patter, or mere marketing pablum.

Atkins begins by discussing a concept that deserves far more attention than it typically receives: trade-offs, the inevitable compromises, concessions, sacrifices, and opportunity costs that academic decision making entails.

Economics is, after all, all about trade-offs, since every choice involves a cost, whether in terms of options forgone or alienated stakeholders, and the economics of higher education are no exception.

The book reminds us that the path to an institution’s financial health or sustainability is littered with trade-offs. Between emphasizing career-focused training or a more traditional liberal arts and sciences education.

Between investing in existing programs or in new program launches.

Between directing resources toward academic programs, faculty research, or support services and scholarships.

Precisely because trade-offs are painful, ethically and politically, administrators must manage decisions skillfully, fairly, diplomatically, and respectfully.

Alongside the concept of trade-offs, Atkins emphasizes the notion of margin, the difference between the revenue a program or course generates and the staffing, laboratory, and support costs that it incurs. Non-profit colleges and universities do not, of course, generate profits. But these institutions must, nonetheless, produce sufficient revenue – margin — to pay for the cross-subsidies and overhead that allows the institution to function.

Calculating each program’s margin is no easy task and much of the Atkins book discusses, in readily accessible language, how to do this. As Atkins explains, margins generally need to be at least three times instructional costs.
Contrary to what you might think, some programs with lower cost faculty and large enrollment gen ed classes, like English and History, tend to have below-average margins, while some higher cost programs, like computer science and nursing, produce above-average margins. In fact, Nursing has margins 40 percent above average, despite high costs and enrollment limits imposed by accreditors and clinical providers.So what, then, should administrators do? The president or chancellor, provost, deans, department chairs, and program directors must: ▪ Cultivate a common framework of understanding. Without a common set of accepted facts and a shared framework and language for interpreting data, consensus building is likely impossible. Even then, however, achieving agreement will be difficult as priorities clash and interests collide. ▪ Evaluate each program, whether it currently exists or is proposed, rigorously and systematically. Such an evaluation involves: Assessing student demand Measuring enrollment and student success, disaggregated by gender, race, ethnicity, and Pell Grant status Calculating […]

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