Last March, I attended an event for new university presidents, at which two seasoned leaders gave advice. President No. 1 shared suggestions for success. President No. 2 asserted that university presidents live in denial about higher-education challenges.
Soon thereafter, I read Jon McGee’s Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). He melds this contradictory advice into a cogent message: Demographic, economic, and cultural trends have ended the "golden age" of late-20th-century university admissions and expansion. These trends lie beyond our control, yet they shape our choices. We must discern how unsettling these forces will be and what opportunities they will create.
Mr. McGee sounds an alarm like President No. 2, yet he makes practical proposals like President No. 1. With campus conversations about institutional identity, prospective students, pricing, and spending, we can and should plan for the future.
Two points are fundamental. First, no solution fits everyone. Each college must turn inward with brutal honesty and tailor its strategy. Second, the most powerful strategy is "differentiation": We must know our unique strengths, ensure that they are valued in the market, and promote them persuasively. Either dwell in a leadership prison of "me-too marketing" or accept the differentiation challenge as a leadership imperative.