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Assuring Effectiveness and Productivity in Higher Education

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Interestingly, it wasn\'t so long ago that some colleges adopted what they called the Chivas Regal pricing model, on the assumption that families would equate high tuition with high quality and high prestige. Somewhere along the way, that philosophy seems to have been sidelined and people, including policymakers, are demanding value 



The posting below looks at 10 critical considerations for improving productivity in undergraduate higher education.  It is Robert A. Scott, president Adelphi University ( and it first appeared in OnCourse: Business insights and trends for trustees and higher education administrators, October 2011. © 2010 Grant Thornton LLP. All rights reserved U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academia

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Assuring Effectiveness and productivity in Higher Education


It seems that at least once a week, sometimes more, there is an article, a book, or a report critical of colleges and universities. The consistent themes are that tuition is too high, student debt is growing so fast it is exceeding consumer debt, colleges have an insatiable appetite for money and an agenda to spend all they can raise, the cost structure of higher education is out of control like that of the health care system, universities fail to educate, and the economic benefits of a college education no longer exist.

What is a campus officer or trustee to think? To do? As a campus president and trustee for 26 years, during economic booms and busts, I have developed a set of philosophies, policies and practices that form the foundation for assessing institutional effectiveness and efficiencies and assist in assuring campus productivity in the use of human and capital resources.

Interestingly, it wasn't so long ago that some colleges adopted what they called the Chivas Regal pricing model, on the assumption that families would equate high tuition with high quality and high prestige. Somewhere along the way, that philosophy seems to have been sidelined and people, including policymakers, are demanding value.

While I think the articles about excesses in higher education are themselves excessive, I have to admit there are examples of faculty who don't teach, facilities that are too much like those at theme parks, and colleges that are focused more on income than on purpose.

Many of those critical of higher education offer what they consider to be solutions - in particular, greater use of technology to increase productivity. It seems that a favorite solution is to substitute an Internet dialogue hosting one faculty member and large numbers of students for the classroom experience. This may be fine as a substitute for a large lecture class of several thousand students, perhaps even five hundred students, but it does little to address the purpose of higher education.

Indeed, in order to assess the issues of effectiveness and productivity in a meaningful way, one must look first at mission and purpose; that is, the ends of education must be understood clearly if the means to achieve it are to be evaluated sensibly. In doing this, we can distinguish between college, higher education and postsecondary education. In many cases, it seems as if critics want the categories to be interchangeable when they are not. In this issue of OnCourse, we discuss college and its purpose, which embodies different values than the wide variety of purposes attached to postsecondary schooling.

The purpose of undergraduate higher education generally is to nurture talents; enhance students' capabilities for critical thinking; foster a global perspective; enhance skills in writing, speaking, and listening; gain general and expert knowledge; advance skills in quantitative and qualitative reasoning and abilities in analysis, languages, and imagination; develop values such as teamwork, respect for others, and citizenship; and prepare for careers and commerce. This kind of education requires, as it always has, inspired teachers and eager learners.

In providing the opportunity for this education, the college fulfills three roles: as creator of the new, including new knowledge, new approaches, and new graduates prepared for the challenges of citizenship and careers; as curator of the past, whether documented in books or databases; and as critic of the status quo, prompting questions such as \"What if?\" and \"Why not?\"

With this understanding, a board and its executive team can then examine ways for improving productivity in undergraduate higher education, by which we mean using human and capital assets to their best advantage and in the most efficient and effective ways. To do so requires using valid data to set measurable goals, assess progress, and refine goals; monitor progress over time; and compare results with benchmarks, keeping in mind Einstein's maxim that \"everything that can be counted does not necessarily count, and everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.\"1 To this end, I have outlined 10 critical considerations:

1. Students are priority one.

Institutions should make sure that there are strong connections between admission standards; academic expectations and student support services; and student learning, satisfaction, success, retention, and graduation. If there are weak links, they should be examined and fixed.

2. Students need to complete.

Retention and completion rates must receive greater priority. With fewer than 50 percent of those who enter college graduating in six years, there is an enormous expenditure of federal, state and private funds whose purpose is to support baccalaureate education but that are not helping achieve the goal of degree attainment. The problem may be a lack of tested alternatives to postsecondary education, as well as a lack of appropriate attention by institutional leaders.

3. Go beyond fall and spring.

Colleges should be using their capital assets 11 months of the year, allowing at least a month for repairs and rehabilitation from frequent use. Colleges and schools are the only organizations that generally \"give up\" one-quarter of the year without maximizing efficient and effective use of human and physical assets. Optimal use of assets can be accomplished even with a semester system. Summer sessions with camps and high school programs offered as a service to the broader community are a logical choice. Some institutions may find the trimester system a better alternative.

4. Don't forget the \"orphans.\"

Class schedules should be spaced over at least six days of the week, making optimal use of classrooms and laboratories throughout the day and evening while recognizing the needs of the students who attend those classes. Inefficient use of classrooms and laboratories, such as heavy reliance on Monday-Wednesday- Friday at 10 a.m. or Tuesday-Thursday mornings, results in orphaned rooms

and the demand for more space, when maximum utilization could reduce the demand and the subsequent debt and gifts needed to increase the supply of classrooms and offices.

5. Size matters.

Class size is another variable that can be used to increase productivity. There are good reasons to have small classes and equally good reasons to have some large lectures and online courses. Each institution should have a strategy for achieving the optimal distribution of classes (by size, format and time of day) that allows it to reach its pedagogical goals. Philosophy and furniture must be in sync.

6. Relevant research inspires.

It is essential to ensure that internally funded research is connected to professional development for teaching and student success, including student involvement in faculty research. If there is a weak link, the funding should be questioned. In too many cases, a focus on research to enhance institutional prestige is contrary to an emphasis on improvements in undergraduate education.

7. The right \"app\" matters.

Technology is an important enhancement for teaching, advising and learning, and investments in it should be designed for those goals to be attained. Often, colleges invest for the \"bleeding edge\" instead of the \"leading edge\" and therefore spend money on tools that are of little relevance. With the right approach, teachers and learners can connect anywhere at any time, challenging conventional notions of space, time and responsibilities, with fast feedback.

8. And the proof is in the...

Just as a checkbook can reveal the priorities of the holder, so can campus rewards reveal what is valued. In what ways are the rewards of appointment, tenure, promotion release time, and sabbaticals - board decisions all - related to the goals of student learning?

9. Get a second opinion.

Institutions should rigorously review academic programs and administrative services and functions every five to seven years, with a one-year post-review assessment. The use of outside reviewers with a clear mandate is a critical means for ensuring that programs are up to date; fulfilling strategy, alignment, and execution goals; making the best use of resources; relevant to institutional mission; and prepared to improve. The same can be said for administrative functions and services, especially when one compares organizational makeup and expenses in order to benchmark institutions.

The result is a game plan for adding, reducing, or eliminating programs and services and for comparing expense ratios over time and against other campuses. This information, together with that gained from professional journals and conferences, will often clarify priorities for new investment. Routine reports to board committees are an effective method for monitoring progress.

10. Look at yourself.

An interesting and productive exercise for the board and management is to take a step back, look at your institution as a \"visitor\" might, and review the entire campus with a theater professor to assess the facilities and landscape as a stage set. Consider how open spaces, energy flows and signage can be improved to advance the campus \"story\" as expressed in the mission statement.

Another activity is to convene the senior staff each week to review requests for salary increases and to fill open positions, in order to determine whether the requests are justified and where the positions are most needed.

Still another discipline is to have division heads review, by use of wall- sized paper displays, the organization and staffing charts, comparing resource commitments by departments and larger units in terms of organizational design and against other institutions; critiquing the curriculum and course requirements by assessing the deployment of faculty by level and type in relation to student requirements and achievement; assuring that courses necessary for student attainment and progress are not pre- empted by courses based on more narrow interests; and examining the use of space by day and time for classrooms, offices, extracurricular activities, and other purposes. Significant improvements in the use of these assets can be found by having different perspectives cross-check each other in these ways.

Through these means, we can assist in establishing and assessing our priorities for effectiveness and efficiency. As a result of these exercises and routine reviews, we at Adelphi have fewer senior administrators and higher graduation rates - and charge 25 percent less in tuition than nearby competitors. And we have completed almost $200 million in new construction and major renovations, with very little debt and a strong bond rating. For these and other reasons, Adelphi was named a Fiske Guide \"Best Buy\" for the sixth straight year.


Productivity can be enhanced, costs and prices can be controlled, and learning can be advanced in numerous ways - all to meet and exceed board and campus goals for student satisfaction, success, retention and graduation - by following a few simple guidelines. As with all goals, it takes the setting of priorities, discipline in execution and an attuned board to monitor progress.

    1 Berrett, Dan. \"Humanities for the Sake of Humanity,\" Inside Higher Education, March 30, 2011.

    About the Author

    Robert A. Scott is president of Adelphi University, a position he has held since 2000. He was president emeritus of Ramapo College of New Jersey, where he served from 1985-2000, and was founding executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education (1994). Dr. Scott is the only person to hold the top three posts in American higher education. Adelphi University is a client of Grant Thornton LLP.

    About the newsletter

    OnCourse is published by Grant Thornton's National Higher Education practice. The people in the independent firms of Grant Thornton International Ltd provide personalized attention and the highest quality service to public and private clients in more than 100 countries. Grant Thornton LLP is the U.S. member firm of Grant Thornton International Ltd, one of the six global

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