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Fiscal resiliency in higher education: strategic integrations to achieve institutional sustainability and student success

This blog summarizes the key takeaways from our fiscal resiliency podcast, episode six.

As college and university leaders navigate strategies to support student success while achieving their mission and goals, the idea of completing an institution- or system-wide integration can seem overwhelming. Planning and implementing a transformative combination or integration of any size, with any organization, is a large undertaking. With that in mind, it is important to learn from industry peers that have previously gone down this path to enhancing student outcomes and supporting fiscal resiliency.

Our recent Higher Ed Advisor fiscal resiliency podcast features Shelley Nickel, who served as the interim president of Georgia Southern University as they executed a major consolidation with Armstrong State University, in a discussion with Baker Tilly higher education specialists. They are currently consulting on other institutional integrations and in the podcast, Gaining fiscal resiliency through strategic integrations and creative combinations, they share insights on how to effectively implement a strategic combination across multiple universities.

Strategic integrations: Start with data and a diverse team

When making a decision to combine institutions (or even departments or programs), support the decisions with data. Executives and board members who seek this kind of large transformation will be asked why – from every direction. Stakeholders asking “why” likely have not seen data that demonstrates the need for change, like drops in enrollment or rising costs, and how such factors are impacting the institution. Integration champions must be prepared to share relevant data (and to communicate what it means). Through analysis and a clear case for change with supporting data, those reluctant to support the combination will better understand the expected student and institution benefits of integration.

Include key stakeholders in integration planning to collaborate on desired outcomes and further develop the strategic vision behind the combination. Be sure to involve the “big thinkers” who are deeply invested in the success of students, faculty and staff. These key leaders need to be receptive to unique ideas, think outside-the-box and be open to doing whatever it takes to achieve the best outcomes.

After the data is analyzed and shared, the team is assembled and more stakeholders buy into the opportunity to enhance resiliency and sustainability with a creative combination, consider these key questions:

  • What does the institution’s future state look like?
  • What really needs to change across each entity to be successful?
  • What outcomes is each institution (or campus, department or program) hoping to impact?

Keeping these answers at the heart of the combination or integration mindset will help university leaders and the core team to stay on track.

Honesty and communication is the foundation for success

Truth and transparency are crucial to this entire process. Be truthful with college and university constituents, which includes being comfortable saying, “We don’t know yet.” Any secrecy or half-truths could set a poor foundation for the entire process.

This, of course, falls under the umbrella of communication. It is critical to align the entire leadership team around the same vision and goals. People want to engage as a valuable part of the process and understand their clearly communicated roles. Once roles and responsibilities are communicated effectively and everyone understands how they fit into the big picture, that’s when the excitement and fun – and the hard work – can take over.

Keep in mind that a strategic integration cannot take place in a silo. It needs to occur comprehensively across an institution (or multiple institutions). Everything is going to change, so the needs and best interests of every part of the institution need to be considered. Forming a diverse team helps ensure that ideas and decisions are being explored from every angle.

Baker Tilly can help

Ultimately, student success is the best barometer to determine the success of an integration. Does it improve the student experience? Does the combination create more student interest in the institution? Does it allow colleges and universities to attract the best students to the newly formed institution?

These key questions are part of the larger picture painted by each institution’s culture. This culture impacts students more than anyone, but it begins with the leadership team.

Connect with us to discuss ways we can help colleges and universities evaluate strategic integration opportunities to support fiscal resiliency and achieve student and institutional success.

Christine M. Smith
Managing Director

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