In recent times, the higher education world has been inundated with discussion and publications about the need for change. A quick look at the Chronicle of Higher Education or most any recent higher-ed publication list provides numerous examples of this trend. Issues of financial struggle and academic quality have been raised that call into question the future feasibility of the traditional higher education operating model. Innovative approaches and, yes, even outright entrepreneurship, are routinely touted as the solutions to college and university financial viability and institutional sustainability in the decades ahead (Christiansen and Eyring, 2011).
The funding model for higher learning is certainly shifting, but sound business approaches to achieving organizational goals are nothing new. Academic leaders are openly addressing and pushing innovation in the development of academic programs and operating methods. This is seemingly a new line of thought for higher education administrators. Societal and institutional changes are not new concepts or realities. Routinely recognizing and understanding consumer and student trends and establishing new business opportunities have long been practiced by campus service units.
Change: a Challenge and an Opportunity
While change is a constant in the evolving, increasingly global environment in which we operate, auxiliary services are not frightened nor constrained by thoughts of change. Innovation and entrepreneurship are at the very heart of campus services thinking and operating practices. Creativity is not new to auxiliaries. Indeed this pioneering approach helped the founders of the budding campus service industry establish the Auxiliary Services as an important aspect of campus life and institutional success. This mindset and the networking of likeminded leaders led to the establishment of the National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS) in 1969. Higher education is just beginning to focus on the importance of innovation; however, auxiliary services professionals have been at the forefront of this movement for decades. For those in auxiliaries, change and the opportunities that change presents is nothing new; just business as usual.
Auxiliaries as Higher Ed Innovators
Auxiliaries have led the charge in creative thinking and action at colleges and universities for many years. For example, traditional cafeterias of old with long lines and ‘mystery’ meat have been replaced with nationally branded food concepts, including upscale eats, vegan dishes, and gluten-free products. Isn’t there a Starbucks on almost every campus?
Student housing has morphed from barracks style housing with gang showers to modern living accommodations featuring home like amenities in apartments and residential communities. Years ago, campus bookstores were just that—the place on campus you went to obtain required course textbooks. Today, most campus stores are designed to provide a breadth of goods and services that include course materials, insignia items, and a plethora of convenient and necessary products to aid student learning and life. Parking has advanced beyond the practice of “just pull over into that vacant field next to campus” to well-designed parking facilities that serve campus needs, and in many cases, the needs of local municipalities, and even regional airports as well.
While college athletic programs are getting lots of press for the stress they place on institutional finances, many campus athletic and event facilities have also been simultaneously deployed to support campus and local community art, entertainment, and social needs, like concerts, conventions, high school commencements, and important campus events.
Oft-touted Funding Solutions
Tuition has traditionally been seen as a major funding source in higher ed. Almost constant tuition increases, particularly in recent years, have led to much contention on the continuation of such increases particularly at rates higher than cost living increases suggest. In the recent past, institutional advancement and fundraising were seen as the primary solutions to moving away from colleges’ tuition dependency. However, with the economic challenges faced nationally and in states/provinces today, this approach is no longer the panacea it was once believed to be.
Today, college athletics and their huge budgets are frequent topics with the popular press. Other than select institutions in the “Big Five Athletic Conferences” (Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern), athletic revenue is also not the solution to funding higher ed. Indeed, student-paid athletic fees comprise a major source of athletic funding on most campuses. If tuition, fundraising, and athletics cannot fund institutions and state and federal government funding continues to be reduced and/or eliminated, what is the solution to keeping colleges and universities in operation? Enrollment management may be one potential aid to college funding and financial management.
The Enrollment Management and Auxiliary Services Connection
A huge trend currently playing out in higher learning is the development of enrollment management offices within the administrative structure. Ostensibly, these new units are designed to move beyond the old-line recruitment/admission offices that were designed to simply collect prospective student information and process applications. Enrollment management appears to be melding with and is seemingly on the verge of all but replacing traditionally organized student affairs offices. Marketing, another forte of auxiliaries, and strategic institutional branding seem to be the primary focus of these evolving enrollment management operations. While a new emphasis is being placed on the intentional recruitment and retention of students through sophisticated marketing and customer care, this too is an area of success long practiced and experienced in the campus services realm.
Auxiliary units and the professionals who lead them have been active innovators for years. A focus on students, a pro-active stance, and intentional follow-through are excellent descriptors of campus services’ approach to serving students and other campus constituents. Unquestionably, strategic marketing is essential today if colleges and universities wish to differentiate themselves and illustrate their distinctive advantages as compared with competing institutions. Institutional leaders would benefit themselves and their campuses by looking to the experience of auxiliary leaders and the innovations they have helped to implement. Attracting and retaining customers in the retail and service side of higher ed, which is done so expertly by campus services, is akin to contemporary emphasis on recruitment and retention of college students in many ways.
Serving and Meeting Constituent Expectations
In America and Canada, the acquisition of higher education, while unquestionably in some turmoil today, remains a critical component to the future success of society generally and of individuals specifically. The changing financial picture and demographic shifts currently taking place will likely continue to force the development of new organizational structures (enrollment management is a prime example) and new methods to seek out and support students. Ensuring that our campuses are a good fit for a broad array of students and are suitably equipped to serve their many complex academic and personal needs is essential today, even more so than in the past. Societal expectations and consumer sophistication compel campuses to recruit well, but perhaps more importantly, we also must serve well in order to attract and retain students.
Auxiliary units and their leadership are equipped by training, experience, and attitude to identify, address, and assess students’ wants and needs. Savvy institutional leaders will recognize this auxiliary aptitude and should actively consult with and look to campus auxiliary staff to enhance and help ensure future institutional success. Is higher education evolving in some dramatic ways? Absolutely!
Campus Service Professionals as a Key Institutional Resource
While some of these contemplated changes are new ground, most changes involve looking at circumstances with an eye to what can and should be. Auxiliary professionals have always been the people perhaps best suited to helping their operations and institutions move to the next level of success. Adaptation and innovation have been long established operational patterns for campus service leaders. This innate flair for creativity needs to be recognized and revisited by the executive leaders of higher education institutions. Today, as in decades past, auxiliary professionals are constantly studying the trends and leading innovation on college campuses. Will higher education recognize and use this available institutional resource? Astute campus leaders who wish to bolster the success of their campuses in the future certainly will!