Mission-Driven Innovation: An Empirical Study of Adaptation and Change among Independent Colleges

Mission-Driven Innovation report cover

​The challenges that independent colleges face have been well documented. Economic pressures, government disinvestment, student vocationalism, institutional costs, and market competition are all on the rise, and strategic flexibility is constrained. Together, these challenges arguably narrow the line independent colleges must walk to maintain their fiscal health and ensure their viability for the future.

This complex environment has prompted innumerable commentaries in popular and professional venues, yet there has been little systematic attention to the experiences of independent colleges “on the ground.” That is, there have been published accounts of experiences on individual campuses and many reports on financing and degree trends in the various sectors of higher education, but there has been much less insight into perceptions and actions across the range of independent colleges. Is the reality on these campuses as pessimistic and pinched as the public view would suggest? Is a hunkered-down, defensive stance indeed the “new normal?” Or might energetic adaptation and innovation be more the norm?

As part of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education, this study addressed such issues via a survey of the presidents of all CIC member institutions. Specifically, the study sought answers to four important research questions:

  1. What are the challenges independent colleges face as they seek to adapt and prosper?
  2. What innovations are these colleges undertaking?
  3. What factors are driving or associated with innovation efforts on these campuses?
  4. What are the perceived effects of these innovations?

Taken as a whole, the survey findings suggest three themes: mission-centered adaptability, support for innovation, and presidential optimism. Leaders of the nation’s independent colleges perceive significant challenges, but they are engaged in varied and aggressive change efforts on multiple fronts. Every responding president reported pursuing some form of (1) cost containment and reduction (two-thirds doing so “aggressively”) and (2) revenue enhancement and diversification to improve financial health, with 92 percent of respondents pursuing both. Indeed, one-third (33 percent) reported pursuing both “aggressively.” Moreover, the survey results indicate activism rather than retreat across the independent college sector. Certainly, some institutions are relatively quiet, but numerous others are changing across the board. Key drivers of innovation include market forces, economic pressures, prospective students and families, and competition from other institutions.

The typical CIC president, at any one time, appears to oversee a campus undertaking multiple initiatives, in varied stages of implementation and institutionalization. Campuses of modest size and rather straightforward missions have undertaken in recent years an average of 15 substantive innovations, which range from revenue enhancement and diversification efforts to fiscal initiatives and innovations to adaptations in academic operations. Indeed, many independent colleges are meeting their challenges by aggressively pursuing significant and wide-ranging innovations. The image of the hidebound college steadfastly resisting reform is nowhere to be seen.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By James C. Hearn and Jarrett B. Warshaw
July 2015