Strategic Change and Innovation in Independent Colleges: Nine Mission-Driven Campuses

Strategic Change report cover

​As part of the Council of Independent Colleges’ Project on the Future of Independent Higher Education, this study advances understanding of four questions with answers that illuminate the path of this essential sector of American higher education:

  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 are associated with innovation efforts on these campuses?
  4. What are the effects of these innovations?

These same questions were addressed in an earlier survey analysis published by CIC in July 2015 as Mission-Driven Innovation: An Empirical Study of Adaptation and Change among Independent Colleges. This report follows up on that analysis, focusing now on innovative actions implemented at nine CIC member institutions especially active in adaptation and change. Each of these colleges was chosen for further analysis because of its high level of innovative activity in cost containment and reduction, in revenue enhancement and diversification, or in both arenas. Together the case analyses provide a rich resource with applicability for leaders of other colleges and universities seeking to align innovation and mission.

The nine distinctive institutions profiled here show substantial variation in the challenges they faced, in the ways they organized to address those challenges, and in their eventual substantive choices. Yet six overarching themes emerged that characterize change efforts across the cases. All of the colleges studied exhibited:

  1. A Bias for Action. Each of the case-study institutions was selected for analysis based on its adoption of numerous innovations in recent years, relative to peer institutions.
  2. A Drive to Connect Locally, Regionally, and Beyond. Each of the colleges assertively engaged with its external stakeholders, its campus constituencies, its supporters, and its current and potential markets.
  3. Realistic Self-Assessment and Adaptation. In choosing innovations, each institution paid close attention to what was feasible and likely to prove successful.
  4. Structuring for Innovation. Leaders at each of the colleges thoughtfully created organizational processes and forms fitting the particular changes being pursued.
  5. Assertive Leadership within Shared Governance Traditions. Leaders of the institutions regularly cited their efforts to tie chosen innovations to their colleges’ historical roots and traditions.
  6. Alignment of Mission and Innovation. Leaders uniformly emphasized the importance of preserving or expanding their colleges’ missions, rather than forsaking or compromising those missions.

Currently, the conventional wisdom for independent four-year colleges points toward a decline in coming years. That narrative, however, may presume heedless emulation of familiar models in those institutions. In the 1980s and 1990s, astute four-year colleges disrupted an earlier, widely accepted narrative of decline. They survived and, in fact, many institutions in the sector have subsequently prospered. Evolving contexts and emerging challenges do not necessarily compel mission abandonment or collapse. There is no reason for contemporary colleges to accept passively the dominant storyline today. The cases profiled here present useful examples of energetic, and in some cases bold, changes undertaken by independent colleges and universities to adapt and ensure future financial health and viability.

​Council of Independent Colleges
By James C. Hearn, Jarrett B. Warshaw, and Erin B. Ciarimboli
April 2016