A few years back, I was responsible for managing Accenture’s work with colleges and universities. I remember participating in higher education conferences where I did my best to impart a sense of urgency about the long-term consequences of numerous trends. Certain institutions – including the Ivies, flagship state universities and community colleges offering vocational training – were (and remain) well positioned. But thousands of other schools were on a long-term crash course with harsh reality thanks to ever-rising tuition amid growing homogenization of services alongside the facilities “arms race” and resulting costs for infrastructure and maintenance.

Then along came COVID-19. The pandemic has turned the college admissions process upside down. The same is true of the “student experience” that so many schools have relied on to justify increasing annual price tags. Amid the continued uncertainty, who can blame parents and students for seriously considering gap years, modified journeys through local community colleges or skipping college altogether?

Even before the pandemic, Accenture’s higher ed team had been tuning in to student sentiments via social listening. Jonathan Fry, who leads our global higher education practice, and his team have analyzed more than 80 million social media posts from over 27 million authors who represent a mix of large (at least 15,000 students) public and private four-year institutions. Year over year, these conversations have swung to be more negative, with the number of posts expressing negative emotions increasing 70% from summer 2019 to summer 2020. Concerns related to COVID-19 and concerns related to the political climate and social and racial justice movements are the primary drivers of these sentiments.

While those concerns are understandably top of mind, higher education administrators are facing a third pressing challenge: the structural issues that may be endangering the long-term viability of their institution.

The pandemic has reinforced and accelerated what was already true: We want and need higher education to operate with the noble purpose of bringing opportunity regardless of a student’s background. We need colleges and universities to develop the next generation of responsible adults. But we also need institutions of higher education to run as businesses where difficult prioritization decisions are made to balance competing needs within the construct of the financial reality.

With economic squeeze looming – and student and parent mindsets potentially shifting – it’s time for serious discussion about collaboration and differentiation. We conducted a review of 25 liberal-arts schools in the Northeast that all cost over $70,000 a year. We found a 90% correlation among their course catalogs. Yet they all run as independent entities, failing to maximize cost advantages.

In our recent Higher Education Interview Series, 52% of institutional leaders said that they expect extensive or disruptive change in the post-pandemic world. In the same Interview Series, 51% indicated that it was possible or definite that they would explore shared services at a campus or system level.

These findings suggest a growing recognition that each college or university need not run its own IT, HR, finance and procurement shops – especially since it’s now possible to migrate legacy systems to the cloud. Why should institutions source good and services on their own? Why maintain departments with enrollments of less than five when multiple other liberal arts schools within 50 miles have the same specialized need?

Every college and university has the same underlying mission. Today’s urgent opportunity is to finally start collaborating where there is overlap – and carve out a truly differentiated experience or program or capability to set each institution apart.

Let’s continue the conversation. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn.


Ryan Oakes

Senior Managing Director – Strategy & Consulting, Global Public Service

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