This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.
In a book titled "Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education," author Jon McGee provides an in-depth historical review of the higher education industry and formulates a framework through which higher education leaders and administrators can navigate the landscape ahead. McGee "encourages administrators to prepare for the future by getting to know their institutions from a consumer perspective, not simply from an internal one, to truly understand what makes their university unique from others," writes Eroica Davis, who read the book and shared her opinions of its content at the request of NASFAA. What follows are her takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.
Leaders in postsecondary education have long been aware of shifts in the higher education landscape. Many institutions are carefully navigating an environment of change in a post-Great Recession marketplace. Colleges and universities are also faced with changing demographics and shifts in societal expectations. In his 2015 book, "Breakpoint: The Changing Marketplace for Higher Education," author Jon McGee provides an in-depth historical review of the higher education industry and formulates a framework through which higher education leaders and administrators can navigate the landscape ahead. McGee is a veteran in the field with 24 years of experience in higher education research and policy. His background in the field and dedication to the greater goal of a student-serving industry are apparent in his dialogue. Borne of his experience and solid data, the book offers a glimpse into the future of higher education and the potential challenges we face as administrators.
McGee describes several factors that have contributed to changes in the higher education landscape. His text is data-heavy, but not intimidatingly so. He presents the information in a logical and relatable way so college administrators in any role can relate to his ideologies and conclusions. Through his data, McGee demonstrates the major demographic, economic, and values disruptions that have contributed to the enrollment dilemma many universities find themselves in today.
Demographically speaking, the college-aged and college-bound student population has changed drastically over the years. The most notable, and perhaps most impactful to the current climate, was a dramatic rise in college-bound students. The largest graduating class in United States history was the class of 2011, which produced 3.4 million high school graduates (p. 23). Many of these students were also college-bound, resulting in increased demand for space and resources at colleges and universities. A flood of institutions was founded to meet the rising influx of students and, at the time of this book's publication, there were 1,000 more universities than in 1996 (p. 27). In the years following 2011, the high school population across the country began to decline, and what remained was a large supply but a lessened demand.
The decline in the college-bound student demographic also occurred at the onset of one of the country's largest economic recessions, which has affected families' ability to pay for higher education. As families faced these economic challenges and jobs became scarce, the value of a college education came to the forefront. McGee points out that parents and policymakers began describing expectations for higher education in economic terms instead of valuing the growth and learning experience of postsecondary education, judging the value on the return on investment or economic outcome. This evolution of education from a transformational experience to transactional collides with many universities' core values.
In the years ahead, McGee predicts that more students will lack the financial resources to pay for college unaided — meaning price sensitivity will increase and net price will become more central to college choice than ever. As a result, McGee argues that college will increasingly be more transactional than transformational for students and families. The transactional nature will also require universities to differentiate themselves from others in the market, appealing to students on the universities' differences from the crowd, not their similarities.
Following his in-depth analysis, McGee begins to build a framework for the introspection, improvement, and innovative thinking from which institutions may benefit as they navigate challenges that lie ahead. His primary prescriptions are that colleges and universities become more in tune with what their student body represents. He encourages leaders to dig deep—not just skim the surface of administrative opinion—to find out what their true historic and differentiated brand position is. An alignment with true brand position and the values held by the current student and family demographic will help to better position institutions in the marketplace.
While shaping this new marketplace involves many external forces, McGee reminds leaders that there are also internal hurdles to navigate. He underlines the need for colleges and universities to balance expenditures with revenue and maintain a net tuition revenue that is sustainable. Recognizing the sensitivity of budgetary issues, he calls for leaders to tread lightly and respectfully, with eyes wide open to the ripple effects of each budgetary action. He warns that, "change, real or threatened, results in mobilization of constituent groups who very often cast the action in deeply personal terms" (p. 37).
As these economic, demographic, and value-based shifts continue in the coming years, McGee predicts that the marketplace will continue to be challenging. He encourages administrators to prepare for the future by getting to know their institutions from a consumer perspective, not simply from an internal one, to truly understand what makes their university unique from others. In exploring their unique qualities, institutions will be better able to differentiate themselves from others by marketing on a platform of what makes them stand out.
McGee clearly defines the hurdles of higher education today and his proposed solutions, which call for a holistic and differentiated approach, not a one-size-fits-all solution. He backs his theories with statistical data and moral and common-sense based values, building a solid framework for success. His ability to articulate both the need for particular shifts and the data supporting them, along with his years of experience, make a compelling case for change (or continued change) in the mindset and operations of higher education administrators to achieve the goal of not only institutional success, but student success as well. His call to action is not based on the success of a single institution or industry but rather on the success of students as a whole and the continued improvement of the education industry as we know it.
Afterword: When I originally drafted this article, COVID-19 had not yet risen to the crisis it is today. Now, the often-heard phrase "unprecedented times" truly represents the unknown challenges we face, both as a society and as ambassadors of the higher education field. Limited domestic and international travel, a shift to virtual classrooms, and cancelled or delayed campus visits have already affected the typical education lifecycle. Many students and their families face unemployment, furloughs, or reduced hours, taking a toll on their financial security and ability to invest in college. The pandemic has created a flurry of new unanswered questions, and only time will reveal the full extent of the challenges COVID-19 will present. However, we can better prepare ourselves by gaining an understanding of the past. While McGee's book reflects on the effects of the Great Recession, its strategies may also provide an ideal tool to help us track trends and gain a better understanding of how to prepare for the future.
Jon McGee currently serves as the vice president for planning and public affairs at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University in Minnesota. He is also the father of four college-aged, college-bound children. "Breakpoint" is his first of two books on the education industry. He published his second book, "Dear Parents: A Field Guide for College Preparation," in 2018.
Eroica Davis is the assistant director of financial aid at Florida Institute of Technology. She received her bachelor's degree in English at the University of Central Florida and master's degree in management from Florida Institute of Technology. Eroica holds several NASFAA certifications, is a member of the Florida Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (FASFAA), and is a participant in FASFAA's 2019-20 Leadership Education for Association Professionals (L.E.A.P.) program.
Publication Date: 6/9/2020