7: Sustainability: Financial Viability; Preparing for the Changing Higher Education Environment

(CFRs 3.4, 3.7, 4.1, 4.3, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7)

To survive and thrive, institutions must not only cope with the present, but also plan for the future. In this component, WSCUC asks each institution first to describe its current status as a viable, sustainable organization; and second, to evaluate how it is poised to address fundamental changes facing higher education in the decade to come. In other words, what is the institution’s vision of a 21st century education, and what role will the institution play?

At its most basic, “sustainability” means the ability to support and maintain, to keep something intact and functioning properly. Institutional sustainability has at least two dimensions. Fiscal sustainability—that is, adequacy of financial resources and the appropriate alignment of those resources—is fundamental and has always been critical in any institutional review. Indeed, financial exigency has historically been regional accreditors’ single most frequent cause for sanctions. In a highly volatile financial environment, assurance of financial sustainability becomes even more critical.

In this component, the institution presents its current financial position. If the Financial Review Committee has raised any issues or made recommendations, then the institution presents its response in this section of the report. Plans should include targets, metrics, and timelines.

A second facet of financial sustainability is alignment. It is essential that resources be allocated in alignment with the institution’s priorities. For an educational institution, clearly, a top priority is student learning and success; thus resource allocation needs to support educational effectiveness, along with other activities that advance knowledge, develop human capital, and allow the institution to learn, adapt, and thrive.

A third dimension of sustainability is the institution’s ability to read the evolving higher education landscape and anticipate ways in which the institution itself may need to change. New technologies, economic pressures, public concern about the quality of learning, demographic shifts, student preparation for college, new skills and knowledge needed for success, and alternatives to traditional degrees—all these shifts and many others are rapidly transforming the social, economic, and political environment in which higher education functions. 

The task here is for institutions to develop a vision of their role in 21st century higher education. The choices institutions make in the face of these bracing conditions will influence their long-term success. 

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly. 

  • Under Standard 3, institutions are expected to “develop and apply resources and organizational structures to ensure sustainability.” How can the institution demonstrate that its operations will remain financially sustainable over the next 6 to 10 years? (CFRs 3.4 and 4.6)   
  • How well do financial allocations align with institutional priorities, particularly those related to the meaning, quality, and integrity of degrees offered; student learning and success; and processes for quality assurance, accountability, and improvement? (CFRs 3.4, 4.3)
  • Under Standard 2, how does the institution identify and enhance the competencies that students will need to succeed in the future? (CFRs 1.2, 2.2)a What role does program review play in developing a vision of 21st century education for individual programs and for the institution as a whole? (CFR 4.7)
  • In what ways can the institution ensure that educational effectiveness will continue during the period from the present to the next reaffirmation of accreditation? What systems and processes are in place? How deeply embedded are these initiatives in institutional systems and culture? How is educational effectiveness prioritized in the institution’s formal plans? (CFRs 3.1-3.10, 4.1, 4.2, 4.6)
  • How does the institution demonstrate that it is a learning organization? What evidence can be put forward? (CFRs 4.3-4.7)
  • What resources have been committed to assessment of learning and improvement of student performance? How are decisions about levels of support made? How is support maintained even in times of constrained resources? (CFRs 3.6, 3.7, 4.3, 4.4)
  • Of the changes taking place globally, nationally, locally, and in higher education, which ones will affect the institution most strongly in the next seven to 10 years? What is the institution’s vision of education for the coming decade? For the more distant future? How is the institution anticipating, planning for, and adapting to such changes? (CFRs 4.6, 4.7)
  • What specific skills does the institution possess or need to develop in order to engage with developments impacting its future, including those occurring globally? (CFRs 3.1, 3.2, 4.6, 4.7)