How The ‘Iron Triangle’ Will Help Colleges Survive

In higher education, further disruption is on its way; prepare for it.

GUEST COLUMN | by Todd Zipper

Many colleges are going to have to make changes. 

That’s not the trope you’ve heard before with predictions about technology disruption or the rising student loan debt or other factors that may move higher education one way or another. Whether those things set in or not, colleges will have to accept and adjust to absolutely certain demographic changes that will inevitably alter who and how they teach.

Unprecedented Changes Ahead

Starting in about eight years, the number of domestic, college-eligible high school graduates will decline. There will simply be fewer so-called “traditional” college students – the 18-year-old college freshmen. Post-secondary education in the United States has already seen six years of decline, which is unprecedented in the country’s history.

With a growing economy and low unemployment, trends that depress college interest, the added contraction of future students should concern a good number of colleges.

That number probably does not count the big-name, highly selective institutions. The Harvards and Stanfords of the world will still have no trouble finding eager, check-writing students.  And even if they do, many of the schools at that level can fall back on their multi-billion dollar, tax-free endowments.

In Search of Students

But the other approximately 2,000 schools without an eleven-digit endowment, those that depend heavily on tuition dollars of tuition-paying students, are going to have to find new students somewhere. In fact, with the oncoming decline, they’re going to have to find new students just to maintain their current budgets and enrollments.

With the supply of foreign students also in jeopardy, the best place to look for new students is among the so-called “non-traditional” students, the usually older, often working, frequently returning students. That sounds easy enough. But the rub is that, based on research we’ve done at The Learning House and we’ve heard echoed elsewhere, those students want and expect different things from college than most traditional freshmen. 

They are, as examples, more sensitive to price than other potential students. They seek out and use alternative and flexible programs that maximize access such as online or blended offerings. And, since many of them are already working, they expect their educational experiences to help them advance their careers or start new ones.

The ‘Iron Triangle’

Those three things – affordability, accessibility and employability – are the iron triangle that tuition-dependent schools will have to master to survive the coming enrollment pinch.

The best part is that this iron triangle approach need not be a short-term bridge to the down-the-road boost in younger, traditional students. That’s because when the economy slows, as it absolutely will, colleges on the forefront of that triangle will be best positioned to attract both traditional and non-traditional students who are seeking jobs or career advancement.

That’s not just theory. Some schools have figured that out already, are adapting and succeeding. 

Adapt and Succeed?

Concordia University, St. Paul, for example, broke into the competitive college market of offering an RN to BSN degree by designing an online program around the busy schedules of nurses and in listening to the healthcare providers in and around their core market of the twin cities in Minnesota. The program launched in 2014 with a very competitive price and many other key features such as transfer friendliness and is now one of the top degree programs at the college.

In another example, Aurora University and Campbellsville University, noticing expected growth in social work careers, recently launched the online Master of Social Work programs. The key to this degree, which is similar to other vocation type degrees like nursing and teaching, is that in order to have a certain type of social work license, a student must attend a particular type of CSWE- accredited program. Their flexible programs allowed online students to actually outpace their on-campus counterparts. As a result, both schools now have more than 300 students in their programs – a sizeable number for smaller schools.

Demonstrated successes of the three-pointed approach are not limited to small private schools either. State schools can, and should, make similar changes.

In Alabama, for example, the University of West Alabama has used the iron triangle to support teachers who can see a 15% salary boost by earning a Masters in Education. As a result, their graduate education programs are by far the largest in the state.

In all these cases, these schools intentionally designed and built their programs around the triangle of accessibility, affordability and employability. That’s why they are working and why those programs are already essentially fireproofed against the coming enrollment retrenchments. 

Todd Zipper is president and CEO of The Learning House, providing expertise in research and analytics, marketing, enrollment, retention and instructional design for higher education. Contact him through LinkedIn.


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