5 Shifts in the Higher Ed Consulting Model

A change in higher ed starts with a change in how we serve.

GUEST COLUMN | by Matt Alex

There will be business casualties as we navigate the pandemic and its impact. One of those will certainly be the traditional consulting model in higher education. As people’s mindsets shift and allow for transformation, an era of high impact consulting will be revealed – where the value of consulting will better align with the investment.  

Soon-to-be-gone are the days of:

> 10-hour consulting days – Monday through Thursday – aimed at filling up the 40-hour billable week

> Dedicated onsite presence of consultants as means to demonstrate value for the consulting dollar invested

> Spending money on costly resources for tasks that could be completed in much more cost-effective ways

> Technology implementation services billed by high-priced consultants doing work that does not require their level of subject matter expertise

> The perception that high quality consulting and world-class services are reserved only for big clients with deep pockets

> Spending millions on mega technology under the guise of transformation, only to slightly digitalize and repave an old process that needed transforming in the first place

We have collectively [institutions and consultants] been accepting these realities over the past few decades. Institutions have paid dearly as a result. Consultants have done just fine.

Some Questions

Let’s look at the past seven years and ask these following questions:

How many consulting assessments have been completed that truly guided, modernized, and transformed your campus? 

How many large ERP/SIS implementations have truly improved your campus [specifically your student, faculty, or staff experience] beyond what you already did?

How many of your transformation investments were, metaphorically, merely repaving an old road but not actually forging a new, and better path?

How many multi-million-dollar projects have been delayed, paused, shelved, or never met expectations?

How many of your peer institutions have been put on a pedestal as the poster child for amazing transformation, yet today they function and provide the same level of service as everyone else? Possibly with a better user interface for the admin side of the house.

The Model in Play Today

I recognize that many will push back on my claim, and there are uncomfortable conversations we (clients, software vendors, system integrators, management consulting firms) need to have. I am willing to speak openly and candidly on what our higher ed market has been put through, as I believe it requires collective thinking.

Let’s face it. The traditional consulting model in play today was built in the 1990’s when today’s technologies were not available. So using and delivering it today is extraordinarily expensive.

The truth is that the higher education market has been investing in low-impact consulting. Nobody stopped to assessed it at an industry level. Nobody took the time to really look at who and where the work was done, the associated costs, and more importantly, its true impact and value.

We now have the license to change that. Consulting can bring tremendous value, but it requires clients to change their expectations for their consulting investment. Clients need to expect different approaches and outcomes from consulting they invest in.

Below are five shifts that will foster change in consulting.

Five Shifts in the Future of Consulting model

1. Remote engagements will be more trusted. For years there has been a lot of resistance to working remotely as a project team member. The pandemic has given comfort and assurance to the reality that they can be trusted and productive outside of the traditional onsite workspace. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other online collaborative tools allow us to replicate a majority of in-person activities. This allows us to rid ourselves of resources required to be on campus – and the huge associated cost.

2. Greater access to experts. Throughout my years building practices, I missed out on the opportunity to work with and learn from capable experts that were probably the best in the market. What got in the way was the expectation to physically travel to client locations. That can now change as new consulting models enable some of the world’s best minds and resources to support clients anywhere in the world, from their home or local office.

3. Quality consulting will be accessible. The traditional consulting that is currently offered only serves the well off and deep-pocketed. Higher education has its own economic divide. Yet, high-quality consulting is needed at all schools (ivy league, large system, community college, small private colleges, faith-based, rural locations, and more). More so today than ever before, the mid-market and smaller schools require strategic consulting and affordable technology solutions that rival what the brand-name schools have access to.

4. Consulting costs will come down. There has been a barrier of trust in the past between clients and implementation firms because of high-priced consulting. For this reason, clients have always worried about the value and productivity of the work that is being completed unless it is from a big-name firm. As we see the rapid onset of items 1, 2 and 3 above, we will see a shift in supply and demand that will reduce the costs while boosting trust between the client and their consultant.

5. Clients will gain much greater ROI from their consulting – Traditional consulting models will struggle to meet the market’s demand for affordability and flexibility of terms. Clients will (and deserve to) expect more from their consultant in the new normal. I truly believe that real consulting is about providing actionable advice and course-correcting guidance, not just configuring a set of software tables or writing up pages of “deliverables” that will (at best) collect dust.

‘The “set it and forget it” model, driven by go-live timeframes, must become a thing of the past.’


The license to change in the new normal is ushering in the 5 shifts in the Future of Consulting – and it will empower higher ed. More higher institutions will be able to afford advanced technology and software because disruptive, low-cost technologies are now available in market.

For the mega-infrastructure projects, implementation rates will come down. Those who really need trusted advisors will have access to them in a more flexible and affordable manner.

In the Future of Consulting in Higher Ed, the true subject matter experts, leaders, and advisors in the market will emerge and be easily accessible. Ultimately, it is these individuals teamed up with their institutional clients that will drive the real transformation.

Bonus 5

Some additional [important] things to keep in mind:

1. Own It. Institutions have to fully own their transformation and related projects. If you are not willing to embrace true change, do not invest millions into software and consulting that simply repaves an old workflow with a piece of software. You have to accept the strategic mindset shift before making huge changes, or it will end up being a waste of money that will hinder you from new horizons (where the money should really have been invested).

2. Be Outcomes-Driven. Focus on the outcomes that impact student and staff experience, and stop recreating the same processes that are inefficient and costly. Do not continue to accept and pay for deliverables assessing the past (as-is process flows) that will gather dust after the engagement. Demand that every investment starts with a human-centric outcome discussion.

3. Fit Gaps. Stop looking for functionalities that were found in antiquated legacy processes. It is like sitting in a Tesla and searching for the gas cap latch. Millions need to switch their mindsets to futuristic ones. If you are not willing to change, you are limiting your campus’ value and transformational trajectory.

4. Find An Objective Trusted Advisor. Be cautious. Recognize that not all advisors who walk in with the vendor are thinking (or focused on) your best interests. Their client is the vendor. A true advisor should at least be neutral, and at best represent you – overseeing the vendor’s performance. Your trusted advisor should understand your unique needs and challenges, and be able to align your needs with the vendor’s deliverable.

‘Stop subscribing to and paying industry analyst firms for their higher ed reports that are based on paid relationships with vendors and system integrators.  It’s like buying consumer reports about cars funded by Ford or Honda.’

5. Identify The In-House Consultants. The notion that experts only come externally is false. The true experts are within your campus. Consultants should be there to simply advise and guide the real experts during design and implementation. A robust collaboration and knowledge exchange between your in-house experts and your trusted advisor/consultant should be the norm.

(As a side note you need to uncover what ‘certified’ truly means when looking at outside consultants. Certified vendors/partners/consultants are highly trained in their software provider’s technology platform. They may be excellent at execution of a scope of work or change order, but likely not a seasoned subject matter expert capable of advising on strategic direction. If you think back through all the certified experts that have implemented for you the past few years, many of them likely could not anticipate or guide you through the strategic part of your business case. That’s because many of them know the software, but not your actual business). 

Your in-house experts combined with the outside trusted advisor are the best combination of people to drive your strategy and transformation.

Matt Alex is co-founder and partner at Beyond Academics, a brand-new higher education consulting firm, although he is not new to higher education. Formerly at Deloitte, he led the Student Technology and Transformation practice, overseeing some of the most complex projects in the country, and their Smart Campus and Future of Work initiatives. He was founder of HTS Consulting, a technology and services company serving higher education. He got his start in higher ed almost 30 years ago as a clerk in a Registrar’s office. At Beyond Academics, he oversees their Future of Work and Digital Transformation practices as he continues to assemble the best and brightest minds in higher ed, entrepreneurship, innovation, and industry. Write to: [email protected]


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