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Be it the warmth or the reminiscence of childhood, summer naturally lends itself to the feeling of exploration. It is a season well suited to pushing boundaries, learning, and self-revitalization. Guided by a deep-rooted commitment to continued learning, the team at rpk GROUP enthusiastically embraced our own version of summer school over the past few months. This path led us to a series of transformative higher education conferences across the United States—from the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) UNITE Summit in Atlanta to the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AASCU) academic affairs summer meeting in Baltimore and finally culminating at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) conference in Cleveland. With summer coming to a close, we are reflecting on all that we’ve learned in gathering with leaders across higher education.

Several key themes emerged from these events:

  • Clearly, institutions are moving to action in creating financially sustainable business models.
  • Good stewardship was also front and center, whether in looking at how to repurpose physical space or allocate resources (people, time, and money) toward mission and strategic goals.
  • Finally, there was a clear focus on achieving success for all students and putting best practices in place to move toward institutional student success goals.

The theme of financial sustainability extended across conferences. From presentations to hallway conversations, industry leaders showed a desire to move away from just “admiring the problem” to implementing tangible solutions. At SCUP, the University of Colorado Denver’s approach to budgeting stood out. That institution addressed not just an immediate budget crisis but leveraged the situation to develop a new budget model that aligns strategic planning, enrollment management, and the academic portfolio, all in pursuit of a defined future. Our team contributed to the focus on financial sustainability through a shared presentation with Anne Arundel Community College on how to synthesize data frameworks and engage in a bold decision-making process linking academic portfolios, instructional efficiencies, and administrative services.

Good stewardship was a second key theme that emerged during our summer conference journeys. A tangible example from SCUP involved physical spaces on campus: as academic portfolios are recalibrated to match demand, spaces once tailored to specific needs provide opportunities for reprogramming. SCUP’s discourse embraced the concept of using data to repurpose these spaces, minimizing the need for new construction by reimagining what already exists. Additionally, the focus broadened to encompass the community, considering how campus spaces could serve not only the institution but also the surrounding locality.

Continuing on the stewardship and sustainability front, at UNCF’s UNITE conference institutions shared that they are anticipating a continued increase in enrollment. In preparation, several college and university leaders spoke of the attention their institutions are paying to their academic portfolios as they work to ensure their offerings address the current needs of prospective students. Others spoke of their dedication to creating more entrepreneurial organizations to support institutional sustainability.

Finally, we found the focus on student success across all conference venues encouraging. At AASCU, rpk client WSU Tri-Cities showcased a robust framework for recognizing and mitigating equity gaps, using a meticulous cycle of data analysis at the course level, action planning, implementation, and continuous feedback. Their team took a granular approach, gaining insights into where institutional support proves indispensable and utilizing common practices across the initiative to maximize student success.

rpk also had an opportunity to share our learnings at AASCU, through a panel discussion led by Donna Desrochers. Donna and the panel of SUNY leaders outlined several best practices for creating robust roadmaps that can help new instructional models and student-centered programs achieve desired goals. At its core, this approach hinges on acknowledging the intricate interplay across stakeholders, strategy, timing, resources, and metrics. This intentional approach lays the groundwork for the establishment and amplification of student success initiatives, such as open educational resources (OER), competency-based education (CBE), and credit for prior learning (CPL).

At rpk GROUP, we strive to be good teachers, sharing emerging best practices on sustainable business models out to the field. We know, however, that being good teachers requires us to always be great learners. Our learnings around financial sustainability, good stewardship, and increasing success for all students will energize our work as we head into the start of another academic year. We’re excited to see how our industry will build on these insights and bring us together in the future to share what’s working.


rpk GROUP is a leading voice in the creation of new business models and effective growth strategies for higher education. Follow us on Twitter: @rpk_GROUP