From administering certificate programs to facilitating corporate partnerships, providing military and veterans services, and even overseeing university parking services, adult-serving units are tasked with an unpredictable and sometimes baffling scope of responsibilities. On top of that, the pendulum swing from centralization to decentralization (and back again) means that adult-serving units face regular adjustments to their organizational structure.
But despite these challenges, strong organizational design is critical to growth. As data from our Organizational Benchmarking Survey shows, there is a direct correlation between the organizational structure of, and revenue generated by, adult-serving units. And using the wrong organizational model can leech thousands of dollars from adult-serving units with already limited budgets.
EAB’s Organizational Benchmarking Survey includes insights from over 250 institutions, one of the largest datasets on organizational structures within continuing, online, and professional education. This survey instrument defines the most significant organizational attributes (e.g., portfolio mix, degree conferral authority, budget, and reinvestment levels) along with critical measures of financial and mission contributions.
When I was a business school dean, and now in my conversations with Adult Learner Recruitment partner institutions, I have learned the importance of organizational agility, strategic investment, and careful benchmarking against peer institutions. Here are three recommendations for strong organizational design that will help you drive revenue.
Recommendation #1: Set aside a reserve fund that allows for increased agility
Creating a separate pot of money from the standard annual budget, like a seed funding initiative or new program development fund, gives your unit flexibility. It’s impossible to know in advance which units on campus will be most open to creating new programs, or which units will be most open to following best practices as they develop these programs. Seed funds can be directed towards the most promising projects and can inspire units to pursue their best ideas in the most productive ways. Units can use seed funding to develop knowledge, skills, and assets that will benefit not only the program that is supported, but their entire operation over the long term.
Our survey showed that more than half of adult-serving units maintain a reserve fund, but this number continues to dwindle year over year. And those units that continue to invest in reserve funds are allocating an average of $75K less per year compared to 2012. We believe that seed funding is a valuable tool. And consistent replenishment of reserve funds is vitally important to the long-term health of the professional and adult education unit.
High-revenue units that choose to invest in new program development (NPD) funds often see great returns on investment. Mizzou Online’s Program Seed Funding Initiative, for example, saw a 196% average two-year return by following three key guidelines:
- Mandatory RFP process: Units applying for access to the fund must meet with coordinators, build an instructional design plan, and complete a proposal.
- Rigorous revenue-sharing agreements: Programs are required to return revenue to the fund for further investment.
- Spending requirements: Recipients are required to spend 10% on marketing and recruiting.
Recommendation #2: Maximize ROI through strategic investment in dedicated staff functions
We have found that the more adult-serving teams invest, the more revenue is generated—so don’t be afraid to spend strategically and intentionally towards your goals.
As adult-serving units grow, the first place they tend to invest additional funds is marketing, which our research shows is the number one long-term correlate with revenue and enrollment growth. In fact, almost two-thirds of survey respondents whose adult-serving unit generates between $6 and $15 million in annual revenue have a dedicated marketing function. That number only increases for units that generate upwards of $15 million annually. As adult-serving units grow, marketing responsibilities must receive dedicated, consistent attention—either through expanded staff capacity, an external partnership, or both—rather than relying on occasional staff capacity.
Dedicated staff functions by annual revenue
Recommendation #3: Use successful peer programs as points of reference to minimize risk
There is no use in reinventing the wheel. Plenty of your peers have already spent time figuring out how to best invest resources and structure their team. Comparing your team’s organizational structure to that of your high-growth peers can help you understand what is and isn’t working. This is especially helpful when making decisions related to capacity concerns, like how many staff your team needs to reach its growth goals. Benchmarking against peers can also provide insight into authority concerns, such as whether your team should have the ability to confer its own degrees.
For example, our survey reveals adult-serving units’ ability to confer different types of face-to-face programs and courses. Rarely are adult-serving degree units able to confer credit-bearing degrees or certificates. More commonly, these units confer non-credit certificates and standalone non-credit courses.
Despite these tips, there is no “one-size-fits-all” structural solution for adult-serving units. What works best for one unit and its goals may not be best for another unit. Irrespective of the level of degree-granting authority and autonomy of the different structures for adult-serving units, each model comes with its own distinct benefits and drawbacks.
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