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Tips from a former dean to get stakeholder support for adult-serving programs

March 3, 2020

When I first became a business school dean, my peers joked that deans juggle something like 168 different duties. Turns out, that may have been an underestimation of the number of responsibilities deans actually assume. One of the most challenging of these duties was pushing forward new initiatives or programs in the face of limited resources and, at times, minimal support on campus—at least initially.

Now, as a dean on EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment team, I spend my time visiting our partner campuses to help administrators make the case for new initiatives and programs to their boards, fellow administrators, and faculty. Whether advocating for the resources to launch your first online program, enhance your marketing strategy, or something else entirely, here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way.

Build a coalition

If you’re a dean trying to push an initiative forward, the worst thing you can do is have key stakeholders think this is your idea and yours alone. Your idea immediately becomes more compelling and credible if you have a chorus of voices supporting it. From faculty to key administrators, the more diverse your coalition, the better.

As a dean, I usually started by seeking out allies among the faculty for an initiative. Identify a couple key faculty members who are good at getting other faculty members on board and are willing to help develop an implementation plan.  

“The only way to influence people is to talk in terms of what the other person wants.”

Dale Carnegie
How to Win Friends and Influence People

Know your audience

When making your case to different administrators, be clear about how your program or initiative relates to their priorities and the institution’s priorities. Sometimes that requires showcasing different facets of your initiative to different stakeholders.

Making a case requires keeping in mind to whom that stakeholder is accountable. For example, when talking to a president or provost, prepare them to make the case for your initiative to the board and articulate how your initiative advances their goals.

Be prepared to educate your stakeholders about adult learners

Although graduate enrollment and adult education are growing priorities at many colleges and universities, recruiting these populations continues to take a backseat to traditional undergraduate recruitment at most schools.

So, making the case for adult-serving programs — whether that means developing a new graduate program or moving a degree completion program online — often starts by answering the question: Who are adult learners and why should they be a priority?

When helping our Adult Learner Recruitment partners make the case for their adult-serving programs, I often start by discussing the projected declines in traditional undergraduate enrollments and the potential for growth in the adult learner market.

But despite the opportunities for growth, the adult learner market isn’t without its challenges. Finding areas of potential growth and identifying prospective adult learners in a large but dispersed market are no small feats. Explaining these challenges upfront is critical to make the case for investment in adult learners and the programs and services that support them.

Make a compelling case for resources

Once you’ve set the stage, the next step is to articulate the benefits your institution stands to gain from prioritizing adult learners.

Predict potential revenue

It’s no surprise the motivation for creating a new program or initiative is often revenue. And administrators reasonably expect to understand the return on investment they can receive from your initiative before they will even think about moving forward. In fact, in our recent survey, measuring ROI of adult-serving programs was a top concern for campus leaders, including provosts and VPEMs.

As a dean, I often started by creating a profit-loss statement, or a spreadsheet of what a typical year would look like once the program or initiative was up and running. Coupled with market research into competitor programs, I projected how much revenue the program or initiative could generate to justify upfront costs. But since not all initiatives will generate substantial revenue in the near term, I often think about other ways a program or initiative would help the institution.

Outline future capabilities

Whether or not the initiative will generate revenue and profit immediately, some investments are necessary to support the institution in the long term. For example, at one small private institution, I was part of a team advocating to develop online programs. Building the infrastructure and pedagogical expertise to support online programs would be an expensive investment, but one that would pay strategic and financial dividends in the long term. We needed to build online education capabilities to remain competitive and we framed our case that way.

Don’t forget unexpected benefits

Sometimes your initiative benefits the university as a whole. Say you’re working to develop services for degree completers, a population for which very few services exist at most colleges or universities. Degree completers need things like enhanced advising services and curricular flexibility, since they often hold a diverse array of prior credits when they re-enroll.

But the benefits of improving advising services and curricular flexibility extend far beyond degree completers. These initiatives have the potential to improve the academic experience for all students. And if your initiative improves the student experience, chances are it will help improve your institution’s effectiveness, and reputation, in the long term. That boost for your institution and the students you serve is invaluable, and it can provide further justification for the initiatives you want to pursue.

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