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College Costs, Customer Service, and Leading CASE
College Costs, Customer Service, and Leading CASE

Outgoing CASE president John Lippincott discusses the opportunities and challenges facing the profession

By David Moltz


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Photo credit: Thomas Graves



CASE president John Lippincott has a lot on his mind these days: MOOCs, integrated advancement, the rising cost of education, even Amazon.com.

Lippincott has served as CASE president since 2004 and has worked in higher education for more than four decades, holding posts from community college instructor to associate vice chancellor for advancement at the University System of Maryland. With the approach of his retirement in January 2015, CURRENTS spoke to him about everything from academic credentialing to LinkedIn to advancement's biggest opportunities in the years ahead.

What are the biggest challenges facing advancement in the next decade?

It has less to do with the advancement profession than with the dramatic changes that are occurring in the education marketplace. Those changes will have significant implications for alumni relations, fundraising, communications, and marketing. Let me use my simple mnemonic of the four D's.

One of those changes is demographics. We're going to see a significant shift in what the college student looks like. Racial and ethnic diversity is going to increase significantly. The stratification of incomes in the United States means that an increasing number of students will come from families for whom affordability is a huge issue. And the number of U.S. high school graduates is going to be flat for the next five or six years. That means the competition for the best and the brightest among high school graduates is only going to intensify.

The second force is disruption. It's taking a variety of forms. The most obvious are MOOCs and online education. They are going to change the way people view their educational experiences. That leads to a second set of disruptive forces—those organizations that are moving into the credentialing business. The lock that traditional colleges and universities have had on the marketplace is the credential. If there are other ways of moving toward some kind of credential—other than a lockstep progression through a series of courses associated with a major over a four-year period at a residential college campus—a lot of people will avail themselves of that opportunity.

The third D is disintermediation—the notion that people are increasingly looking for ways to get rid of the middle man. This has played out in alumni relations. Only seven or eight years ago, a number of firms emerged to help universities build alumni portals. The notion was that alumni would come to the university to connect with each other. Well, guess what? Facebook and LinkedIn blew those models out of the water. This is not a bad thing. It's a reminder that we've got to figure out what people want from the institution—not just in the advancement arena but in terms of their overall experience.

The last D is dollars. How are we going to fund educational opportunities for an increasing proportion of the population that, in many parts of the world, is less able to afford it? There is an obvious connection here to advancement. We have to be careful, though, not to suggest that philanthropic support is a substitute for the other revenue streams. It is a complement to the other revenue streams. There needs to be continuing support from tuition and from governmental sources.

Conversely, what excites you about the future of advancement?

I think MOOCs are a great opportunity for alumni relations. That's how you can provide an opportunity for alumni to recapture the most important part of their experience on campus, the classroom experience. We provide opportunities for alumni to have social experiences, but what about intellectual experiences?

Institutions are good about having academic sessions during reunions. But it's just that, an hourlong session in the midst of other social stuff. The notion that I could take a course from my alma mater and participate at my stage of life is incredibly exciting.

Speaking of advancement, is that still the best label for our profession?

Yes. I think it's important to have a term that captures the essence of what all of these specific disciplines are engaged in and what brings them together within an institution. Having to repeat "fundraising, alumni relations, communications, and marketing" every time we talk about what we do is cumbersome. More important, CASE believes strongly in the notion of the integration of these disciplines. If we believe in that concept, it seems appropriate to have a term for the concept.

So why do some practitioners dislike the label?

A lot of people assume the term "advancement" is synonymous with fundraising. To the extent that you make that assumption then, of course, if I'm working in communications and marketing or working in alumni relations, I won't be particularly comfortable with that term to describe my work.

Beyond that, I'm not sure why the term would not be positively received, because it doesn't carry any pejorative connotations. Perhaps those who are not comfortable with it are eager to be specifically identified with their disciplinary area. That I understand. If I take great pride in being an alumni relations officer or a communications officer or a marketing officer, that's great. But I would like to think people also take pride in being a part of a larger team, the advancement team.

Does the integrated advancement model remain best practice?

It comes down to asking ourselves: What is the best way for the institution to encourage the donor to give, encourage the alumnus or alumna to maintain a lifelong relationship with the institution, and encourage the prospective student to attend that institution? The most effective way is to make sure that the people responsible for external relations are sharing and coordinating consistent messages to those external communities. If you defuse the activity of alumni relations, fundraising, communications, and marketing—rather than coordinate that activity—it's difficult to effectively engage with those key constituents.

You recently wrote that those of us working in education need to be more sensitive to public concerns about tuition. How do advancement practitioners fare in their understanding of rising costs and student debt?

We are on the front lines. We in the advancement community are the people talking to the public and hearing about costs with far greater regularity than folks at the university who don't get off campus as often as we do. But there probably are some advancement officers who are tone-deaf on these issues, and we've got to make sure we all understand how important they are. We're going to hear about this more and more from alumni, donors, and prospective students. So if I'm responsible for marketing my institution, I've got to pay attention to price.

A decade ago, we were almost proud of what was often termed the "Chivas Regal effect." The higher price tag was a good marketing position because it implied higher quality. We talked about that unashamedly. I don't think we can count on the Chivas Regal effect today. Quite the contrary, I think we have reached that point where price sensitivity is very much at play in higher education decisions.

How can institutions more effectively communicate the reasons for the costs on a tuition bill?

I never understood why, when colleges or universities issue the tuition bill to students and families, they don't break down all of the contributors to the cost of education. Start with what it is costing the university to educate the student this coming year. Then show the contribution the institution is making from its own resources to help offset some of that cost. And here's the money that comes from the government.

This is complicated because you have to do the calculation for each individual student to figure out his or her financial aid package. But even if you did this on a bill for a typical student, people would notice that the price they're paying is not the cost of the service being provided. Education is one of those rare service providers that can do that because of all those other contributors. We don't articulate that, and we don't articulate that in the one communication that everyone gets every semester and that everyone pays attention to.

Is the value prospect of a college degree better or worse than it was a decade ago?

Well, if you define value as essentially a ratio of cost to benefit, the benefit has continued to increase but so, too, has the cost. And the cost has increased faster than the benefit.
I would never want anyone to hear that and say therefore you shouldn't go to college. I do not agree, and I don't agree with the venture capitalists who are paying students not to attend college. I think that is wrongheaded. While the value differential may have closed a bit, it is still a significant value for anyone to take advantage of a college education. If you calculate value solely on the basis of dollars—and that's probably one of the few ways you can calculate it—there's still a significant differential in the earning potential of a college graduate relative to a high school graduate.

Is there anything education can learn from the business world?

One of the columns I had hoped to write for CURRENTS was about what education can learn from Amazon.com. Unfortunately, I couldn't get Jeff Bezos on the phone. The reason I wanted to talk to him was that there's a great deal that higher education and independent school education can learn about customer service. I don't have any problem using the term customer service and applying it to an educational institution.

Amazon does an excellent job of customer service—understanding what customers want, delivering what they need, and delivering it in ways that frequently exceed expectations. I would love to say the same things about educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities. But for most of our history, we've had a mindset that was almost the exact opposite of that: You can tell the quality of the institution by how much hassle it creates for the people who are its intended beneficiaries. It's the hassle of the application process. It's the hassle of the student experience, working through majors and getting the courses you need. It's the hassle of meeting all the requirements for the degree.

It was almost like we thought you could substitute "hassle" for "rigor" to put a positive spin on it. You can be rigorous and have quality customer service. That's where higher education, in particular, has a lot to learn from the Amazons of the world.

But higher education should not act like corporate America in all respects. Quite the contrary. There's an awful lot of corporate America that is less than ideal, and I would hate to see that transferred to colleges and universities. Some corporations do a lousy job of customer service. Airlines jump to mind because I spend so much time traveling. The important point is not to just transfer corporate culture to educational institutions. It has to be highly selective of the best practices and the applicable practices from the corporate world to the educational world.

You mention all the traveling you do. What is the state of advancement outside of the United States?

We can be enthusiastic about the state of the profession outside the United States by looking at what's happened with CASE Europe and in the U.K. in particular. The state of the profession in the U.K. is strong. There are some areas where it, perhaps, is stronger than we even experience in the U.S. We see active involvement of marketing professionals in CASE Europe, and they're playing important roles in the lives of their institutions. CASE Europe has done a stunning job in the advocacy arena, working with government to advance policies that support the culture of philanthropy—in particular on higher education in the U.K. I would love to have had the kind of influence on federal government policy leaders here in the U.S. that CASE Europe has had with leaders in the U.K.

When we were creating CASE Asia-Pacific, my greatest concern was whether CASE's business model would work in other markets—in particular, this crazy business model we have of basically using our members as volunteers to share their best trade secrets with the competition and paying us to do so. Well, the delightful answer is it does work. It works in Asia-Pacific. It works in Europe. It works in Latin America. We have dedicated volunteers in all of those markets, so that gives me great reason for optimism.

But it's heavy lifting. I don't want to make it sound like what we accomplished in the U.K. was easy. It's not going to be easy in Latin America or the Asia-Pacific region. These are vast regions that are heterogeneous in terms of culture, in terms of language, in terms of traditions of advancement and cultures of philanthropy, so it's not going to happen quickly.

Are there any issues you wish you could have addressed as CASE president?

CASE, itself, will always be unfinished business. I'm a firm believer in the concept of continuous improvement in service to our members. I sit in my office, and I just watch opportunities whiz by the door because there's only so much we can do with the existing staff and there is always something more we could be doing.

There could be an important role for CASE in creating an umbrella foundation for tax-advantaged gifts from American donors to universities in other countries and from donors in other countries to U.S. universities. Larger intuitions can afford the overhead associated with setting up a nonprofit organization in the U.S. But for lots of smaller institutions, the barrier is just too high. So if CASE had an umbrella foundation, it could be a valuable service.

This is one of those opportunities that's been whizzing by my door. There will be lots of others like that. They make the job and the organization exciting. I'm sure my successor will feel equally excited about them.

About the Author David Moltz

David Moltz is a writer and editor for CASE.

 

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