The Indisputable Higher Ed Evolution: Huron CEO Jim Roth Shares How Higher Ed Leaders Can Help Their Institutions Thrive in the Face of Change
This episode is part of the EdTech Times podcast series Higher Ed Transformation for the Campus of Tomorrow, sponsored by Huron.
According to Jim Roth, CEO and President of Huron, the landscape of higher education has changed dramatically in recent years.
“I’ve been working in higher ed now, with higher ed institutions, for just under 30 years. And I think the first 27 was a walk in the park compared to the last three,” says Jim.
A founding member of Huron, a global consultancy with a large higher ed practice, Jim has witnessed firsthand the industry’s transition from an age of relative certainty, to an age of constant change.
Jim says that, “There was far more demand, and not many additional seats in higher education. And that, I think, enabled a lot of places to be perhaps a little bit less sensitive about price or cost.”
So what triggered these changes? He notes that technology is, of course, a major factor.
“Technology certainly has brought in a lot of new capabilities, a lot of new entrants into the market,” says Jim. “And as a result, things are moving far quicker today in higher
education than they ever have before.”
The availability and affordability of these online programs have changed the stakes for higher ed.
“Competition, particularly coming through technology, has really enabled access to a high degree of quality at much lower costs in education than has ever really existed before,” says Jim.
So, how can higher ed leaders transform their institutions to thrive in this continuously disrupted industry? Listen in to our full interview with Jim to find out.
Hester Tinti-Kane: This is Hester Tinti-Kane with EdTech Times. And today I’m speaking with Jim Roth, CEO of Huron Consulting. Welcome Jim.
Jim Roth: Thank you. Good to be here.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Wonderful. So, we would love to hear about Huron. Can you tell us a bit about the business?
Jim Roth: Sure. We started the company in 2002. A lot of us had been consultants at Arthur Andersen. And when Arthur Andersen went down in early 2002, a number of us that had discrete practices bought ourselves out of Andersen and started Huron. And less than two months later, we were up and running with about 200 people and a going business. I, at the time, was running a higher education practice at Arthur Andersen. And so, it all happened very quickly. And it’s been a lot of fun.
Jim Roth: We’re a very different company today than we were back then. Our industry focus is very much on health and education, but also financial services and retail. We have a very big strategy practice. And so we really have become a very different business than we started early on. But it’s been a very fun 16 years for us to have been in business, and it certainly is a very dynamic environment right now.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So how large is your organization now?
Jim Roth: Today, we have about 3,000 people. I think we operate in now maybe 12 or 14 cities in the U.S., and probably five international operations. So a very big business. We’re just — it’s been a really exciting time to be in the professional services industry. And frankly, in higher education in particular, where there’s so much change taking place in the market. Consultants love change. And it’s been a very fun and exciting environment for us to be working in.
Hester Tinti-Kane: That’s great. So circling around on higher education. What are some of the biggest challenges that this industry is facing right now?
Jim Roth: Well, there’s a number of them. And a lot of them have been well publicized in the paper. I’ll give you my version of a few of them. Start with, I think, what is really a fundamental challenge to the overall business model. For a long time, at least for the last 20, 30, 40 years, there’s been a great imbalance between supply and demand. There was far more demand and not many additional seats in higher education. And that, I think, enabled a lot of places to be perhaps a little bit less sensitive about price or cost, depending upon how you want to look at it.
Jim Roth: And I think what’s happened in the last 10 years, and probably more intensely in the last five, is that there has been a very significant challenge to the business model. The opportunities for revenue have really dissipated greatly. There’s a lot of places that have a difficult time looking at their future business, and trying to figure out how they’re going to grow the revenue side. While at the same time, the expense base continues to grow.
Jim Roth: And when you have that kind of environment, for at least the foreseeable future, absent a dramatic change in scale — you really have a business model that likely is not going to be sustainable for a long period of time. So, I think that’s one of the fundamental challenges in higher education today.
Jim Roth: I think there’s a couple other factors that come to mind. We talk about the pace of change that’s taking place in higher ed. Technology certainly has brought in a lot of new capabilities and new. A lot of new entrants into the market. And as a result, things are moving far quicker today in higher education than they ever have before.
Jim Roth: And I am not certain that the governance structure that exists within higher education lends itself to be efficient, to be creative, in addressing some of the challenges in a rapidly changing highly competitive environment. I worry about higher ed’s ability to adjust to the competitive pressures that exist today.
Jim Roth: I mentioned that we also do work, a lot of work, in healthcare. And if you have read the newspapers at any time over the last decade, you read about the fundamental challenge in healthcare relates to cost and quality. And I think the issue is likely the same in higher education.
Jim Roth: It has a slightly different terminology, but essentially people are saying that people talk about that they’re not certain that they’re getting the value that they want out of higher education. More specifically, people say, “I’m paying a lot of money and I can’t get a job or I can’t get the job that I want.” And I think it’s unfair to put that entire burden on higher education. But nevertheless, that is one of the fundamental challenges they’re facing today. And that is the public’s general concern over the value proposition of cost and quality in higher education.
Jim Roth: And I think maybe the last thing I’d mention, competition, particularly coming through technology, has really enabled access to a high degree of quality at much lower costs in education than has ever really existed before. And so there’s many, many, new opportunities and new ways to gain an education — a high quality education — maybe not in the same way that we’ve always done, or that was traditionally done by going to a nice, leafy four-year school. Or even a two-year school.
Jim Roth: But you have access to a much better education via technology at a lower cost. And I think that’s beginning to have a big impact on the way that people view the more expensive, more traditional options for higher education. So, I think collectively, those are the issues that I worry about the most in higher education today.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, what is it that the leaders in higher ed need to do in order to really thrive in this environment? I mean, a lot of these changes that you’re talking about have been in the past five years or even more recent than that. And, you’re right. Things are changing really quickly. So, what is it that the leaders need to do? How are you supporting them in dealing with all these challenges you just listed out?
Jim Roth: Well, we’ve been doing a lot of work from our strategy practice. We acquired a company called Innosight about a year or so ago. But one of the things that we’re encouraging a lot of our clients to do is from a strategic perspective, get alignment among their senior leadership teams and also their board. Actually, a lot of their constituents as well — to try to get an understanding of what are they really up against? Like, “what are we really going to look like four, five, six years down the road? How well do we understand what we’re up against? How well do we understand the way our our market is changing? How well do we understand the way other markets that might be entering into our space are changing?”
Jim Roth: I think you need to have a decent understanding of that. And then share that amidst the key people within your organization. And get alignment in terms of where you think things are going.
Jim Roth: And then you have to come back and try to figure out what we as an institution should do to make sure that we continue to provide the kind of education that our students expect. But at the same time, begin to take relatively quick action toward the things that we think are going to be necessary for us to be successful in the future.
Jim Roth: Without that kind of story, without that kind of consensus within your organization, I think it’s going to be very difficult for a lot of organizations to get aligned in terms of where they need to go. And therefore, I think it will have a significant impact on their ability to really carry out some of their goals and objectives.
Jim Roth: Certainly, a part of that process would be to develop a reasonable business model then to accomplish that.
Jim Roth: And we often find that they don’t do that extra, very important step. And that is to go back and make sure that your strategic goals and objectives are aligned with a business model that’s sustainable and that you’re capable of achieving. So those two things combined, I think are things that are that are really important for management to be doing and leadership to be doing.
Jim Roth: And I guess the last part would be in terms of recommendations. It’s very easy to get lulled into complacency, to a degree of complacency, by saying, “Well, we’re okay for this year and we’ll ride it out for another year and see how things evolve.” And I’m certain that most places can do that for a year. I’m relatively certain that most places can do it for two years. I think you’re going to find that your ability to react to something that’s more disruptive is going to be more and more limited. So, I think you really have got to say that even if you think you can get through the year, two years, don’t enable your institution to be complacent in this rapidly changing environment.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So, that’s really interesting to hear. I have another question though — what about the risks? What if they don’t move forward in the way that you just described, I mean, what are the biggest risks?
Jim Roth: Well, certainly there’s been a lot written about some of the existential risks. You know, I agree with some of them to some extent. There certainly are some institutions that are are probably going to have a very rough view of the future and not a high likelihood of success. But I don’t think that’s all of them. I think the real issue is going to be that if you can’t find a way to be more responsive to the way that the market demands are proceeding, if you can’t find a way to make sure that you really do understand the way the market’s changing — the way that the students are looking for what they want out of an institution, what they want out of education. If you don’t really focus on that and make sure that you’re aligned to make sure that you’re going to address those needs, you run a real serious risk of having some financial concerns. Because those people will go elsewhere where they can find that.
Jim Roth: And the minute you start talking about financial concerns in this kind of environment, I think you run a real risk of getting to the point where you’re not going to be able to attract and retain the best faculty, the best administrators, and the best students. So, that certainly is a major concern that I have. So we encourage our boards, the boards of our clients, we encourage senior leadership to have these discussions.
Jim Roth: I’ve been working in higher ed now, with higher ed institutions, for just under 30 years. And I think the first 27 was a walk in the park compared to the last three. I certainly worry about the financial wherewithal. But I also worry about the leadership to make it through this very difficult time.
Hester Tinti-Kane: So that’s really interesting and it relates back to several of the other interviews that we’ve done with higher ed leaders who are actually saying it’s quite a small pool of candidates in higher ed leadership.
Jim Roth: They just happen to be in a very difficult business environment that’s become highly competitive. We are thrilled to be able to work with organizations that are so crucial to this country’s future, and to the future of the world. We feel very good about our future. And I think the fun part of our job, particularly in higher education, is that we get to work with organizations where our clients have very bright people at all levels. And education is so important to our entire wellbeing. We get to work with those kinds of people every day. And for that, we are — we’re very fortunate.
Hester Tinti-Kane: Well thank you so much for sharing all that, Jim. It’s been great to speak with you today.
Jim Roth: Thank you very much.
This episode is brought to you by Huron.
Huron is a global consultancy with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.
You can learn more about what Huron does by visiting huronconsultinggroup.com.
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