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A 122-Year-Old Start-Up? How Post University Reinvented Itself for the Modern Educational Era

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 5:32 pm

Fewer organizations today are able to stay in existence for more than 100 years. Business needs are changing rapidly across myriad industries, and in many cases what was relevant yesterday has been rendered obsolete today by new technologies and new ways of thinking.

Colleges and universities have a better track record than most businesses, but even these bastions of longevity sometimes fail to keep pace with market pressures and demands. A number of schools have shuttered their doors in recent years due to increased expenses, declining enrollments, dried-up revenues and dwindling endowments.

Post University was about to be one of these schools in 2004. It was 18 months from closing when a new management team took over and started upending everything from basic infrastructure to campus culture.

Fast forward to today. Post University is now on firm financial footing, and is becoming known as one the most innovative and vibrant schools in the Connecticut region. If you ask members of the senior management team what they have been doing for the past five to seven years, they will tell you they have been building a "122-year-old start-up."

We have reinvented Post to meet the needs of today's students, which are increasingly adult learners. That's why we have a start-up culture and mentality, yet are rooted in 122 years of experience in providing higher education to students around the country.

We wanted to share how we've made Post University's offerings relevant to the evolving educational needs of our students, and what we've learned along the way to help other educational institutions grow their organizations to better meet their students' needs, too.

First, some background for context. In 1989, Post University was acquired by Teikyo University in Japan. The school became a destination for Japanese students to learn about American culture and language. But as the Japanese economy and demographics changed, fewer students came to Post. Revenues naturally declined.

University management in the U.S. did not respond to this issue. As a result, the Japanese decided to sell Post. In 2004, Teikyo Post University became Post University once again, and a new, experienced, metrics-driven group of senior managers took the helm.

The team's primary goals were to 1) create a university that could deliver educational services to students in whatever format was most suitable for them, and 2) make a Post University degree more valuable with each passing year. The team also had a strong interest in restoring the school to its featured role as Waterbury's hometown university, which it has been since 1890.

To achieve these goals, the team realized its initial focus had to be on establishing financial stability. As is true with any business, you can't do much if you can't keep the lights on and make payroll. Post's management team turned to one of the school's historical strengths: distance learning. Post University has had a distance learning presence since 1976, and several members of the senior management team had experience in this area as well.

Post began building up its online education operation by offering the academic programs from its main campus to adult learners in a fully online, asynchronous format. It also started adding graduate programs, including the state's first fully online MBA degree program. Today, the Online Education Institute of Post University is a leader in providing online accelerated degree programs for working professionals.

Looking back on how we got here, there are a couple of takeaways that stand out. We hope you'll be able to pull out some ideas from this list that you can try in your own educational institution:

Use technologies to meet student needs. Much of our recent growth has come from using technology to expand our academic offerings beyond our campus. For instance, online discussion boards are an integral part of all our online courses. Our students have told us that online discussion forums foster greater interaction with their peers and instructors, and as a result, enrich their learning experience. This technology and others have enabled us to provide flexible online learning opportunities to the growing number of adult learners, which in turn has helped boost enrollment. In 2004, 98 percent of the University's 150 online students were from Connecticut. Today, about 65 percent of our more than 10,000 online students are from outside our home state.

Be a data-driven organization. We rely on a variety of metrics to assess the effectiveness of our operations, programs and strategies. This gives us greater quality control and fiscal accountability. We continually measure the impact of our academic programs and student support services through methods such as student surveys, responsive data and a host of financial indicators. The insights, challenges and opportunities we glean from our metrics enable us to dynamically make organizational improvements. Our process for collecting and tracking metrics also lets us share a status update with our stakeholders. We are one of the few educational institutions that provide our board of trustees with weekly metrics reports on the progress of the institution.

Operate like a business. Because you are. Without multi-billion-dollar endowments and/or significant state or other outside funding, we've found that operating more like a business has enabled us to evaluate our processes and make needed changes, and measure our progress against a well-defined strategic plan. This operational model includes relying on metrics-driven decision-making, having strong financial accountability, continually improving and innovating your product offerings and providing the ultimate in customer service.

Through heavy investments in technology, renovations to our Waterbury campus, the addition of new athletic programs and improvements in the quality and breadth of our academic offerings and teaching staff, we believe Post is in a position to thrive throughout the education industry's evolution. And so can other organizations, by focusing on improving the quality, affordability and flexibility of their educational opportunities for traditional and non-traditional college students.

Continuing to do what has been done in the past is rarely a successful formula for sustainable growth or quality improvement. Nurturing a start-up culture is a first step in fostering ongoing innovation to meet the changing needs of our students.