08/02/2013 05:18 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

Business 101: Tuition In, Teaching Out

"Holy bachelor's degree, Batman! This tiny public college looks a lot like a business! Is that possible?"

"Why, yes, Robin. This tiny public college is, in fact, a business. They advertise and sell a product called education, to customers called students, for a price called tuition. And just like other businesses, if they don't bring in enough customers or give their product away too cheaply, they'll go OUT of business.... Hey, come to think of it, maybe you should think about going to college, Robin. I hear they're having a red tag sale down at State U."

Despite the phenomenal growth of for-profit postsecondary education, those of us at nonprofit colleges and universities are still loath to think of ourselves as part of a business. After all, how can you put a price on philosophy and literature? How can you possibly consider a history class a product? We don't "sell" education, and students don't "buy" it from us. To think of education as a business, with budgets and balance sheets, is to somehow cheapen or degrade it.

But let me tell you, at the end of the fiscal year when the bottom line starts to take shape, it's business staring me in the face. And when that bottom line takes on a crimson glow, I know that we haven't sold enough education to enough customers at the right price -- or some combination of those three factors.

At a regional public university such as my own, our primary mission is to meet the postsecondary needs of the local region. Or to put it more eloquently, to create "enriching educational opportunities that prepare graduates for professional success and lifelong engagement with the world." That's the easy part, because we're teachers. That's what we do. We teach.

For people in the local region, the public university is also the place where they go to check out a library book, take a swim in the pool, watch a basketball game in the gym, drop their kid off at the child-care center, attend a concert in the performing arts center, or just borrow a classroom for an afternoon meeting. We're expected to have, among our modest faculty and staff, experts in every imaginable field who will be more than happy to spend a few hours helping with your very, very special project. Mostly we're expected to do all this stuff for free, since we are -- after all -- the local public university. And we're usually honestly glad to do it, since we are -- after all -- the local public university.

But at the end of the day, it all comes down to this: tuition in, teaching out. Yes, our tuition revenue is supplemented by a state appropriation, but the percentage of public education covered by the state shrinks every year and it's well below fifty percent. So our success -- indeed, our continued existence -- depends on all of us, faculty and staff, pulling together to offer the very best product at the lowest possible price to as many customers as possible.

As president, I would love to be able to somehow shield the faculty and staff from having to think of what we do as "business." Faculty teach at small colleges because they're passionate about teaching, and they routinely go far above and beyond to help students be successful. I desperately want our faculty to be able to devote their time and energy to the classrooms and labs, working with students on applied research, supervising internships, attending academic conferences, and just hanging out with students at the midnight breakfast during final exams. I don't want them to have to worry that we can't afford to fill that vacant position in their department, or that we'll cancel their favorite class if a few more students don't register for it soon. I don't want this to be a business.

But my wanting it doesn't make it so. As a colleague said to me recently, "Hope is not a strategy." Revenue in, product out. Tuition in, teaching out. We need to operate efficiently, market effectively, hone our customer-service skills, and differentiate ourselves from every other small public college in the country. Fortunately we already have the right people, the right location, and -- for the most part -- the right curriculum. This tiny public college, tucked away on the rugged coast of Maine, is going to be in business for a long time to come. Here's wishing the same for yours.