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Business Officer Magazine

Transformation to the Third Power

A small private institution in North Carolina makes a big name for itself as a destination school.

By Bill Duncan

Why concentrate on enhancing just your institution’s physical appearance, academic environment, or overall student experience, when you can tackle all of them at once? That’s the kind of threefold strategy High Point University’s president, Nido R. Qubein, had in mind when he arrived in 2005. Qubein’s vision was to take HPU from a “back-up” or “okay-but-not-great” school to a “first-choice” university. The resulting transformation of the university has gained the appreciation and support of current and prospective students, parents, and alumni as well as the university’s faculty and staff.

Founded in 1924, High Point University is located in High Point, North Carolina, the “Furniture Capital of the World.” On the day President Qubein took office, 391 freshmen and 1,460 total traditional day students were enrolled, with 919 living on campus. Only three years later, the numbers had grown to 883 freshmen (126 percent growth) and 2,309 total traditional day students (58 percent growth), with 1,983 living on campus (116 percent growth). We project that total traditional day enrollment will grow to more than 3,400 (2,800 living on campus) within the next three years. In addition, the university’s 1,500 graduate school and evening degree students will bring overall enrollment to nearly 5,000. These increases are directly attributable to our efforts to make HPU more of a destination school.

Despite these impressive numbers, the university has no specific plans to expand beyond this level; instead it seeks to maintain the advantages of being a school of this size. If the focus is not so much on growth, then what kind of transformation is taking place? According to President Qubein, “The transformation at High Point University is at once physical, environmental, and experiential in nature.” And the university’s business office has played a critical role throughout this threefold process.

Physical Enhancements

A presence that attracts current and future students is being driven by a $250 million investment in capital improvements on campus funded through $105 million in bond issues during the past four years, private donations, and HPU’s operating budget. Related work began in the second half of 2005 and will conclude in the first half of 2010.

We used extensive surveys and market data to determine which buildings and amenities would have the potential to attract students who might otherwise be persuaded to attend competing schools of our size. We are now competing directly with the most desirable private and public schools in this area, and in many cases, we are “winning.” Since 2005, 7 campus buildings have been demolished, 14 new ones have been built, and 4 more are currently under construction or being planned.

To support these physical improvements, alumni, friends, and supporters have donated more than $106 million—absent a formal capital campaign. The university undertook a rather extensive marketing effort for the various capital projects envisioned for the campus, particularly for naming opportunities. The campaign was strengthened by Qubein’s full participation in soliciting funds for the projects.

In addition, the university business office worked with Standard & Poor’s to obtain a stand-alone credit rating for the university. We received an A- rating in June 2008, with Standard & Poor’s reporting that the rating reflected “growth in headcount and solid student-demand characteristics, strong financial operations, impressive short-term fundraising, and strong leadership and management.” The rating is important to us as it gives the university visibility in the broader investments community. While we are not trying to issue a stand-alone bond at present, it is wise—particularly given the present economic and financial climate—to have this type of recognition in the market for the future. The university was quite fortunate in that its timing for securing capital resources was very good. Certainly, if there was a current need for additional funding, the credit markets would be much tighter in light of recent economic conditions.

Nurturing Environment

We put a great deal of emphasis on providing a campus atmosphere in which each student can be most successful—academically and socially.

Focus on learning. A 14:1 student-to-faculty ratio is indicative of the university’s commitment to providing an effective educational environment. To that end, we added 37 new faculty positions for the 2008–09 academic year to keep pace with the increased enrollment.

The university has also invested in learning opportunities outside the classroom. For example, we’ve made major improvements to the university’s library, including extending its hours of operation. The library is now open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, which has resulted in a 25 percent increase in use during the past year. Each academic building also has a number of study areas designated for individuals and groups. These spaces are comfortable, well-equipped, and used extensively by students. In addition, student residence halls have dedicated study areas and business centers to support study efforts closer to home.

In making these changes, we considered both student input and budgetary matters. We constantly survey students about their thoughts on most everything, so they do not hesitate to share their opinions. The changes that we made were identified as those that would have the most substantial positive impact on the overall student experience in these specific areas. In addition, we evaluated the related costs on the same basis as everything we do at the university. That is, we are more than willing to incur expense if the program improves the student experience and can be properly funded (at least over time). At the end of the day, it is all about the students.

Socialization matters. Opportunities to share cultural and social experiences are also important to the total development of the HPU student. The recently completed Slane Student Center offers significant dining and recreational opportunities, including an indoor jogging track, aerobic and strength-training machines, indoor and outdoor basketball courts, and an outdoor pool—all for student use only. While we don’t necessarily realize a truly quantified return on investment for these student upgrades, we focus on what they do for the entire student experience at HPU. We see ROI in much lower attrition rates, much higher new student attraction rates, and similar measures.

Elevated Experience

Providing exceptional and personalized experiences is the third leg of the transformation stool and is critical to the overall balance of student life. To this end, the university employs a director of WOW!, whose job is to develop exciting programs (“WOWs”) and eliminate unnecessary frustrations (“unWOWs”) from the campus, whatever they might be. In terms of administration, this strategic area falls under the office of the vice president for community relations and administration.

Some examples of positive features include a specialty coffee shop in the student center and a state-of-the-art recreation facility featuring cardio equipment complete with personal television screens. On the other end of the spectrum, outdated bathroom facilities in dorms and an overload of campus-department e-mail to students were among the negative elements remedied since this program was created almost three years ago.

Birthdays offer an opportunity for special recognition and are big events at HPU. Each student receives a birthday card signed by the president, a Starbucks gift card, balloons, and a special meal prepared by the campus chef. The president also places birthday calls to faculty and staff members. This entire approach to birthdays has greatly enhanced the feeling of caring in the campus community.

Beyond birthday celebrations, the campus concierge, a position created almost two years ago, assists students with special requests. Live music in the campus cafeteria, snack kiosks around the campus, and an ice cream truck provide other positive experiences for students. While we recognize that economic conditions are difficult, we are striving not to lessen the student experience in any way. We know that at some point “this, too, shall pass,” and we don’t want to be that much further behind our competitors by having cut corners.

Clearly, WOW!, birthday, and other “experiential” activities incur costs, but the programs pay for themselves many times over in terms of campus connections and student and staff morale.

While these programs are fun and students love all the special attention they receive, the total experiential component cannot remain solely within the borders of the university. Rather, we encourage each student on campus to find involvement in community activities directly linked to the academic program. During the 2007–08 academic year, our students completed more than 27,000 hours of service to the greater High Point community, significantly strengthening the bond between the local community and High Point University.

Repositioning for the Future

Much more has occurred during the past 3 1/2 years. All the marketing materials in admissions have been totally reworked. We have more than twice as many admissions counselors as we did three years ago—and they continue to be quite busy. With their help, a great amount of upward positioning of HPU in the marketplace is occurring through word of mouth, with the university truly becoming a topic of conversation in many areas of the country.

While some faculty and staff were initially worried about the many changes taking place, they are on board with the evolution of the campus because they understand how they too can benefit from these improvements. U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Colleges 2009” ranks HPU as No. 1 among up-and-coming schools and No. 5 among baccalaureate colleges in the South (up from No. 15 three years ago). We are pleased with our progress thus far and heartened by the response from our stakeholders.

At the same time, given the current economic environment, the future remains unknown. While freshman applications and paid deposits are up substantially year over year—to record levels—the university is allowing for the potential that actual freshman enrollment will be equal with last year or might potentially even decline. To plan otherwise would not be prudent.

High Point University is facing significant challenges—indeed the same hurdles that all private colleges and universities are dealing with. In many ways, it is unknown how these challenges will manifest themselves. Yet, the transformation of the university continues at a lightning pace and remains a continual process at our institution.

BILL DUNCAN is vice president for financial affairs, High Point University, High Point, North Carolina.