Like many higher education institutions, small and midsize colleges face a litany of challenges, including attracting students and recruiting and retaining employees in a competitive environment. Now, a new company called Core Education Services aims to help colleges meet those challenges through its affiliation network.
The public benefit company, which launched Tuesday, describes itself as a “new private network for the exclusive benefit of small and mid-sized colleges and universities.” Services provided will include “marketing, enrollment resources, workforce programs, technology modernization, operational efficiency, capital strategies, campus operations, and compliance services,” according to a press release.
With 10 institutions already in the fold, Core Education sees nowhere to go but up as it seeks to expand its roster of colleges and build partnerships with colleges in a variety of nonacademic areas.
Core Education Services is the brainchild of Rick Beyer, who got his start in the corporate world but has a long history in higher education—including a three-year stint as president of Wheeling Jesuit University. He’s since gone on to work with a number of colleges in different capacities, which he believes has given him valuable insight into the challenges of his potential clients.
“I started to see patterns develop. And among those patterns were that these colleges were looking to: How do we transform to meet the marketplace needs? How do we get to a viable financial model? And how do we stay independent and keep our mission?” Beyer said.
While some colleges are merging or being acquired by larger institutions, independence is key for Core’s customer base, said Beyer. His organization aims to help colleges navigate a challenging marketplace by providing services that they need while allowing them to maintain their independence.
If an individual college is struggling to hire technology staff, for example, Core Education can step in and provide its services. Though headquartered outside Washington, D.C., Core will hire mostly remote employees to its staff, which Beyer said allows the company to access vast pools of talent—workers whom colleges might struggle to attract on their own.
“We’re able to hire really exceptional people because they don’t necessarily have to all sit in the same office. But at the same time, we will also hire people and domicile them at the college, so we’ll also have employees that are actually at the college as well,” Beyer explained.
The goal isn’t to replace employees but to offer colleges access to resources that they may struggle to provide or to access locally, including hiring employees in high-demand areas, such as information technology.
Beyer added that Core will also be able to “fractionalize our costs across many institutions.”
The 10 institutions Core is currently working with are all private religious colleges—though Beyer noted the religious affiliation was more coincidental than purposeful—with $457 million in combined budgets. They are: Greensboro College, Siena Heights University, Regis College and a group of seven institutions under the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.
Beyer said Core Education hopes to expand to between 20 and 25 member institutions by next year, with institutional budgets topping a total of $1 billion. Core is seeking small to midsize partner institutions with at least $50 million in assets, and Beyer said long term he could envision 50 to 100 institutions onboard.
And just as each college is different, so is each contract. Every college client essentially selects from a menu of services that Core Education will provide to best meet its particular needs.
“Generally speaking, we tend to do a lot of our projects in technology, as well as revenue growth—campus revenue, online revenue, workforce development revenue,” Beyer said. “Those are the big pain points, but they do pick and choose, and every contract stands on its own.”
Outside experts see affiliation networks like Core Education Services as potentially valuable partners for institutions that are struggling in areas like enrollment management and talent recruitment. They also help institutions keep up with the rising costs of maintaining a robust workforce.
But “the devil is in the details of execution,” said Kasia Lundy, a principal at EY-Parthenon who has written about effective partnerships and collaborative efforts across higher education.
Michael K. Thomas, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, who has written about strategic alliances, noted that the services offered by Core match up with the common needs of many small and midsize colleges, especially those outside urban areas.
“The services they propose to offer and operate and provide are ones which are very critical to institutions to turn the corner in terms of being able to grow enrollments and maximize revenue,” Thomas said.
He added that many small and midsize colleges struggle with “marketing and enrollment, technology and technology modernization,” among other areas, and that there are many “benefits that can be gained from collaborating or consolidating those across multiple institutions.”
With many small and midsize colleges struggling and some at risk of closure, some experts caution that the type of affiliation that Core offers isn’t a cure-all, but it may offer a boost.
“This idea of a network that is broader than an individual institution that can provide some economies of scale, and some expertise, seems incredibly appealing in the marketplace over all. Whether it will be enough to allow these institutions to survive and thrive, I think it’s very much an open question, but it seems at least like it’s a step in the right direction,” said Haven Ladd, a partner at EY-Parthenon who co-authored a piece with Lundy on higher ed collaborations.
While experts view the launch of Core Education with cautious optimism, they note there are a number of unanswered questions. For example, how will the company manage the scale if it grows as large as 50 to 100 institutions? And while Core is a public benefit corporation, it is nonetheless a for-profit company—how will that model stack up against nonprofit affiliation networks like the five-college TCS Education System? Will the model provided by Core Education attract oversight or attention from accreditors as it eventually expands its reach?
For now, those questions are all impossible to answer. But then there are additional questions colleges must ask themselves as they consider joining an affiliation.
“I think that colleges have to really understand what their needs are, understand their institution, what the critical challenges are, and make sure that this partnership or network is going to meet those needs,” Thomas said. “I think colleges have to have assurances that they’re going to have a voice and representation and the ability to help craft the nature of the network for the partnership so that it’s responsive to their needs. I think they also need some flexibility.”
And as demographic declines of high school graduates hit much of the U.S. and traditional student numbers fall, experts suggest that the time for collaboration in higher education may be now, particularly for institutions facing the greatest economic pressures.
“We do think there’s a window of opportunity for these more strategic partnerships to play out in the coming years. At some point, the institutions that will seek partnerships in the future will likely be so weakened that no one really wants them. So it’ll be an area of trying to desperately survive, as opposed to trying to innovate in order to thrive,” Ladd said. “And the more that they can think proactively, as some of these Core members have now, it’s probably going to give them opportunities for better partnerships, better consortium than they’ll have in the future.”