Priorities for the Future
Going forward, Haefner intends to focus on a handful of strategic priorities. In addition to ensuring a sustainable business model, he plans to create and support a holistic student experience, solidify DU’s portfolio of academic programs, cultivate a diverse, equitable and welcoming community, and empower a collaborative research enterprise.
Beefing up the business model
Even before COVID-19, private universities faced daunting challenges. “We already knew that there were vast changes [underway] that are going to deeply impact higher education,” Haefner says, listing a clutch of trends that confront college leaders everywhere: “the declining number of high school students, the changing demographics of our students, the affordability of higher education, the perceived value of higher education.”
Given these, Haefner says, putting DU in a stronger position “boils down to the value proposition that we offer our students, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.” Put another way: “At a total cost of over $70,000, are we doing enough for [students]?”
Robust demand for the DU experience would suggest that the University is doing many things right, Haefner says. Its residential model for undergraduates remains compelling, and its graduate and professional programs offer degrees that support ambitious career goals. But in a competitive marketplace, DU simply must distinguish its educational model.
“There are over 4,000 universities in the United States,” Haefner says. “They are all in this space, trying to recruit students. For what we offer, which is a highly experiential-based education, is the cost of education in line with [the experience]? Is the value that we give them in line with the cost?”
Keep in mind, he adds, that DU remains tuition-dependent. Although its endowment—which lags behind the endowments supporting the University’s top competitors—will undoubtedly benefit from aggressive fundraising, DU is likely to rely significantly on tuition revenue for the foreseeable future. Like most private institutions, DU will need to attract applicants able to pay the full cost of tuition, even as it seeks to remain financially accessible to students from varied backgrounds. All of this means DU will need to refine its educational experience and make sure prospective students and families understand just what DU offers.
“As competition gets more intense, other universities are differentiating themselves in that regard. And the University of Denver can be no different,” he says. “We have to emphasize what makes us unique, not only what we offer today but what we offer in the future.”