Creative problem-solving became a team sport—with a bit of friendly competition built in—at a recent FORVIS event focused on the higher education sector. 

The 2022 Higher Ed Innovation Tournament, held in Kansas City, brought together client representatives and FORVIS personnel from across the country to examine real issues solicited from the firm’s wide range of higher ed clients. The goal of the day-long event was to brainstorm potential tools and methods for helping clients solve selected problems. 

It all began with outreach to clients. The firm audits numerous colleges and universities across the country and advises many of them on complex financial issues. 

“We asked them, ‘What’s keeping you up at night?’” said Dustin Bobbitt, director of innovation at FORVIS. “We received close to 30 issues from our clients.”

Many revolved around the issue of enrollment headwinds and net tuition revenue. Others included deferred maintenance, investing in athletics programs, and removing data silos across campus. Leaders from within the firmwide Higher Education Center of Excellence  then chose four major challenges from that initial list and asked team members from 18 of its practice units across the country to pitch a possible approach for finding solutions to those problems. A committee selected the best ideas and asked delegates from those teams to join invited clients on site in Kansas City. 

Susan Scroggins, a longtime senior vice president with Valparaiso University in Indiana, was among the client representatives. 

“I was appreciative of the opportunity to spend time with the teams,” Scroggins said. “It was great to hear different perspectives and see peoples’ different skill sets and expertise at work.”

Scroggins said she was impressed by the teams’ use of technology throughout the event. Members of the firm’s innovation group were nested within the teams. Their presence helped the teams quickly expand upon ideas and understand how a potential new tool or method of problem-solving might work in practice, said Bobbitt. “We consulted on the ideas with the teams and ultimately even worked on the look and feel of the potential solutions.”

One example: a tool that can help schools see and understand real-time financial data on athletics programs, including coaches’ salaries, student-athlete scholarship information, retention and graduation rates, and more. Such a tool would help break down silos between athletic departments, enrollment managers, and administration. 

“Campus leaders need this kind of data not only to know what’s happening now but also to be able to make informed decisions about when and where to invest resources for the future,” said David Armstrong, director with FORVIS’s higher ed division. “Which new sports should they invest in? Should they be varsity sports or club-level programs? How many new student-athletes can be expected to enroll as a result? Those are just a few of the questions decision makers will consider when looking at such an investment—and athletics is just one of many multifaceted issues college leaders wrestle with every day.”

The athletics analysis tool was one of the projects voted among the winners during the event, along with a deferred maintenance tracking software program, and another about addressing the need to revise accounting curricula at the college level. All of the proposals had merit, however, said Armstrong, and the work will lead to new ways of helping client institutions deal with the complex issues they face year after year. 

Ultimately, enrollment and net tuition revenue are the primary issues most colleges are dealing with, Scroggins said, as they look ahead to a demographic-driven overall drop in high school graduates later this decade. There’s no one way to go about dealing with this key issue, she said, which is why the kind of thinking and collaboration seen at FORVIS’s Higher Ed Innovation Tournament was so exciting for her to see. 

“It speaks volumes about their commitment to continuing to innovate and provide the best solutions they can for their clients,” Scroggins said.

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