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The Future Ready Campus: Opportunities + Outcomes = Student Success

How can we connect student success outcomes, return on investment, and strategic resource allocation in a way that sustains the innovations that are necessary to support the success of the next generation of college students?

The above core question was on our minds as we began our partnership with APLU to support Collaborative Opportunity Grant (COG) and Frontier Set campus leadership teams in developing return on investment and sustainability strategies to support efforts to increase student success on their campuses. To these ends, we co-hosted a design studio in Washington, DC on July 26-27, 2017. The following insights into the session may be helpful to field leaders seeking to connect investment opportunities and outcomes to student success.

The design studio goals included:

  1. Uncover the truth regarding drivers and barriers for ROI and sustainability in higher education business models

  2. Chart the course for the COG and Frontier Set grantees to deliver on their ideas and investments

  3. Tell the story of a new strategic finance approach to peers

  4. Use a customer experience map and a story telling pitch canvas created from the sessions to communicate the goals and impact of investment in student success projects to the broader campus community

The objective of the first day was to help campus teams build a shared future vision for strategic finance. We kicked off the day with a discussion of current opportunities to leverage resources to increase student success in higher education. Collaborative sessions followed where grantee teams reflected on and mapped out the current ROI landscape on their campus as it relates to their student success initiatives and took part in a “design challenge” to further understand the connection between resources and design constraints.

On day two, rpk GROUP led the campus teams through a number of activities geared toward applying the ROI and sustainability lens to the teams’ individual grant projects and provided guidance through experience design examples related to the various stages of their grants, focusing specifically on ROI and sustainability practices and examples to improve grant outcomes. rpk GROUP facilitated these discussions, helping the teams improve how they measure and link existing student success metrics to institutional ROI and sustainability. All of the teams then spent team time building out the ROI and sustainability components of their project maps.

A primary objective of this meeting was for campus teams to be able to not only conceptualize and apply a return on investment lens to their student success efforts but to be able to communication the value of this investment to multiple campus constituency groups. The middle part of the day was spent on sharpening their stories and pitches through various tools (video, template, canvas, etc.) related to Daniel Pink’s work – To Sell is Human.

Teams learned the importance of being concise and targeted in communicating their projects to internal and external audiences via a pitch canvas example found below:

blog image rPk worshop

From our perspective, several “ahas” were a part of the design studio session.

Institutions care very deeply about the impact of the work they do; yet terms around return on investment, yield, or margins often fit into the category of business jargon. The terms can have the dual effect of frustrating team members back on campus and stifling innovation if the perception of the work is around making money or cost cutting.

Thus, we have to work collaboratively to create a shared future vision for how we talk about resources and their connection to student success. We should pause often to co-develop shared meaning, in academic friendly terms, and with the sole purpose of demystifying the conversation of strategic finance and sustainability.

In addition, we found that getting very granular with teams around their specific work, in their context, and at the points of Research and Development (R&D), stages of users, and outcomes was critical. It gave them permission to re-think and re-imagine how at each stage they could share data and impact with their teams and leaders back on campus.

Finally, we all agreed that story telling and visual design really matters for teams to share information with funders, budget leads, and influencers in their campus communities. With each version of their pitch conversations, participants utilized feedback loops with each other and our teams to sharpen their ability to communicate their story to a range of constituency groups when they returned to their campuses.

Initial feedback from campus team participants was very positive. In the words of one participant in the APLU Design Studio:

“The hands-on exercises on ROI, sustainability, and telling our story put me in a completely different mindset when it comes to project management. I have been a PI for several projects with millions of dollars over the course of my 20-plus-year career. Though my teams and I met our objectives, your workshop/meeting made me reflect over ways I could have maximized the funds more (ROI), incorporated the projects better into the fabric of the universities (sustainability) and told those stories better (communication).” 

We are looking forward to continuing to work with APLU to support these campus teams as they move forward with their individual grant projects.


Bryan Setser serves as the Entrepreneur in Residence at rPk GROUP. Bryan partners with the team to develop the overall firm strategy and lends his expertise to higher education, strategic partner development, and emerging technology solutions for the industry. Bryan’s work in higher education has included leading the higher education practice at 2Revolutions, a leading national design firm where his portfolio included multiple foundations, universities, HBCUs, membership organizations, and community colleges.


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