Observations from the 2023 NACUBO Annual Meeting

August 4, 2023 |
4 minute read

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the NACUBO Annual Meeting in Orlando, FL, where nearly 2,000 representatives from higher education institutions across North America came together to share strategies for leading their institutions, policy considerations and to discuss ongoing transformations in the higher education sector. The official theme of the gathering, ‘Transform | Lead | Advocate,’ was fitting.

Three key themes emerged even before the first day’s sessions wrapped. They remained prevalent throughout the remaining conference sessions, in conversations during coffee breaks, over meals and while perusing the exhibit hall over the two-and-a-half-day event.

The Enrollment Cliff

While it’s no secret that enrollment across the higher education sector has been declining, presenters at the NACUBO Annual Meeting made it clear that the full effects of this demographic cliff have not yet been seen and likely won’t be for another 2 years. For institutions relying on tuition as a main source of income, this is troublesome. The need to be proactive and think strategically in order to develop alternative ways to draw students and the community to their campuses is essential. One institution shared that they host a farmer’s market for the local community each week, while another described how they continually reevaluate their benefits packages for students in response to what their peers are and are not offering, such as remote classes, unique on-campus housing experiences, etc. Another school has reimagined the freshman experience to include the opportunity to go abroad to a handful of international satellite campuses and move to the main campus for the second freshman semester, an experience not typically offered to underclassmen.

While not every school has the money to fund niche offerings, another potential approach is to collaborate with other institutions - both higher ed and other sectors - to offer complementary experiences rather than competing ones. A great example of this is Pace University’s Department of Biological Sciences in New York (“Pace”) collaborating with Lenox Hill Hospital to offer a physician’s assistant major. Joining with a local health system helped give the program credibility and created a new reason for prospective students to consider applying to Pace. Today, the university has clinical affiliations with most health systems in NYC and the surrounding geographic area.

New perspectives and ideas can only enhance the student experience and the future of the institution. Offering experiences that other institutions don’t have but for which there is a demand could help subsidize other programs that are important but not growing.

Effects of Inflation

In 2022, the public and private sectors experienced down financial markets like we haven’t seen since the 2008 market crash, and the higher education sector also took a hit. Although 2023 is proving to be more favorable to investors, three main areas of concern remain for higher ed.

  1. Employee Compensation and Retention: As higher ed wage growth lags the broader market, institutions remain committed to strategizing ways to offer benefits that are attractive and distinct from the private sector. One institution has implemented daycare and pet care programs for their employees, as well as the ability for remote work. Although the latter is not applicable to all positions on a campus, it remains an enticing perk for many.
  2. Capital Planning: Campus improvements are struggling to move forward. Most often set in advance after a grant or gift is awarded, by the time the budget is approved for these projects, many end up being carried out over 3-5 years instead of the intended one to two. Estimating costs has become nearly impossible over multi-year horizons. The rising prices of materials and labor frequently result in a need to cancel projects entirely or at the very least reimagine them. To offset these particular challenges, some schools are pre-purchasing materials with the hopes of keeping their plans on a set path to completion. In addition, some schools are looking to contract with more localized construction companies instead of the larger ones that have a national presence. This allows schools to pay it forward to their community, immediately pay with cash on hand and lock in pricing, while supporting their local businesses and giving those businesses greater cash flow.
  3. Tuition Strategy: Tuition remains the most significant source of income for higher education institutions, but according to the NACUBO Tuition Discounting Study released earlier this year, tuition discount rates have hit a new high1. To many schools, making a commitment to provide affordable education is ingrained in their mission, and it can also help attract and retain students. But balancing the costs and benefits of this model given the impending enrollment cliff is an ongoing challenge. Schools are continually reevaluating their aid and benefits packages not only to attract students but also to stay competitive amongst their peers. What can they offer that others aren’t? Schools should be thoughtful when considering what the students are looking for and what might be sought out in the future as the markets and financial landscape evolve.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Considerations

There is no single playbook that can be implemented across all institutions for how to diversify a student base, and with the recent SCOTUS decision any intentional efforts may soon become increasingly difficult. However, schools should continue to be strategic when considering how they can provide more support for the diverse students they have and the ones they want to attract. Looking at the market the institution serves, the current student base and the geographic location of the school are important factors in understanding the socio-economic status of students, what matters to them and what they want from a college experience. While some institutions are located in areas that organically allow for more diverse students, some simply are not. The Supreme Court’s recent ruling may affect an institution’s ability to take race into consideration in the admissions process, however there are still many ways an institution can move their DEI efforts forward. To learn more about the SCOTUS Affirmative Action ruling and its implications for higher ed and other sectors, please view our recent article HERE.

While these observations were what resonated most with me as I navigated the more than 50 general and breakout sessions offered, they are by no means all encompassing. Colleges and universities have a number of important issues to consider over the coming months and years, which is why gatherings like these are so important – to provide a platform for discussion and potential solutions, that might not be available within the walls of one’s own institution. Commonfund plans to explore these issues and more in the 2023 NACUBO-Commonfund Study of Endowments (NCSE), scheduled to open for data collection in September. If you are interested in participating, please click here to learn more about how you can be a part of this year’s research. The more data we collect, the more we can understand and work together to solve these pressing and complex issues.

Sign up to participate in the next NCSE!

  1. Tuition Discount Rates Hit New High, Inside Higher ED, April 2023
Allison Kaspriske


Allison Kaspriske


Stay connected with the Insights Blog

Popular Blog Posts

Market Commentary | Insights Blog

Chart of the Month | The Surprising Relationship Between Money Supply and Inflation

The potential for rising inflation is becoming a top concern for many investors and consumers. Many believe that inflation is already here as evidenced by price increases in commodities, homes,...
Perspectives | Insights Blog

The Case for Using the Higher Education Price Index® (HEPI) to Define Inflation for Colleges

When calculating return targets for an endowment portfolio, a conventional piece of the equation is often the Consumer Price Index (CPI). CPI plus 5% is the common short-hand formula for institutions...
Governance And Policy | Insights Blog

Endowment Management and the Three Primary Responsibilities of a Board

The fourth blog in the “Six Ps of Investment Stewardship” series addresses People, specifically how boards function within an organization. To learn more about the first four principles in the series...


Certain information contained herein has been obtained from or is based on third-party sources and, although believed to be reliable, has not been independently verified. Such information is as of the date indicated, if indicated, may not be complete, is subject to change and has not necessarily been updated. No representation or warranty, express or implied, is or will be given by The Common Fund for Nonprofit Organizations, any of its affiliates or any of its or their affiliates, trustees, directors, officers, employees or advisers (collectively referred to herein as “Commonfund”) or any other person as to the accuracy or completeness of the information in any third-party materials. Accordingly, Commonfund shall not be liable for any direct, indirect or consequential loss or damage suffered by any person as a result of relying on any statement in, or omission from, such third-party materials, and any such liability is expressly disclaimed.

All rights to the trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property listed herein belong to their respective owners and the use of such logos hereof does not imply an affiliation with, or endorsement by, the owners of such trademarks, copyrights, logos and other intellectual property.

To the extent views presented forecast market activity, they may be based on many factors in addition to those explicitly stated herein. Forecasts of experts inevitably differ. Views attributed to third-parties are presented to demonstrate the existence of points of view, not as a basis for recommendations or as investment advice. Market and investment views of third-parties presented herein do not necessarily reflect the views of Commonfund, any manager retained by Commonfund to manage any investments for Commonfund (each, a “Manager”) or any fund managed by any Commonfund entity (each, a “Fund”). Accordingly, the views presented herein may not be relied upon as an indication of trading intent on behalf of Commonfund, any Manager or any Fund.

Statements concerning Commonfund’s views of possible future outcomes in any investment asset class or market, or of possible future economic developments, are not intended, and should not be construed, as forecasts or predictions of the future investment performance of any Fund. Such statements are also not intended as recommendations by any Commonfund entity or any Commonfund employee to the recipient of the presentation. It is Commonfund’s policy that investment recommendations to its clients must be based on the investment objectives and risk tolerances of each individual client. All market outlook and similar statements are based upon information reasonably available as of the date of this presentation (unless an earlier date is stated with regard to particular information), and reasonably believed to be accurate by Commonfund. Commonfund disclaims any responsibility to provide the recipient of this presentation with updated or corrected information or statements. Past performance is not indicative of future results. For more information please refer to Important Disclosures.