College is a Business – What You Should Know and Why

College is a businessWritten by: Steve Wynne of Student Choice

The more you know about the business of the college you are considering or attending, the better off you will be.

Thinking about going to college? Beginning the college application process? Entering your sophomore year? It may surprise you that the college or university you are interested in or attending is actually a business. A big business.

Don’t think so? Consider that, for the most part, businesses in the U.S.:

  • Are organizations with a complex infrastructure
  • Are involved in the trade of goods or services to consumers
  • Have revenue streams and expenditures
  • Have income goals dependent on a strong corporate brand, supported by integrated marketing and communications efforts
  • Are privately owned, or state owned
  • Are for-profit, or not-for-profit.

Does that sound like a college to you? No?  Not yet? OK, let’s put things in perspective.


Colleges, like businesses (for simplicity’s sake, we’ll just say “college” when referring to all types of institutions of higher learning) vary a lot depending on location, type, culture, and history – but also share much in common. Think about the following two different types of colleges and the mental pictures they inspire. First, a small private liberal arts college in New England might make you think: green lawns, English majors, brick buildings and turtle neck sweaters. But a large public research university within the California state system might conjure up: granite walls, Engineering majors, palm trees and Condoleezza Rice.

Both appear to be completely different, but they actually share something in common: a corporate/business structure. Both have a governing board, a president or chancellor, dozens of academic departments with hundreds of faculty members, and a vast hierarchy of administrative departments with their own directors, managers and support staff. Plus, across a campus, employees at every level are collaborating with external authorities such as state and federal agencies and departments, political leaders, community organizations, members of the public who are not students, private business interests and philanthropic foundations. These external entities routinely interact with and shape the policies and procedures of a college’s internal organizational structures – just as they do for a business.


OK, so are you convinced a college is a business? Good! But you may be thinking “Big deal, what has that got to do with me?” The answer is – a lot. Or rather – if it doesn’t yet, it should. Because the more you know about the business of the college you are considering or attending, the better off you will be navigating through it to your advantage. So let’s review the key business related areas of a college campus.


  • Governing Boards – “The Authority”
    A college’s governing board, also known as the trustees, regents, or board of visitors, possesses fundamental legal authority over the college. How? It comes from the state legislature where the college is located, or in the case of older, private colleges, by legally binding charters. Both public and private governing boards are usually made up of citizen trustees. Most public colleges have trustees who are often political appointees – and serve as a link between the college and state and federal offices, agencies and politicians. In other words, power brokering!

  • The President – “The CEO”
    The liaison between a college and its governing board is the highest ranking executive officer on campus – the president or chancellor. He/she provides overall leadership to the college and presides over its academic and administrative departments. The president generally works closely with a Provost, who is responsible for academic affairs, and a Chief Financial Officer (CFO), who oversees the college’s fiduciary operation. A big part of what a president does involves fundraising for the college and being the key representative of the college to the outside world, for outreach to the community, to the press, and to alumni.
  • Administration and Staff – “The Professionals”
    On any college campus, there are two interrelated worlds, 1) Academics – faculty and support staff tied to “going to class,” and 2) Administration – all the people who do the jobs that make the campus run for students and faculty: student services, campus life, security – anything to do with the operation of the physical campus.



Each of the below offices are those with whom you will likely have the most contact on campus. The duties of each, and the work done by the people who work in each department, will vary from one college to another.

  • Admissions – “The Gatekeeper”
    The office to schedule a campus visit to learn more about the college, application process and requirements, tuition and fees, room and board and other costs.  Be sure to look for admissions statistics – the who, what and from where of students who have previously gotten in, as well as application dates and deadlines.

  • Financial Aid – “The Money”
    The office to assist you with applying for aid from federal, local, state, and college-the specific resources that are available to you. If you have applied for aid, as soon as you have accepted an admissions offer from a college you will receive an award letter detailing how much and what types of aid are available to you. You should contact the financial aid office immediately after receiving your award letter to discuss the details of your award.

  • Bursar/Business Office – “The Accounts”
    This office managing student accounts, meaning the bills for tuition and fees, and also credits student accounts for payments made or monies received through financial aid.  Most Bursar offices also manage a payment plan – a way to pay for college in interest free payments over multiple months. These are either internal to a college or managed by an outside vendor. You should always consider a payment plan option.

  • Controller – “The Keys of the Kingdom”
    This office is responsible for the development and maintenance of the college’s fiscal policies: accounting, budgets, and financial reports and accounts payable as well as related regulatory procedures. Many times, the bursar reports to the Controller, or can be the same level as the Controller. Both typically report to a director or vice president of finance.

  • Registrar – “The Bureaucracy”
    This office handles student records, processes registration, class schedules and maintenance of class lists, enforcement of rules for entering and dropping/leaving classes.

And in conclusion…

Never forget, as a prospective or enrolled student you play the most critical role at your college. Without you – a college would cease to exist!  So familiarity with the ideas we’ve reviewed can help you understand the many things about your college that are unique – make an effort to figure out the specific organizational structure of your college.

  • Who holds the key roles in the administration and faculty?
  • What are the pillars (historical, academic departments, research facilities, and athletics) that make your college unique?
  • What are the factors that drive your administrative and educational business decisions?

Having this knowledge will enhance your college experience. You will better understand the college’s mission and what makes it tick – meaning you can best support it and get the most out of it.

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  • The Business of Higher Education (Praeger), edited by John C. Knapp and David J. Siegel, 2009
  • “The Real Business of Higher Education,” Paul Stoller, Professor of Anthropology, West Chester University ( association presentation ).
  • Understanding the Business of Higher Education, Janet Ward, College & University, Volume 84, No 1, 2008

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