Dr. Sarah Kottich has always enjoyed puzzles, putting the pieces together, and solving challenging problems. And, like those puzzle pieces, her competing interests and passions in math, science, and serving and guiding others came together to create a meaningful career that has made a considerable difference in the lives of young women and their families.
“I led the research, planning and implementation of a 33% reduction in the tuition rate at College of Saint Mary in 2017,” said Kottich, provost of the Omaha-based, Catholic women’s college. “This followed eliminating all fees for students in 2013. Our vision was to provide access to affordable, high-quality education for women.
”Additionally, Kottich said she is proud of progress in reducing annual student loan borrowing by 38%, while increasing enrollment of underrepresented minorities by 6% to 31%.
Kottich is now considered to be among the “handful” of experts in the country on tuition reduction in higher education.
“My doctoral research was on this topic and yielded a discernment tool for college [and] university boards to use when considering changes to their tuition- setting approach,” she said. “I have since worked with several leadership teams, both at College of Saint Mary and other institutions, in considering the benefits, risks and possible outcomes of a change in pricing strategy.”
So, now Kottich presents a “triple-threat:” a pioneer in finance/accounting, higher education leadership and the highly specialized world of tuition pricing strategies. How did she get here?
“When I was starting college, I was not sure what I wanted to do or be,” the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate recalled. “I changed majors from engineering to math to chemistry all in my first year.”
After her father suggested she take business courses, Kottich realized she needed two accounting courses to secure a major in the field. While her first course was “not fun,” she described the second course taught by Melba Lucas as opening her world.
“[Lucas] made accounting seem interesting, understandable, important and fun,” Kottich said. “She was a role model who I could look up to.”
In fact, Kottich had been told by male accountants that: “’If I planned to be married and have children, I should not pursue working for a certified public accounting (CPA) firm, but instead be a bookkeeper for a small business.’”
“Mrs. Lucas turned that opinion on its head,” she continued. “She told me that I certainly could be a CPA. She thought I would be good at it as well, with or without children.”
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Kottich would go on to start her career at Deloitte, as an auditor and CPA, which she said was “formational” in her approach as a businesswoman.
“While serving my clients at Deloitte, I learned the importance of understanding the nuances of the industry, how to identify and ask critical questions, and the importance of culture on an institution’s performance,” she said.
Sept. 11, 2001 was a self-described career “awakening” for Kottich.
“My firstborn son, Zach, was merely 3 months old, and I had just returned to work from maternity leave,” she said. “I struggled with balancing work and motherhood. I kept asking myself if the work I was doing was purposeful enough to justify being away from my family.”
Higher education was the answer. The journey came courtesy of Kottich’s mentee, Casey Meyer, who was applying for a controller position at Midland Lutheran College (now Midland University).
“She went on to propose that I apply for the vice president (for finance) position, and we take on the adventure together,” she said.
With some persuasion from Kottich’s sister, Bridget, one thing eventually led to another.
“Within a month, I was hired on as the vice president of finance at Midland Lutheran College at the age of 28,” she said. “Four years later, I received an email from a peer at College of Saint Mary, sharing that they were searching for a new vice president of finance.”
She remembered how the idea of serving for a Catholic institution, dedicated to educating women, was a “natural fit.”
“In my 14 years at College of Saint Mary, I have been promoted from the vice president of finance to the executive vice president of operations and planning, and now serve as the provost,” Kottich said. “I feel privileged to serve this mission, alongside so many dedicated and talented colleagues.”
CAREER, INDUSTRY STRIDES
“Women have grown in their prominence in higher education leadership over the last 20 years,” Kottich summed up.
She recalled attending the 2003 Nebraska Private College Business Officer meeting.
“I was one of the only females and clearly the youngest of the group,” Kottich said. “In 2019, I presented to this same organization, and was pleased to see approximately half of the leaders were women.”
Citing the American Council of Education, women’s representation as presidents of colleges and universities has grown by 9% to 30% between 2001 and 2016.
“Which still seems proportionately low, considering that women now make up 60% of college students,” she said.
According to American Institute of CPAs statistics, women only accounted for 19% of partners at CPA firms in 1993 and still only account for 23% of partners, despite 60% of the accounting and auditing workforce being female.
Women like College of Saint Mary President Dr. Maryanne Stevens, are counted among Kottich’s most influential mentors (and encouraged her to earn an Educational Doctorate in Interdisciplinary Leadership from Creighton University). Whereas her parents, Jim and Mary Londay, created a “safe space” for Kottich to try new things, fail and learn from those experiences.
“They taught me to be appreciative of my gifts and talents, and to use them to help others,” she said. “With this, I grew into a leader who uses her voice for positive change.”