Higher Ed Must Transform to Stay Relevant:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Vickie Schray | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 084

Table of Contents

Higher Ed Must Transform to Stay Relevant

Societal needs from higher education are in an accelerated transformation phase, and in order to stay relevant and in demand, colleges and universities must adjust to those changing needs. Before the pandemic hit, higher education experienced disruptions from numerous forces – demographic shifts of traditional students, course-taking patterns, and institutional financial instability – all of which were magnified by COVID-19.

The pandemic also accelerated the upcoming enrollment cliff, which was projected for 2025, making the need for colleges and universities to transform to stay relevant increasingly urgent. COVID-19 forced leaders to rethink how the institution was going to serve the changing student population, especially those contemporary students who are working adults or those who have one risk factor identified by the Department of Education. Dramatic shifts are being seen in jobs, with some disappearing while others are growing, rapidly and exponentially, with re-education and skills acquisition in demand.

These challenges, when combined with the pandemic, are creating an opportunity for higher education to innovate, especially in relation to supporting better student outcomes. Higher education institutions now have an opportunity to develop curriculum to prepare students for the changing needs in the employment market and for jobs that do not currently exist.

Scaling Relevance Through Partnerships

Zovio, formerly Bridgepoint Education, Inc., has played a big part in helping bring universities together with industry. The organization works with over 200 universities to support them in providing boot camps, cybersecurity, and high-demand areas that prepare individuals for high-demand jobs at high wages. These types of partnerships can help universities stay relevant by leveraging external expertise to meet the growing demand.

Some institutions are creating their own curriculum development shops instead of outsourcing curriculum development to an OPM. While this can be a great idea, if an institution doesn’t have the capacity to rapidly scale, issues can quickly emerge due to the high demand. There is value to partnering with a private-sector company to launch programs and scale up programming.

Additionally, implementing a hybrid model for curriculum development is a great option for choosing bundled and unbundled services to suit the institution and student needs. It’s important to look for partners that can support academic leadership and support faculty in meeting the needs of their current students as well as prospective students.

Creating partnerships with industry adds a layer of insight into what future job skills will be and helps colleges and universities develop the curriculum to provide those emerging high-paying positions with the employees they need. 

Federal Funding for Transformation

Significant money has been pumped into higher education, K-12, and workforce development systems from the Federal government during the pandemic and its aftermath. For example, American Rescue Plan (ARP) was designed to provide funds to support recovery aid efforts for the economy and U.S. workers, and States received over $360 billion to support private-public partnerships.

The U.S. Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which was adopted recently by the U.S. Senate and is heading to the House of Representatives, is designed to boost the nation’s competitiveness. This funding would support preparation for the jobs of the future, such as AI, semiconductor production, and scientific research. The proposed Investing in Tomorrow’s Workforce plan will address the needs of workers who are in industries that are likely to be impacted by rapidly evolving technologies.

The challenge is, that while these policies are well-intended, the impact is not fully realized due to limited collaboration between the various players, education providers, workforce, and employers, coming together to determine how to utilize these funds to create seamless pathways for individuals to get educated and how to stay current. This type of conversation is imperative since jobs are now changing so rapidly.

Rethinking the Relevance and Purpose of Traditional Higher Education 

The purpose of higher education is in transition. It used to be taboo to say that college wasn’t for everyone. However, now it may be time to say a traditional college degree is not for everyone. Many students need to take industry credentials separately or as part of a degree program to be more competitive and employable.  

To help accomplish this, the U.S. government is starting to send funding to institutions instead of individuals. However, partnering with industry and employers is needed to ensure that the talent supply chain is working well to meet workforce needs. There also is a resurgence in the need for soft skills like EQ, teamwork, and critical thinking. It’s important to marry this type of liberal arts education with the technical skills in creating educational programs.

In looking at new curriculum, practical application needs to be at the forefront. This can include internships, experiential opportunities, and real-world business cases.

The pandemic also brought to light the economic disparities in the US, in relation to student access to a high-quality education. There is an upside to this situation since technology can provide opportunities for these students to access education easily and affordably, adding more skilled workers to the workforce.

Focus on the Student’s Future Employment

To make higher education innovation work, public policy needs to be driven by what is best for the student or learner. While there are examples of this student-based focus across the country, this type of innovation hasn’t been scaled. Institutions need to think through preparing students for life beyond university, to provide the skills for the future, and then determine how to build that into an educational program that prepares students for emerging fields. Additionally, building curriculum that support micro-credentials can make students more employable, thus securing the institution’s relevance.

The pandemic demonstrated the need for innovation in online learning. The need for high-quality virtual and online education is now critical because of changing student demographics. Higher education needs to shift the way they do business to meet the needs of the adult learner; colleges and universities that don’t will not be around for long.

Using the Change Management Process to Succeed

When designing transformational models and implementing curriculum changes, utilizing the change management process is critical, notably when it comes to shared governance. Many institutions are looking to the change management process to implement these changes because if the faculty isn’t on board, it can bring the entire transformational change efforts to its knees, or worse. Giving faculty a voice in the process gains support; people support what they help create. 

Innovative Education Models for Sustainability

The higher education industry is in such pain that it might be ready to create and embrace change through creating and adopting innovative models.  For example, by beginning to think about students as lifetime clients, universities can find ways to upscale their offerings and build partnerships with employers. This model has not been common in higher education. However, with the enrollment cliff already starting to affect colleges and universities, this new model would help bring students and revenue to institutions.

Ed-tech also offers innovative customized solutions and products to help education institutions serve clients. These services can include data analytics in relation to student retention or help dropouts reenter education. There are many ways advancements in data analytics can help support higher education. Digitized content also falls into this area. Ultimately, ed tech is a critical part of building robust online programs to make the student experience more engaging, prepare institutions for the next disaster or big change in our increasingly unstable environment.

To stay relevant and in demand, colleges and universities must investigate how best to collaborate, build partnerships, and take advantage of the opportunities presented by the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), ed-tech, OPMs, data analytics, and other resources to provide students with the skills for the present and future demands in the workforce. Higher ed staff may not be aware of all the opportunities and options available to help their institution transform in the right direction for future trends. This is where collaboration is paramount to strategic planning.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders and Boards

  • Seek opportunities for collaboration with local employers and chambers of commerce to come up with lasting approaches for workforce development.
  • Rethink and evaluate the student experience for contemporary students. Many traditional colleges and universities are not equipped to meet these students’ needs so barriers need to be removed.
  • Be willing and open to new business models, such as seeing students as lifetime customers through offering micro-credentials and opportunities for up-skilling and re-skilling.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides governance consulting; strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting, and accreditation consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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