The New Normal for Education?

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Many leaders of higher learning institutions find themselves facing a new normal that encompasses challenges with enrollment, finances, academics, and faculty. Perhaps these issues sound familiar:

Decreasing and changing enrollment.

Overall enrollment is dropping, partially fueled by the number of traditional college-age students declining while higher ed institutions struggle with how to better serve the growing number of post-traditional students.

Decreasing revenues.

Available resources no longer cover current expenses, forcing many institutions to borrow from their endowment (if one exists), or raise tuition even more.

Unused guiding plans.

In many instances, the institution’s overall strategic and academic plans are not followed or updated. In some institutions, these plans are not in existence.

Faculty overreach.

In some institutions, faculty members believe they should have a greater say, even though they don’t have a systemic view of the education landscape. Some Faculty Senates have become obstructionist instead of helping the institution move forward.

Precedence of proximity.

Enrollments are driven in large part by students wanting to remain closer to home for multiple reasons but especially cost.

Perceived loss of a degree’s value.

Some young people are placing a lower value on earning a college degree.

Glacial rate of change.

Institutions of higher education remain the same as they did in the 1900s. They also often look like their competition, teaching the same subjects, and offering the same degrees and programs.

A mismatch between what students want and what higher education offers.

Students want low tuition costs, a schedule that works with their lives, and diverse learning formats. Many institutions offer the opposite.

So, what is the answer?  In these rapidly changing times, can a leader help an institution change / make itself into a place students want to attend?

Look to the Unfolding Future

In a recent research report by Aslanian Marketing Research, over 70% of students are “post-traditional,”, i.e., they attend school full time while working, and as such are not able to attend campuses as they have in the past.  Instead, these “new” students are more inclined to attend hybrid or fully online programs.

These students are very “bottom line” driven – they seek education to help them find a new job, improve their salary, or get them promoted, and the preferred undergrad degrees are in business and IT and the preferred AA and certificates are in medical and nursing.

This takes us to the first step – positioning.  What are the trends and the future environment in which higher ed institutions will be operating?  Barbara Mistick and Karie Willyerd, the authors of Stretch: How to Future-Proof Yourself, penned a 2016 article suggesting seven megatrends that will shape people’s professional future; they were:

  • A continued shift in globalization with an estimated half of the world’s largest companies being headquartered in emerging markets.
  • Demographic shifts, including delayed retirements and increasing changes in the workplace because of the Millennial generation.
  • An explosion of data that can be mined to identify markets for the future.
  • Emerging technologies will soon make some jobs obsolete.
  • Climate change and the need for the efficient use of resources.
  • The redefinition of jobs and work.
  • Increased complexity for organizations and individuals that will require balancing competing demands.

These megatrends have major ramifications for our students, faculty members, employers, and community members. Therefore, it’s imperative that institutions of higher education take steps to position themselves for the future that is unfolding and then accept a leading role in helping people successfully navigate the tidal wave of change.

Developing a Position

These megatrends, however, will vary in how they will unfold at different institutions. Therefore, it’s critical to look at the future operating environment. The Change Leader leads its clients through a process that examines the future operating environment the institution will find itself in.  This is a form of scenario planning, and while many institutions do this, it often isn’t done well. Furthermore, this type of planning often doesn’t consider the need for offering different academic programs that reflect the rapidly changing landscapes of jobs and student preferences.

However, one deep dive isn’t enough. Dr. Drumm McNaughton, CEO of The Change Leader, strongly recommends reviewing these environmental factors on a quarterly or biannual basis. “It’s a great way to build a shared vision,” he explained. “It keeps people engaged with the planning process because one of the big mistakes that people make is they think that once the strategic plan is done, they don’t have to change it. However, it’s a living breathing document.”

Building a Shared Vision

By taking this approach, higher education leaders can build informed stakeholders who rally around a shared vision for the university. This approach is critical for positioning and branding an institution.  For example, should the institution’s focus be on entrepreneurship so that it graduates students who are ready to find opportunities within increasing economic complexity, e.g., Stanford University? Will the institution focus on helping non-traditional students retool so they can succeed in a rapidly changing economic climate?  These are all questions that scanning the future environment should answer, questions that are critical for developing the institutional roadmap and becoming known as “the place to attend for XYZ program,” which leads to increased enrollments.

By looking at the environment, building a shared vision, and then positioning the institution, leaders can create sustained competitive advantage. For instance, top students who are interested in studying science and technology dream of attending MIT instead of a regional college. However, that doesn’t mean that the regional college can’t create its own sphere of excellence where it has a competitive advantage, e.g., UMass Lowell, which has developed an excellent affordable engineering degree and competes with MIT and others in multiple ways.

Every higher education institution can find its position by talking to one of its key customer groups – regional industry leaders. These leaders provide valuable feedback on the challenges they are facing as well as the knowledge and skills that their future employees need. This feedback can be integrated into academic programs as well as student activities so that students gain both book knowledge and opportunities for practical application before they graduate. Creating these types of students that can walk into a new job and make an impact on Day 1 will position a university or college to be the leader in its community.

Higher education isn’t immune to the rapidly changing world that we now live in. It can be argued that these changes could help higher education regain its place as a respected and integral part of the community it serves. To do so will require institutional leaders who can develop a shared vision based on environmental factors and trends and then position the institution based on organizational strengths and the potential for excellence.

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