By Senior Analyst, Brian Fleming
One way to take the temperature of the national higher education climate is to spend time at the New York Times’ “Schools for Tomorrow Conference.” Each year, this event brings together some of the best and brightest leaders in the nation. The focus of this year’s gathering still drew from the usual bravado around “innovation” and “digital disruption,” but with a twist. What we witnessed was a new conversation taking place that was far more focused on the execution of ideas than on the ideas themselves. The following are five key observations for anyone interested in continuing the conversation:
- Execution is more important than excitement about technology. The era of impassioned tech-evangelism is over. Tech-pragmatism now rules the day. Priorities matter more than speculation about potentially “game-changing” tools. The conversation has simply become more practical. Most pressing now is how the tools themselves can be used to increase focus on access, cost-containment, retention, remediation, and outcomes. Technology is just a means to these ends.
What this means: Align your technology strategy with a comprehensive set of priorities.
- Higher ed’s problems are everyone’s problems. Some of the most notable issues facing higher ed are not entirely its own fault. Poor retention, for instance, is also due to ineffectual K-12 systems, a lack of college readiness, and continual disinvestment at the state and local levels in public higher education. Successful institutions focus on the whole of the student lifecycle and partner across their community with the express intent to support future generations. Tomorrow’s success starts in the K-12 classrooms of today.
What this means: To transform the effectiveness of your institution, focus not only on what’s good for your institution, but also on what’s good for your community and your future students.
- Data management is key. The curtain is being lifted and no institution can afford to hide.This conference focused a lot on how data impacts ratings and rankings, including The Times’ own index, as well as others like PayScale, US News Rankings (however passé), and, of course, the Federal government’s forthcoming framework. These things are real and they are not going away. A great deal of attention is being paid to how institutions can stay productive in this era of heightened accountability, including how well institutions are engaged in improving data management to help make ratings and rankings more reliable and accessible. Given the imminence of such scrutiny, data management matters more than ever before.
What this means: Focus on ways to improve your approach to data management, no matter the cost, even if it means working with an outside partner.
- Mission matters and markets are diverse. In recent years, how different types of institutions can and should embrace change has been overlooked. One-size-fits-all solutions are broken and counter-productive. Public education, in particular, requires its own set of change measures, as do adult-serving models. Contrary to assumptions, the Federal government recognizes this and has every intent to respect plurality with measures and metrics that take into account institutional histories, priorities, and unique market demands. Higher ed’s return to self-awareness will lead to many change measures which should be respected on the basis of how institutions stay true to mission while improving their impact.
What this means: Know your mission, be able to articulate it well, and align it with every new initiative that comes along.
- Competency-based education is the future. Market leaders like Capella, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governor’s have cracked the code on access and affordability for working adults, and many more are sure to follow. The key to success in this market is flexibility, employer partnerships, and the strategic use of technology to enhance the student experience. Most notable is how much better competency-based is at achieving meaningful outcomes for adult learners, much better than the “online education” model of years past. Competency-based education will emerge as the premier way to educate adult learners. Institutions not engaged with this trend now will fall behind.
What this means: Explore competency-based education now, if only in a small portfolio of programs. This is the future of the adult learner market.
There are times when simply talking about change will no longer suffice. That time is now. The next step to solving higher ed’s problems is to execute now on what matters most. This includes strategically leveraging technology to serve bigger and broader priorities, focusing on the whole student lifecycle, managing data well, leading with mission, and exploring new and innovative delivery formats.
Climate change is real. The schools of tomorrow are the ones that take action today.