Now that we’ve turned the clocks back, the days are getting shorter, and the first semester of the academic year is coming to a close, it’s time to look ahead to the institutional challenges you might face in 2016. At this week’s Eduventures Summit, we’re bringing together leaders from across higher education to discuss five framing problems that deserve your close attention in the coming year.
These are the seemingly intractable problems that you know well, but they are worth reiterating as they stymie institutional leaders, faculty, staff, and students every day. Unsurprisingly, these problems are intertwined, and finding successful solutions requires purposeful institutional collaboration and creativity. If you begin to solve one, you just might begin to solve them all.
#1. You understand your student markets well, but not well enough. Institutions are awash in market data, some more than others. Among the things institutions know well are: who chooses to enroll, where else students choose to enroll, what drives enrollment, who succeeds at the institution, and who doesn’t. Sometimes institutions know these things only at a rudimentary level. For example, typical segmentation strategies only assign students to predefined subgroups by race/ethnicity or major. This is simply not a sophisticated market segmentation strategy. It provides good, but not great, information to target students for recruitment or support services. Institutions need a layer of deeper market insight that draws on an understanding of student mindsets or personas. This awareness can fuel a meaningful institutional narrative in both word and deed that speaks to students across the student lifecycle.
#2. You need to solve for the millennial generation to ensure strong future philanthropy. For development leaders, the signs are somewhat ominous. Institutions are in a dynamic competition for philanthropic dollars. Even though philanthropy is on the rise in the U.S., alumni participation is in decline, and giving to higher education is becoming more concentrated at high-profile institutions. One of the keys to turning this trend around is to engage millennials and get them to give to their alma maters. Development organizations also need to understand the millennial mindset in order to foster alumni engagement and tailor donor strategies to the next generation of philanthropy.
#3. You know the future is outcomes-focused, but you struggle to show your impact. We should consider our national collective mindset as well. With intense scrutiny on the value of higher education, the government, regulators, and accreditors have begun to move toward holding institutions accountable for their outcomes. This multi-level problem is compounded by the internal institutional challenges of connecting graduates to specific outcomes and tracking graduates through time. The pressure is being felt first among academic fields with strict certification and licensure requirements. For example, schools of education are feeling this pressure and are working to show their programs’ real impact on both graduates and the students their graduates eventually teach. The problem may be unique to schools of education today, but it could be a problem for all tomorrow.
#4. Your data systems don’t support the strategic collaboration you desire. The challenge of collecting outcomes data and connecting it to graduates is one example of the broader issue of disconnected data systems in higher education. Most institutions are in purgatory; their data ecosystems are a product of decades of workarounds and imperfect connections to legacy systems. Getting to the point where you can envision a future of truly connected systems is no easy road. It requires an honest assessment of institutional capabilities and potential partnerships. The benefit of this difficult work is the data transparency needed for strategic leadership.
#5. You aren’t leveraging data across the student lifecycle to make mission-focused strategic decisions that impact student success. Finally, even if you do have the data, you need a purposeful culture in place that uses the data to inform strategic institutional decisions. We call this leveraging of data at multiple points in the student lifecycle to positively impact student outcomes “educational intelligence.” An institution with all of its data organized and accessible can carefully examine areas such as enrollment, academic program prioritization, student retention and success, student experiences, and student outcomes. It takes real leadership and operational discipline to know what data matters, how to share it, how to develop an effective strategy, and how to use data to define success.
To be sure, this is not an exhaustive list of the problems facing higher education. For example, cost structure is an important issue that deserves a post unto itself.