Popular mythology holds that the iconic supertanker is difficult to turn. In fact, these ships are reversible: a fully-loaded tanker may require up to 15 miles and more than 30 minutes to execute a 180-degree turn. Like our beloved colleges and universities, supertankers do an important job well. In uncertain times, continuity and steadfastness are just as important as change and innovation.
As we reflect on 2016, many schools continue to face significant headwinds: rising expenses amid weak enrollment, the costs of decentralization, and hard-to-define outcomes. While some have made fast and visible course corrections in these and other areas, others chart a more incremental path, making iterative but impactful adjustments when needed to strengthen their missions.
Our 2016 research demonstrates that there’s no shortage of education-focused technology solutions, insights into the student market, or innovative student success strategies to help institutions understand how best to steer their organizations. As we close out the year, we asked some of our Eduventures analysts to answer the question: “What did you learn in 2016?” Here is what they had to say:
Personalized Recruiting Gains Traction
This was the year we gained a refined sense of fit and personalization in student recruiting. Our analysis of our 2016 Prospective Student Survey resulted in the identification of six traditional undergraduate student mindsets. These underscored the fact that most student markets are heterogeneous, yet we don’t always treat them as such. Despite their demographic profiles, people have different dreams and desires for their education. It is up to all college or university stakeholders—from admissions officers, to faculty, to advancement—to show current and future students how they will negotiate a meaningful pathway through higher education.
Our advisory sessions with institutions, and solution providers alike brought these student mindsets to life. With these institutions, we discussed creative ideas about using them to inform messaging and communications, and linking them to content-based recruiting campaigns and digital marketing strategies that could enable personalized recruiting.
Our discussions also elicited very real reflections on how well institutions are set up to serve different types of students in the market. While the mindsets alone are insightful, these conversations also showed great promise that an age of personalized recruiting is emerging from the creative ideas of enrollment teams across the country.
Source: Eduventures Insights, Qualifying Prospects: Defining a Personalized Recruitment Strategy that Resonates, 2016
Interest in Enterprise Edtech Solutions Rises
In 2016, a distinct preference has emerged among institutional technology buyers to consolidate their purchases of features and applications through existing vendor relationships. Vendors such as Ellucian, Salesforce, and Blackboard all want to be the single vendor that can provide as much of the education technology ecosystem as possible. Their migration from core platforms, such as the student information system (SIS) and learning management system (LMS), into niche areas like advising and retention solutions shows their expanding coverage of the technology landscape under a single brand.
Other vendors, such as Noodle Partners, are building out ecosystems of their own by integrating technology products from multiple providers and providing a single umbrella contract for products and services to the colleges. Internet2 also provides colleges a streamlined procurement vehicle for products through its NET+ program, allowing chief information officers (CIOs) to pick and choose technologies that are pre-screened to work within their existing infrastructure and policy landscape.
By pursuing these enterprise technology deals, CIOs are making it clear that they want as much technology from a single vendor as possible to reduce integration costs and limit the amount of project management overhead required to implement new products successfully. As more big-name vendors make their way onto approved procurement lists, institutions will be inclined to purchase from the enterprise edtech menu more often.
Micro-Programmatic Innovation Takes Hold
The most prevalent degree markets present significant challenges to institutions looking to reverse shrinking enrollments. This year we saw a significant increase in the number of institutions focused on assessing degree programs in niche areas, most with close connections to specific career outcomes. Institutional interest in niche, career-specific programming emphasizes several current trends in higher education:
- Increasingly competitive healthcare, business, and education degree markets.
- Rising pressure for institutions to demonstrate a return on investment for students enrolling in degree programs.
- Employer concerns that graduates are not prepared or able to fill the available positions.
Today, institutions that pursue niche programs with the sole purpose of increasing enrollments will likely be disappointed. Rather, these “micro-programmatic” changes may be best viewed as innovations of the student experience, serving to engage learners in professional development, offer opportunities to test new markets, and provide on-ramps into micro-credentialing and digital badging. 2016’s micro-programming innovations may also represent early signs of greater shifts to come as higher education focuses more on meeting the needs of career-minded students.
CBE Means Choices
Competency-based education (CBE) was one of the year’s hot topics. In 2016, Eduventures partnered with Ellucian and the American Council for Education to build a clearer picture of what CBE really looks like in practice. With input from more than 250 colleges and universities, it was striking that CBE is more diverse than often imagined. Yes, CBE often targets adult learners and is delivered online, but…
The figure below, from our Deconstructing CBE report, highlights the variety of CBE models across seven institutions and dimensions. The seven institutions were selected to show what is possible under the CBE umbrella. For example, CBE is used for campus-based programs and for traditional-aged students, as well as for adults and online. Self-paced learning is central to some CBE offerings but student cohorts also show up in CBE provision elsewhere.
Each letter (A-G) represents an institution, and its placement on each line characterizes the use of a particular CBE component, delivery mode, or student type. “LO” refers to learning outcomes, and “sub-course” means course components. “PLA” is prior learning assessment. This figure represents both the strength and weakness of CBE—an adaptable set of tools but scant user instructions. Year two of this study will use case studies to further illuminate different models, better understand institutional decision-making, and gauge how CBE efforts are faring.
Source: Eduventures, Deconstructing CBE: An Assessment of Institutional Activity, Goals, and Challenges in Higher Education, July 2016
Tensions in Technology Selection and Implementation Persist
Over the past year, we have focused on topics such as learning analytics, student outcomes, and technological efficacy. On one level these are all related to the challenges institutional leaders face when managing their enterprises, but at a deeper level, they share two underlying tensions:
- Centralization versus decentralization: When implementing technology or technology-related policy, institutions face the question of whether there should be a single point of control or whether this control can be in different departments or teams.
- Institutional-focused versus student-focused: While all higher education technology is ultimately for the benefit of students, it may be unclear whether a piece of technology focuses directly on institutional improvement or improved student outcomes.
These tensions can have more significant impact than many realize. All too often, they exert an undue influence on technology selection and obfuscate additional steps required to make the technology successful, like an integration strategy. Likewise, these tensions cause institutions to overlook key questions about the bigger picture, such as whether they need a central oversight structure (e.g., a data governance council), and whether the scope of that oversight should include all technology, including technology that interacts directly with students. Our hope for 2017 is that technology leaders help their stakeholders navigate these tensions.
Progress in Student Success is Possible, but Hard Fought
In 2016, higher education ramped up its focus on student success. More and more colleges and universities have recognized that retention and completion are not just revenue issues. Poor performance on student success is a failure to meet institutional mission and a brand killer in this very competitive environment. Eduventures’ Student Success Ratings revealed a set of institutions that has refused to accept these issues as endemic and intractable features of higher education. Top performers have made long-term progress by building institutional culture, identifying strategy, and following through with focused and measured execution.
Still, many institutions have difficulty attaining the organizational maturity needed to tackle student success. It requires effective collaboration within institutions and potentially with external edtech vendors who offer myriad solutions. In 2016, the promise of technology as an enabling tool has not yet lived up to the hype. Some institutions have created fruitful partnerships with their providers, but most still see gaps between their needs and vendor performance, underscoring a common disconnect between strategy and execution.
Let’s be positive about the future, though. We’ve seen the evidence that true collaboration with thoughtful strategic partners can make a difference. Forthcoming case studies on top performers in our ratings will provide even more insight into strategies that work. Let’s hope more institutions get on this path to success in 2017.
[Editor’s Note: We hope you’ve enjoyed these reflections from our analysts to cap a year of Eduventures Wake-Up Calls. Due to the holiday schedule, we will be taking next week off and returning on January 3 with our higher education predictions for 2017. Until then, check out our Top 5 Wake-Up Calls of 2016. We wish you happy holidays!]