Looking Ahead to 2021 and Beyond: What’s On Your Radar?

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January 13, 2021

This Blog was originally posted on the IngenioUS website located here.

During season one of our podcast, IngenioUs, we ended each episode by asking our guests to tell us what is on their radar as they look to the future. I was inspired and encouraged by what I heard. I was also struck by the 5 common themes that emerged across all of our conversations. In this last blog post of 2020, I want to share these ‘Big 5’ insights with you as you consider what is on your radar in 2021 and beyond.

Not surprisingly, the changing environment and its impact on our campuses is front and center. Many of our guests note that the rapid pace of change that we have experienced in recent years is accelerating and this is having a profound effect on how we think about educational delivery systems and structures. Newly appointed president of the University of Maryland Global Campus, Dr. Gregory Fowler observes that change is happening at such an increasingly rapid pace that it is difficult for most leaders on the ground to really grasp the impact and implications of the change that we are in the midst of. Fowler suggests that just as disruption has played out in other industries, most of us in higher ed will not see the full impact until it is right upon us. And at that point, it may be too late to undertake the changes that will be essential for survival.

The Take-Away? As human beings we tend to move at a step-by-step pace and yet, the quickening pace of change requires an agility that many of us may not be structured to accommodate. Many of our institutions are carrying inflexible legacy practices and structures that were established decades ago. The challenge with these outdated practices and structures is that they limit our imagination to consider new possibilities. Is it time to rethink your administrative structure? In recognition of the increasingly urgent need to diversify funding and maximize revenue, some institutions are creating new chief learning and innovation officer positions, a responsibility that has traditionally been subsumed within the provost role. The point is to make sure your structure and practices support and facilitate the change you will need to make in the days ahead.

Access, equity and student success issues are on just about everybody’s radar. The pandemic has accentuated the concerns that were already bubbling to the surface. Eastern Connecticut State University president, Dr. Elsa Nunez talks powerfully about the growing divide in our country between the rich and the poor, and the shrinking middle class. Historically, we have relied on education to ensure that those with the most limited means have access to opportunities; education has been the door opener to a better life for them and for their families. The community college has played a critically important role in being this first stop on the education train for so many of the students with the most limited means. However, as Nunez points out, the shrinking community college graduation and enrollment rates should be of concern to anyone who cares about retaining a strong democracy, something that relies upon a robust middle class.

The Take-Away?   We need to give more consideration to the role that the community colleges and mission focused institutions like women’s colleges play in strengthening educational access, not just for degree attainment, but for the skills that people need to support themselves and to contribute to their communities and the broader society. SOVA co-founder, Dr. Alison Kadlec advises that improving the seamlessness of credit transfer between and among institutions and redesigning remediation at scale are two high priority initiatives that can move the dime in increasing access and extending genuine upward mobility. Kadlec points to the Guided Pathways model as a particularly promising approach to improving student success and achievement. As you consider your institution’s student support structure, how easy do you make it for your students to be successful? Are there barriers that need to be removed? Particularly with the emerging digital transformation underway, it is incumbent upon our institutions to make sure that all of our students have access to what they need to be successful.

According to historian, futurist, and best-selling author Dr. David Staley, much of higher education is missing the boat when it talks about innovation. Staley suggests that the problem is ‘not that we are lacking in innovation but rather that higher ed is suffering from a poverty of imagination about what that innovation might be’. For many institutions, innovation has become synonymous with the notion of a technologically delivered education; and the strategy is one of imitation versus genuine innovation. Like Staley, Brandon Busteed, President of Kaplan University Partners, agrees that most institutions don’t go far enough in their thinking about innovation. He points to examples of institutions that are making innovation a priority by appointing a chief innovation officer, someone who gets up every day and thinks about the institution’s relevancy.

The Take-Away?   Now more than ever, institutions need to consider differentiation, or as Staley suggests, be in the business of market making versus market taking. RHB Principal, Rick Bailey puts it another way: “Successful institutions need to find that ‘one-and-only’ market space that they can occupy and use that space to leverage their mission in new and compelling ways.” What will this take? Staley advises that effective visionary leaders need to think like futurists and hone their foresight skills. Gray DI CEO, Bob Atkins, and retired Bay Path University president Dr. Carol Leary stress that senior leaders must be more outward looking and opportunistic. To what extent does your strategy leverage your institution’s core DNA and ‘one-and-only’ market space? How much time do your leaders spend gathering and using external intelligence and preparing for the impact of trends? Change—both positive and negative—is increasingly likely to come from outside of higher ed. The most essential leadership skill for tomorrow’s higher ed senior leader may just be the ability to think broadly, imaginatively, and temporally about one’s opportunities.

Several guests highlight the importance of partnerships to extend one’s mission and better support student achievement. Miami Dade Community College executive vice president and provost, Dr. Lenore Rodicio advocates for backward design of our offerings beginning with documented workforce needs. From there, Rodicio suggests we work systematically and at scale (across networks of institutions and in collaboration with employers and government officials) to create pipelines of skilled individuals. Educational entrepreneur Megan O’Connor is a fan of ‘boot camps’ such as Trilogy—which link universities, companies and working adults through skills-based training in high-growth career fields. The value of the boot camp according to its growing fan base is that it is inexpensive, takes less time than a traditional four-year degree, is something that can be easily added on to the curriculum and results in a highly marketable credential that aligns with high demand skills.

The Take-Away?   While strategic alliances and partnerships have become common place in the corporate world, higher ed has been slow to embrace this option. However, given current financial conditions in higher education and the need to find new ways to leverage limited resources, this is beginning to change. As noted by Ease Learning CEO, Laurie Pulido, in the post-pandemic world, few institutions will be able to fully meet their students’ learning needs and leverage their missions entirely on their own. In recent months we have seen growing numbers of small colleges join course sharing consortia such as Acadeum and the LCMC. Such consortia enable these schools to bring up new programs less expensively, thus broadening opportunities for their students. How might strategic partnerships support your growth, student success and achievement efforts? Looking ahead, partnerships will be an essential component of the business model for most of higher ed; the array of options available to even the smallest colleges will be vast. Keeping in mind that all partnerships are not created equal, campus leaders are advised to selectively seek opportunities that will bring the unique capabilities they most need to grow, adapt, and innovate.

A final insight from our guests that I find especially compelling involves the traditional timeframe for the college experience. Brandon Busteed talks enthusiastically about his idea that he calls the evergreen MBA program, where a student remains enrolled in a degree program throughout his or her life. They may get the MBA along the way, but they also take other courses along the way as part of a pedagogically designed program, in order to stay up-to-date and skilled according to what their employers need at any given time. In this way, they develop a lifelong relationship with the MBA program and the institution that provides it. Rick Bailey is also enthusiastic about this idea: “The point here is that rather than thinking about the college experience as a one time, one–and–done experience, we need to pivot and begin thinking about it as a lifelong engagement between the institutions and its students that may include a series of touchpoints, transactions, and opportunities for relationship building, that are focused on meeting peoples’ evolving and changing needs across their lifespan.”

The Take-Away? Given a Pew Research Center (2016) report on lifelong learning that found that a large share of Americans consider themselves ‘lifelong learners’ with more than 2/3rds pursuing job-related or professional learning annually, I think that Busteed and Bailey are on to something. Imagine the wide-ranging possibilities and benefits for a college or university that launches a lifelong learning engagement program with its alumni base? By increasing the depth of meaningful and long-term engagement with your alumni, you will most likely see a spill-over effect for fundraising, admissions referrals, volunteer service and more.

I would love to hear from you about what is on your radar for 2021 and beyond. Drop me a note at mmolson@baypath.edu and let me know what your institution has at the top of its priority list. I will provide an update on the Big 5 Insights in the coming year and would be happy to include you. For now, thanks for being a part of the IngenioUs community. Be well and stay well.

Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. provides the best available data, software, and facilitated processes to help higher education institutions make high-stakes decisions regarding academic programs, pricing, and locations.

About Gray DI

Gray DI provides data, software and facilitated processes that power higher-education decisions. Our data and AI insights inform program choices, optimize finances, and fuel growth in a challenging market – one data-informed decision at a time.

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