Published on 2014/07/24

Innovation in Higher Education: Time for a Customer-Centric Model

Innovation in Higher Education: Time for a Customer-Centric Model
Disruptive innovation to the standard model of higher education is needed in order for postsecondary institutions to meet the needs to the modern adult student and employer.
What’s your brand in the adult education market?

Is it branded as part of the overall institution? Is it segmented within the institution? Does it stand alone? What does the branding convey? Does it offer flexible scheduling, accelerated classes, online and on-ground classes and other adult-friendly attributes?

This branding language is typical in the adult market, and it no longer offers much differentiation. Overall, typical educational services in the adult market are deep into the life cycle. In other words, this is the ideal time to innovate in order to strengthen a market position, given the significant competitive challenges in the later portion of the product life cycle. An institution needs to position itself through innovations that are relevant to adults’ needs at the moment as well as preparing them to traverse their future.

In short, an institutional brand acquired through sports, specific accolades for academic programs, alumni successes and so on typically feature the institution or the production of the institution. Once attractive, the market shifts with online providers has removed the significance of team sports as important in adults’ academic decision-making process. By and large, adults attend college for the degree and what the degree is expected to do for their careers. For the purposes of this article, this degree is the “product” of the college or university and the academic program is the value proposition. For the adult learner, how is the value proposition presented?

Often, institutions promote their product to potential adult students through real and unclear elements. The real elements include the program of study, transfer of credits, course substitutions, advising and a path to a degree, to name a few. Areas that seem attractive, and yet are often difficult to unpack, include statements such as “adult-friendly,” “accelerated” and “small class sizes.” These latter points are common and don’t offer differentiation except from traditional undergraduate programs. Nevertheless, an adult program that wants to at least seem attractive includes such statements to prospective students.

To offer programs, institutions require significant levels of conformity from adult students. All in all, the institution largely dictates the terms of the relationship to obtain the degree. And, too often, adult programs reflect the industry of yesterday; practices that limit rather than accelerate them into career paths that help them make up for lost time and earnings. This value proposition is at odds with what adults need. Regardless, adults that engage and persist in what is offered will earn the degree, and that suffices in opening doors for different opportunities. This is what society claims as the path to potential success. Today, this doesn’t work as well as it used to.

This educational service delivery model is typical in the adult market throughout the United States. But what might an atypical program include? In a word, the program would be customized. In a perfect world, the student decides what courses to take to complete the degree, and the institution responds. A less-than-perfect compromise is surfacing through competency-based learning, prior learning assessments and credit for examinations such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP). These academic substitutions allow adult students to learn quickly and earn credit for life or work experiences in specified academic programs. While these attributes indicate a level of responsiveness to the adult student who often has work, life, military and other experiences in the workplace and in academic settings worthy of university credit, they function as a bridge to accommodate the adult learner. Accommodation is not customization, though.

What does customization for the adult learner look like? First, it must be conceptualized through a customer-centric model and then unpacked into sufficient verticality to accomplish the benchmarks that fit the expectations of the student and the job market both for the present and the future. In this line of thought, degrees will change. Why? Simply put, the job market changes faster than academic units.

When academic programs and institutions provide the breadth to align their programs around the current and future needs of students, a customer-centric model will be realized. The intent of this is to value the adult student and what s/he must accomplish in both the short and long-term and, in turn, the university acquires financial value. This isn’t to suggest every adult knows exactly what s/he wants and needs from a program of study. Rather, the intent is to provide services adults want and need relative to career interests and marketplace values. How is this different from what’s occurring in the product-centric curriculum?

The customer-centric venue seeks to determine the best solution for the student through personalized, educational service. While more student-friendly institutions have coined services through advising, tutoring, career services and the like, a truly customer-centric academic model needs to develop paths to degrees that allow for unique intra-disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies that bring into line the experiences and capabilities of the student with changing marketplace and job opportunities.

Putting aside programs such as nursing and teacher education, and others that are highly regulated, there are programs in business, computer information systems, computer science, security, accounting, human resources and other areas of study that have an ebb-and-flow that fit into workplace expectations. Today’s and tomorrow’s employers need employees with advanced undergraduate study across multiple areas. This is in part because fewer employees are working and they have greater responsibilities. Their success means more sophisticated knowledge and skills, and these are gained along new academic pathways aligned with the student to meet those opportunities.

In order to make a customer-centric curriculum available and meaningful, and allow it to meet the needs of adult students to traverse the future, disruptive innovations will be required. If established adult education programs don’t innovate, new entrants will, and well-established market share will erode to those organizations that offer the best value propositions to students.

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Readers Comments

Dean 2014/07/24 at 9:09 am

Good piece about how “adult friendly” has become a marketing catchphrase, and the need to reassess its effectiveness. Hofmeister makes a good distinction between what is now run-of-the-mill for institutions that serve adult students (e.g. advising) and what it would truly take to differentiate oneself in this market (e.g. curriculum overhaul).

Nancy Rodriguez 2014/07/24 at 12:25 pm

I agree that interdisciplinary programming needs to become more commonplace in higher ed. However, this is not to be confused with customized/personalized learning. It’s easy for an interdisciplinary program to become a hodge-podge that neither reflects real market circumstances nor the skills needed to be competitive in the job market. In that respect, I would argue it’s even more important for the institution to identify clear pathways, program objectives and learning outcomes to keep students on track.

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