Published on 2015/04/13

Surviving and Thriving in the New World of Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Surviving and Thriving in the New World of Higher Education
The modern higher education marketplaces requires institutions to operate in a more agile fashion, which requires both operational and cultural transformations from senior leaders all the way down.

There is no shortage of criticism of higher education, including that it costs too much, teaches the wrong things, fails to prepare students for the real world, and no longer serves as the economic elevator it once was. Add to this that institutions are often criticized for being too slow and too conservative in innovating the solutions to the above-mentioned issues. We will all need to get better at innovation—innovating with degree programs, non-degree programs, technology, pedagogy and business models. In short, we are all going to need to be more agile.

While some lament the disaggregation—and some would even say downfall—of higher education as we know it, I believe that we’re more likely at base camp on the way to a new, and higher, summit. The climb will be challenging, and the reward for reaching a new peak will benefit individuals, companies, regions and society. However, not every institution will make it to this new place and it is likely to be those that fail to adapt to the new conditions that perish.

So what does it mean to be agile in higher education? According to the Oxford Dictionary online, agile means “able to move quickly and easily; able to think and understand quickly.” Like this definition, schools will need to become quick and nimble. Gone are the days of 800-page strategic plans, most of which were little more than an unprioritized wish list, and long cycles of planning for very little change.

Agile includes teamwork, a diversity of perspectives and expertise, a process focus, shared understanding of a common goal, a set of well-understood user requirements, working iteratively by trying new things quickly, and an attempt to “fail fast” to learn how to do it better the next time. Instead of determining all risk factors before proceeding, the agile mindset involves preliminary research into market and customer needs, identifying the obvious risks, discussion around how to mitigate those risks, high-level design, and then showing designs to potential clientele, pivoting design based on feedback, and iterating yet again.

An agile process is much faster and involves reaching, reaction and letting go of a fear of failure. As the team designs and potential buyers and students react, new needs – and new risks – emerge and the team then figures out how to address them. So, rather than coming out with the “ultimate” degree or program in a few years, an organization comes out with a very good one much sooner, and with input from potential clientele.

So how does a school become more agile? There are a few important components, including:


Read, attend conferences, invite in consultants and create or join in industry groups to learn more about what’s happening in the higher education industry both in the traditional higher education space, and outside of it—in publishing, ed tech and some of the new start-ups. What other organizations are doing may impact your program portfolio—and may spur ideas for new programs or new ways of thinking about teaching and learning. I’ve set up and facilitated cross-school benchmarking groups and been wonderfully surprised at how open other academic leaders are to sharing not just what they do, but how they do it.  

Key Question: From what other departments, organizations and industries might you learn about market needs, processes, technologies, and other fresh ideas?

Following The Need

There is increasing evidence that employers are less-than-enthusiastic about the quality of students graduating from college (or earning an MBA), and a growing number of younger and older adults that want to increase skills to qualify for new career or start new businesses.

Key Question: What can you do to address these needs through new offerings, more flexible scheduling, and/or technology?

Doing The Research

Agile means fast cycle development, but it doesn’t mean blind development. Do the research. The marketplace is rich with programs that miss the mark because the organization didn’t fully understand or consider stakeholder needs. Some up-front research ultimately saves time and money—and program failures.

Key Question: What would you like to know about stakeholder needs? How are other organizations currently attempting to address these needs?

Experimenting – And Pivoting

Thinking about a new degree or certificate program? Do some quick research, put together a team to do a preliminary design, test that design with potential users (e.g., potential students or corporate clients – or even employers of the students that would undertake the degree or certificate), pivot the design, and try again. If you’re not good at speed and experimentation, hire a facilitator to help guide the process, and push the team.

Key Question: What experiments could you try right now? What can you do with an existing design that will improve its value to students and the organizations that hire them?

Remembering That Failure Is Just Part of The Process

Just because something didn’t work doesn’t mean that it was a bad idea or that it can’t work. Thomas Edison, when faced with 10,000 failed attempts at creating the light bulb said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Key Question: What might you learn from a previous failed attempt?

Changing The Mindset (And Perhaps The Reward Structure)

Stop punishing failure and start learning from it. One of my favorite cartoons comes from The Dip, by Seth Godin. It shows two figures talking, with Person #1 asking, “But what if I fail?” and Person #2 responding, “We all get to laugh at you.” Yep, that’s it. They get to laugh at you. So get over it and get on with it.

Key Question: How are you rewarding people for trying new thingseven ones that haven’t yet succeeded?


It’s clear that many schools will need to adapt and do things differently as the higher education landscape evolves. With all that’s changing, please don’t forget to retain the heart of an educator. While it’s important to learn from business, more than ever before colleges and universities should keep their mission in front of them to avoid losing the soul of the institution in the process of adapting to the new world of higher education. There really is room for both types of thinking and both kinds of values.

May your institution reach the summit.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *