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Building Synergy and Empowering Learners: Strategies for Higher Ed Success

Higher ed has made tremendous progress in diversity, but it must still work to make postsecondary education more accessible and flexible to accommodate all students at any stage of life. 

Student centricity is more critical than ever in higher ed. To be successful, institutions must begin strategizing their next steps around student centricity and collaboration across campus. In this interview, Adam Fein discusses higher ed’s achievements this past year, the challenges ahead and what to prioritize in the coming years.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As you reflect on the past year, what notable achievements or successes can you identify for higher education as a whole or specifically at your institution?

Adam Fein (AF): For higher education broadly, it’s been great to see the growth in diversity. For us, we’re a federally designated Minority- (MSI) and Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI). We are now the third-largest university in Texas, and 41% of our students are first-generation. It says a lot about our nation’s changing demographics and being prepared, not only to serve diversity in that way but to also be really good at it.

More specifically, within our division at UNT, 67% of students are taking at least one online course. It’s our job to ensure they have flexibility in the new hybrid landscape. Those courses need to be world class and as good or better than their in-person counterparts.

Higher education is really making strides in better understanding what it needs to do to evolve out of a degree-or-nothing industry. While degrees remain powerful for social mobility, not everyone wants or needs an entire degree at all times. We need to unbundle the degree, especially for adult learners.

Evo: What are some key considerations higher ed leaders should prioritize in 2024 to keep ahead in a rapidly evolving landscape?

AF: On the theme of unbundling degrees, universities need to plan for these shorter credentials or microcredentials. The demographic cliff is rapidly approaching, and many institutions could face significant financials issues if they only focus on the traditional 18- to 22-year-old. So, we have to serve adult learners if we aren’t already. The adult learner demographic is much larger than the traditional audience, and we need to serve both. It means our products must be flexible.

We can’t go into 2024 without talking about generative AI, and I’m excited for that. There’s a lot of unrealized opportunity for personalization and customization. With adaptive learning, there has been a lot of promise, but little has been delivered. GenAI and aspects of machine learning can help us realize that promise in two different ways: First, it will take rote tasks away from humans and free up space for faculty, staff and administrators to spend more time on the critical thinking required to better design practical applications for personalized learning. Secondly, the amount of data you can input to large language models (LLMs) that can produce rapid, automated suggestions is beyond anything we have ever seen—at least beyond what has been available to the global world at-large.

With the rapid rise in AI use in everyday activities, we’ll have to keep our finger on the pulse of new cybersecurity requirements. We must understand the regulations while we’re innovating.

Evo: What are some significant challenges higher ed faces?

AF: The regulatory environment continues to grow, and it can be difficult to keep up with it. Information security and data protection for students, staff, faculty and university researchers are critical. As digital transformation has proliferated, so has our responsibility to ensure the transformation is ethical, safe and used for progress.

In my division, the most rapidly growing team is our digital accessibility and compliance team. Ensuring our students with disabilities have the same world-class experience as any other student is paramount. This team couldn’t be busier. The amount of content they work with faculty to remediate is staggering. Doing this work is a challenge for higher education. But It's more than a legal decision—it's the right thing to do.

Cost continues to be a challenge. We’re in our seventh year of freezing tuition at the University of North Texas. With inflation affecting everyone, we must figure out intelligent, caring ways to not pass these price increases onto students. We want everyone to experience the value of a higher education.

The final challenge I’ll mention is one I’ve seen to be quite cyclical. Every decade or so, the value of higher education comes under fire. If you look at the rise in average student debt, anyone could understand why. In these cases, though, it’s important we look at the data. Statistics show that typical annual earnings for a bachelor's degree holder are 84% higher than for those without a degree. College degree-holders are half as likely to be unemployed as peers without a high school degree. And a college degree will lead to earning around $1.2 million more over a lifetime.

If you think about the opportunities I mentioned earlier, the lesson is that it’s essential for us to stand behind the degree but also provide stackable microcredentials that work in tandem. In this way, students can get what they need, at the time they need it—no more no less—at any point in their learning journey.

Evo: What’s required of higher ed leaders to overcome some of these obstacles and be more equipped for next year?

AF: There must be strong collaboration across campus with academic and administrative units. We all need to be on the same page when it comes to strategy and have true synergy when working on policy, faculty governance and programming.

Research and development is our secret sauce. The Division of Digital Strategy and Innovation at the University of North Texas has a digital learning research team that is constantly testing and experimenting to better understand how we can provide the best outcomes for our learners. We need to see empirically what is influencing knowledge transfer and what treatments bring about learning gains in our various environments. Throwing darts at the wall or being overly dependent on satisfaction studies just isn’t going to work.

Evo: What’s some advice you’d share with higher ed leaders and some trends you’re keeping an eye on?

AF: Advice I’d share is to not get caught up in extreme narratives. Generative AI is not going to ruin humanity. There will be some real benefits. Of course, there are things we need to pay attention to, like intellectual property and data security, but there is real promise for learning progress and potentially levelling the playing field for students from under-resourced backgrounds. Can you imagine having a brilliant writing tutor in your bedroom 24/7, one you can have a conversation with? Some students have that in their schools, some with their parents, some have neither. We have a chance to balance equity across education, and AI can be a tool in helping students find the right resources. At the same time, if we only teach prompt engineering in well-resourced schools, then it could create a wider gap. So, we must keep our students in mind as we progress and be intentional.

In looking at microcredentials, it’s important to align programming with industry needs. Microcredentials should be a part of vital affordability initiatives and must be workforce-driven, short format and focus on actual industry-endorsed skills rather than Scout-like badges. After years of talking about bridging industry and higher ed, we’re finally seeing sustainable examples of at-scale partnerships.

Finally, don’t forget adult learners. There are 240 million adults in the U.S. who will need skilling and reskilling at different times in their career. That’s in contrast to only 15 million traditionally aged students. So that nontraditional (or new majority) demographic is a massive opportunity for higher ed.