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Higher Education’s Turning Point and Future Priorities

To meet learner needs and fill gaps in the workforce, higher education institutions must invest in technology, provide diverse learning modalities and connect curricula to industry.

Higher education has gone through much change in the past year, let alone the past five years. With modern learners’ ever-growing need for accessibility and flexibility, it’s critical that institutions adapt to meet it. In this interview, Melik Khoury discusses what’s in store for higher ed, what leaders need to keep top of mind and how to better serve learners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): As you reflect on the past year, what notable achievements or successes can you identify for higher education?

Melik Khoury (MK): Higher education reached a turning point by acknowledging that the traditional status quo is no longer sustainable, particularly beyond the privileged elite. This realization that an industry reluctant to admit any shortcomings long impeded, has become more evident.

I’ve also noticed early adopters harnessing AI’s potential to facilitate scalability, foster growth, support their workforce and acquaint 21st-century graduates with the necessary tools to work in our digital age, tailored to a generation of digital natives. At Unity, we have already begun weaving AI into the fabric of our environmental science-based education. As an industry, we must remember that addressing the ethical and potential negative aspects of AI is just as crucial as implementing it to ensure responsible and sustainable development.

Another significant shift is the dissolution of the strict dichotomy between education and skilled labor. This transformation reflects the modern world’s demands for individuals to not only possess academic knowledge but also practical skills. This blurring of lines emphasizes the importance of holistic education that combines theoretical learning with hands-on experience, empowering individuals to thrive in a rapidly changing, knowledge-based economy.

Evo: What are some key considerations you believe higher ed leaders should prioritize in 2024 to stay ahead of that rapidly evolving landscape?

MK: University presidents and leaders must focus on moving away from exclusivity in higher education. We must aim to create a more accessible and affordable education system by leveraging technology and nonstandard terms to make education more affordable. This element is essential, especially for the approximately 43 million Americans with some college but no degree, challenging the idea that higher education isn’t for everyone.

We need an accessible and affordable structure, where we can leverage technology and nonstandard terms to make education an option for more people. It’s so important for a civilized society to be an educated society. To achieve this vision, we need to change how we provide access and meet students where they are.

At Unity, leaning into nonstandard terms, never participating in unfunded tuition discounting and connecting students to opportunities in their own communities has propelled us to new heights. We now serve more than 7,500 students from all backgrounds, and our historic multicultural student population average has jumped from 8% to over 23%.

For policymakers, it’s crucial to modernize outdated policies. The absence of a national standard for American education poses a unique challenge, and policies haven’t evolved significantly since the mid-20th century. How can you support students to get the bite-sized education many of them now seek? The education landscape must adapt to the needs of today’s students and embrace lifelong learning.

Evo: What are some of the significant challenges higher ed institutions face today?

MK: Many in higher education have not invested in technology the way we invested in physical space. Today, your technological infrastructure is just as important as your physical infrastructure. Many of us didn’t invest as needed to make pedagogical changes in curriculum design relevant to industry. That’s something we are tackling head on at Unity Environmental University. We’re making significant multimillion-dollar investments in technology, including a new information system that will streamline operations and enhance data-driven decision-making. This forward-looking approach addresses multiple distinct but interconnected audiences.

And lastly, for those who can’t afford a bachelor’s degree, many employers are beginning to remove it from their requirements. So, the value proposition is eroding. You must ask yourself, are we adapting fast enough to the 21st-century economy and society, where the relationships among people, economy and environment are entangled?

Evo: What will it take from higher ed leaders to overcome these obstacles and be well equipped for the next year?

MK: Presidents of mid-tier tuition-driven institutions especially have to see their role as an opportunity for change. While some may view securing the role of president as mission accomplished, the day you assume that office really marks the commencement of the true and substantial work ahead.

Many people have been walking away from this position, saying it’s impossible with all the competing constituents. Leaders must make sure they define their audience and understand the institution’s measure of success. In leadership, it’s imperative to shift our focus away from reputation as the primary measure of success.

We’re not politicians—not democratically elected individuals—so we need to stop acting like them. We must put student interest before our reputations or internal governance structures. We must get comfortable with ambiguity and be resilient. Without incorporating significant technological advances and training employees to be comfortable with the new generation of students, we will be running outdated organizations.

Evo: What advice do you have for higher ed leaders, and what are some trends you’re watching?

MK: The large institutions that are growing are becoming modality-agnostic. You have to build a series of outcomes that students need to be successful. We’re seeing things like credentials, lifelong learning and degrees all discussed in isolation.

What we’re really struggling with is this educational currency. How do we credential learning and invest in pedagogical expertise to look at outcomes and the different ways to deliver them? We must do a better job of adapting organizations that think the product is perfect. Look at your audience—are they enough to sustain you long term? If not, see what does and doesn’t work for new demographics. How will you bridge the gap and pivot?

Evo: Is there anything else you’d like to add about the upcoming year or what you’re seeing in higher education?

MK: Higher education is currently experiencing a profound transformation. Amidst ongoing disruption, it’s essential to dispel misconceptions surrounding various learning modalities whether residential, online or commuter. These modalities should be seen as tools with unique strengths, all aimed at facilitating the learning experience.

The future of higher education hinges on our ability to offer curricula that remain relevant and adaptive to students’ evolving needs. We aspire to graduate environmentally conscious, culturally astute and well-rounded individuals prepared for the demands of the job market. To achieve this goal, it is our responsibility to invest in equipping students with the knowledge, skills and values they need in a changing world.

This shift in perspective encourages us to take pride in the students we graduate, recognizing the transformative impact we can have on their lives rather than celebrating the number of students denied each year. Doing so will help us fulfill our role as educators, shaping a brighter future for both our students and society at large.