The Journey Toward Value and Collaboration in Higher Education
The value of higher education is being questioned—some would say, now more than ever. For institutions to deliver a better perception of higher ed’s ROI, they must meet learners where they are. In this interview, Nathan Long reflects on how higher education and Saybrook University have evolved in the past year, addresses the challenges institutions currently face and shares some effective strategies to be prepared to serve the modern learner.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What notable achievements or successes can you identify for either higher education as a whole or specifically your institution?
Nathan Long (NL): There’s a need to start addressing the challenges around higher ed’s value proposition and ROI, and institutions are starting to address this challenge head-on. Students want to understand how they can apply their education to new jobs. There is also increased interest in collaborating across institutions. Not everyone can do this on their own, and we must find ways to support each other. There are pockets of enrollment increases and challenges, depending on where institutions are located. However, we’re seeing some institutions buck the demographic trend, and that comes back to understanding the value proposition, implementing student support initiatives and focusing on the mission.
For Saybrook University, we’ve taken an elective approach to how we work with our communities in terms of mental and integrative health. We’ve invested in that infrastructure in a meaningful way. We’re largely a virtual institution, and that’s made a big difference for our students.
Additionally, we’re building one of the best virtual student life experiences in the country. We’ve grown in student leadership opportunities, cocurricular programming and enrollment. We’ve also seen many students expressing that they want their degree and learning experience to value their human experience. We want to be a part of their educational journey.
Evo: Is there any advice you’d share with other higher ed leaders?
NL: You must be willing to learn and make mistakes. Be willing to fail, but fail fast and dust yourself off, then get back into the arena. We’ve all made errors trying to innovate and improve.
Additionally, institutions that have the capacity to do so should spend time thinking about the value of diversity, equity and inclusion, as it is vital to creating a vibrant, valuable environment for all stakeholders. Our justice, equity, diversity and inclusion initiative was recognized by external reviewers with a mark of excellence and distinction. Our Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Council is now the place to have in-depth conversations about creating a culture of belonging. Furthermore, it’s focused on the outcomes and processes required to get there. Students are a vital part of the council, as much as administrators, faculty and staff. Engagement is critical.
Evo: What are some key considerations higher ed leaders need to keep top of mind?
NL: It depends on which subsector you’re in, but there are some main principles. First, having good, authentic student engagement is critical. What does it mean for students to really be engaged? If they’re not, then how do we get them front and center?
The other piece is that every facet of leadership, including the president’s, is expanding. Academic leaders’ deeper involvement with students, faculty and staff can demonstrate how much the institution cares and sees them, enhancing the life of the whole institution. Indeed, from the president across the entire institution, it’s all about partnership and authentic engagement.
Along with the above, we must also collectively focus on the whole institutional community. Employee engagement is so vital in how we work and connect with faculty and staff. We’ve been working hard to enhance it at Saybrook, especially since we have a distributed workforce. As more institutions virtualize and innovate, we must remember our people. If students are at the center, then those holding our students the closest also must be cared for.
Evo: What are some of the other significant challenges higher ed leaders face?
NL: An increasing number of institutions are on the brink of closure. A major issue is that some of them are engaging in practices that aren’t centralizing students appropriately. When institutions fail to do this well—or at all—they face a myriad of crises that lead to closure and reduce their community’s confidence in higher education more broadly.
Furthermore, we have to be about reaching out before it’s too late, which also necessitates supporting and encouraging leaders and boards to not be ashamed about asking for help, envisioning potential futures that might not align with past conceptions and considering innovative partnerships.
Another key factor revolves around cost and value. Regardless of whether institutions charge a premium for tuition, the learning experience must be mission-centered and excellent. Additionally, we must create environments that support all learners by creating and nurturing access to a variety of different educational modalities, content and support services.
Evo: What’s required of higher ed leaders to overcome some of these obstacles and be more equipped for the next year?
NL: One thing I do is reflect on the past year and see where I can be better for myself, my students and my university. I write down where I failed, where I can improve and how it will lead to growth.
As institutional leaders prepare for the future, I highly recommend reading Becoming a Student-Ready College.
The benefits of reframing how we work with students and prepare the university are critical. It’s all about institutional self-awareness, involving all staff in the process, asking the tough questions about the quality of student engagement and thinking about how to truly be a student-ready college.
Evo: Are you seeing any trends in higher ed, or is there any advice you’d like to share?
NL: I’d tell leaders to grow in collaboration with other institutions. Look at the various partnerships you can form. There are too many institutions on the outside looking in because they waited too long to collaborate. Additionally, understanding that mergers and acquisitions aren’t a bad thing and, in many respects, can both ensure student success while preserving an institution’s core mission. If you’re putting the student first, then your mission can support such a change. Institutions that can keep their minds open about collaboration and rethink what it looks like to courageously swim in these choppy waters over the next few years have a strong chance of finding success.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add?
NL: At Saybrook, we’re a part of a nonprofit system of colleges and universities (The Community Solution Education System). Our six independent institutions work together to drive innovation and positive student outcomes. That element of collaboration has allowed us to grow and thrive in what can be a turbulent higher ed landscape. It’s exciting to see the enthusiasm around helping the academic communities within our system advance and a culture of care continue to develop among us. We realize that by working together we can better serve our students and have a greater impact.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.