Visit Modern Campus

A Strategic Roadmap for The Next Decade

Staying relevant in the higher education marketplace means integrating smart data and positioning the learner at the center of your mission. 

Learner expectations have radically changed over the last decade, and most colleges and universities have been caught flat footed. The result has been a steady decline in the value of higher education. If you’re looking to transform your school’s business model and create more value over the next decade, start by looking at your phone.

Ten years ago, only 1 in 4 Americans had a smartphone. Today, not only do you have one but so do 95% of American teens. To put this into perspective, it took 17 years for the personal computer to reach 25% of Americans. The smartphone took less than four.

Now open your phone’s home screen. Look at all the organizations and businesses that appear in the form of apps. What do you expect from them? Whether it’s Uber delivering a car, Netflix delivering a show, or Amazon delivering a package, you expect them to anticipate what you need and deliver it when and how you need it. Your expectations have radically changed; so have your learners’. 

This shift in expectations occurred fairly recently. Although the Digital Age began over 40 years ago, it wasn’t until the dawn of the Zettabyte Era in 2012 that smart data emerged. Smart data is digital information formatted so it can be acted upon at the point of collection. It’s smart because it can be used to make decisions on incoming data immediately, without requiring processing power from a centralized system. This data is what personalizes your phone apps to anticipate what you need and deliver it when and how you need it. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities don’t have smart data.

But alternative education providers do. Coursera, for example, launched in 2012 and is built on smart data. In less than a decade, Coursera has become the world’s largest provider of online courses with 73 million annual users and a $2.5 billion valuation. Other companies built on smart data, like Google, Apple and Amazon, are also getting into the higher education space. Some have argued that these companies must get into higher education if they are to continue providing the topline revenue their investors expect. That’s a scary proposition for those of us in this space. So, what can we do about it? 

We can start by structuring ourselves around our learners’ expectations. With this in mind, I want to offer a five-point strategic roadmap to change your future in light of today’s expectations. These ideas aren’t necessarily new, and they aren’t all built on smart data, but I believe they are necessary if many colleges and universities plan to survive and thrive in the coming decade.

1) Get obsessed with your learner

Your mission is your learner’s success. It’s striking that this is still not the core mission of many higher ed institutions. Debates over the importance of research, academic quality and the school’s advancement are still competing for the top spot over learner success. And while there are many faithful faculty members who put their students’ success above other competing interests, too many colleges and universities are still not aligned around learner success. Schools that are thriving are. Take Western Governors University, for instance. One of their mottos is “Mission-driven. Student obsessed.” This includes their systems, which are built on smart data. Even in my home state of Missouri, WGU boasts over 3,200 students. Schools like WGU who are obsessed with their learners’ success have an inherent strategic advantage over those that aren’t.

2) Adopt more than one model

Your one model isn’t enough to make it. The market of customers willing to conform to the 20th century model your school is built on is rapidly shrinking. As Jeff Selingo and others have suggested, it’s not about finding a new model, it’s about adopting multiple new models. Colleges and universities need to have on-ramping strategies that make it easier for different learner groups to come in and out of their institutions, whether they are current high school students or middle-aged job seekers. Today’s marketplace is dynamic, and as we’ve learned during the pandemic, you cannot put all your eggs into one basket. Fortunately, there is an abundance of learner needs out there waiting to be fulfilled. But we need new business models built around these learners’ expectations if we are to earn their business.

3) Align with partners

You’re not going to make it on your own. But most colleges and universities are difficult to partner with in part because they are not structured to facilitate partnerships. Put yourself in a local employer’s shoes. They have needs that you could meet, but where do they go to get help? Who do they talk to? Schools like Arizona State University and Southern New Hampshire University have amazing partnerships in large part because they are designed for them; most colleges and universities are not. Partnering with other education providers is also critical going forward, especially if you plan on scaling your operation. Consider the emergence of Georgia Tech’s wildly successful partnership with Udacity to deliver high-quality, low-cost computer science graduate degrees at scale. Schools with strong partnerships have a competitive advantage over those schools that don’t. 

4) Create lifelong learning models

Your education is expiring. Consider the computer science alum who graduated in 2002. The value of their degree has declined. They need to update it or add to it. Has your school anticipated this need? Is your school built to seamlessly offer these updates, send students push notifications, and onboard them that same day? Or do you treat your alumni like any other prospect and force them through an admissions funnel? Even though we preach lifelong learning, most of our schools are built on episodic education. Schools that build lifelong learning models will not only benefit from recurring revenue, they’ll be able to expand their offerings to education brokers, like Guild, who help employers offer education as a benefit to their employees. Schools with lifelong learning models have a strategic advantage over those that don’t.

5) Build the system of the future

Eventually, you have to build a system on smart data. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result isn’t an effective strategy. Even the fastest growing schools in the country, like SNHU, ASU and Northeastern University, are personalizing education to meet the expectations of today’s learners. This requires smart data. Look at your phone’s home screen again. Do you see your school’s app? In the near future, your school will need to be on that home screen. Being there means you are a top value-producing entity. Schools that strategically make their way to the learner’s home screen are the ones who have successfully designed their organizations around anticipating what their learners need and delivering it when and how they need it. That’s the overriding goal for many of us over the next decade.

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service.

Author Perspective: