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Four Levers for Scaling Higher Education

The EvoLLLution | Four Levers for Scaling Higher Education
In order to successfully scale, every institutional leader must understand the importance of – and have in place – their Purpose, Prospects, Programming and Partnerships levers.

Scale is typically measured by number of enrollments: The higher the number of learners enrolled, the greater scale achieved. So it is not surprising that postsecondary colleagues see the obvious solution to achieving scale is to deliver courses and programs online. While online modalities may remove geographical boundaries and allow access to larger audiences and new markets, is this really achieving scale?

Scale is not achieved simply by modality. It requires a multi-layered approach that further requires extensive collaboration within the faculty and broader postsecondary institution. The following are four levers to achieving scale in postsecondary education:

1. Purpose

Determining your division’s purpose and how that purpose is aligned to the rest of the institution may seem obvious, but this step is often assumed (or poorly defined) when working to develop a plan for scale. By purpose, I mean, what is your reason for being? What are you here to achieve for your learner and your organization, and are these two points of view aligned?

In my role, I have the pleasure of meeting many colleagues in various functions across all sectors of education, and it’s remarkable how little clarity there is to the question, “What is your division’s purpose?” In the continuing education landscape, many will state that the purpose of continuing education is to promote lifelong learning of adult learners and this is achieved through online, flexible, short-duration learning programming. When I hear these statements, I often ask, “and what else?” We need to go deeper. For example, in addition to supporting lifelong learning, do you have other accountabilities within your institution? Perhaps your divisional role is to develop a pipeline of international learners to feed the learner pipeline of other faculties or perhaps you are accountable to lead consulting services or develop community partnerships?

Whatever the mandate, be sure to define it and then actively remind your organization your reason for being. Effectively communicating/re-communicating your mandate will enable institutional support from department heads to deans to provosts and your alumni, and this institutional support will deliver opportunities for collaboration and insights in how to engage existing markets and develop new ones.

2. Prospects

In the banking sector, a compliance rule is Know Your Client (KYC) and the policies that surround KYC practices in banking and insurance sectors are in place to mitigate risk. After all, when you know your client, you minimize risk to your organization. This is true within higher education as well—when we know our learner, we mitigate risk: the risk of costly program development that does not meet a need, the risk of costly marketing and communications initiatives, the risk of increased expenditure for infrastructure and/or human resources.

In the world of instructional and user experience design, you wouldn’t contemplate designing a program or a product without a comprehensive view of the learner. You’d complete a learner analysis. Who are our learners—what are the demographics and more importantly, what do they value, what do they aspire to achieve, what frustrates them, what thrills them? When we can discern the answers to these questions, we develop solutions that have meaning, impact and ultimately bring scale because in time you will develop a loyal following of learners who feel that the experience they are having with you is a valuable one.

As with Purpose, the Prospects lever requires collaboration across the institution. For example, student services (registrar, financial aid, counseling and advising) that meet the needs of learners and treats learners as customers are not simply complementary services, but are critical to assisting academic services in delivering a quality experience. When we understand the customer journey within our institutions and focus on customizing and improving that journey for our learners, we will achieve scale.

3. Programming

Just because we build it, does not mean that they will come.

Postsecondary organizations that achieve scale have a well defined process to developing programs beginning with a solid understanding of their market’s need (the needs of their clients and how this need aligns to their organization) alongside a built-in mechanism to measure program impact. Additionally, programming must be grounded in sound pedagogy (andragogy) that is itself grounded in learner-centric instructional practice. Programming cannot simply reside in developing knowledge and skills; it must also develop the 21st-Century Professional. This means that within our programming, we must include instructional mechanisms that advance collaboration, curiosity, critical thinking and creativity—the “über skills” for professionals.

4. Partnerships

When we consider partnerships, we often overlook internal partnerships and begin to look outside our organization. However, consider how you might strengthen existing partnerships within your own institution as this will help reinforce your Purpose and improve your Programming. For example, some organizations have increased scale by providing incentives to faculty colleagues to promote programs or to encourage their program ideas.

With regard to partnerships outside your organization, how creative are you prepared to be? The CEO of Freshii recently challenged the CEO of McDonalds to create an unthinkable alliance. Freshii is a healthy fast food alternative in the marketplace and McDonalds is the old staple of fast food. Freshii’s CEO wrote an open letter to McDonalds’ CEO in which he offered the following challenge: “Let us co-brand a Freshii outlet in just one of your 14,000 stores, anywhere in America. My studies indicate that this move will pay for itself, increasing same store sales by 30 percent and boosting annual profits by $250,000 per unit”. Might McDonalds—the fast food giant that is losing market share and busily conjuring up ideas to engage a more health conscious society—consider the possibility of this partnership? Well, we’ll see. This story should provoke those in all industries to consider partnerships differently. Partnership can challenge our thinking and encourage new ways of doing, which ultimately leads to scale.


Learning organizations that have scaled successfully have developed the four levers: Purpose, Prospects, Programming and Partnerships and accept that this is a journey. You never simply “arrive.” Scaling a constant process of review and renewal that requires exceptional education leadership to lead the communication and sustain the energy and enthusiasm of the organization.

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