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Improving Efficiency and Incentivizing Innovation: A Roadmap to Success for Smaller Institutions

The EvoLLLution | Improving Efficiency and Incentivizing Innovation: A Roadmap to Success for Smaller Institutions
The long-term survival of smaller colleges and universities is more threatened than ever before, but by focusing on improving all aspects of the student experience they deliver they can go beyond viability to sustained success.

It’s a new and challenging world for smaller colleges and universities. Threatened by mergers, takeovers and closures, facing an extremely competitive marketplace and trying to serve students with sky-high expectations, the outlook is grim for institutions that do not evolve with the times. In this interview, Navneet Johal outlines some of the key challenges facing smaller colleges and universities across the Unites States and shares her thoughts on how leaders of these institutions can turn the tide and support their long-term success.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the key challenges facing smaller colleges and universities in today’s postsecondary environment?

Navneet Johal (NJ): There are a few challenges smaller higher education institutions are facing, unfortunately.  Perhaps the most obvious one is enrollment. There was a peak enrollment period in 2011-2012, but since then the number of college students has declined steadily. What’s more, the pool of postsecondary applicants has also steadily declined, reducing the number of students institutions can recruit.

Once you have the students, even if it’s in small numbers, the second challenge is keeping them on track to graduation. Smaller institutions, particularly liberal arts colleges, have such high price tags that students are expecting much more from their education. If these smaller institutions have poor student outcomes, or do not deliver the service or experience students have come to expect, it raises questions about what students are actually getting for their money.

The third challenge ties into student expectations. Today, institutions have to support different pedagogical techniques and diversify their curricula to meet the needs of this non-traditional, changing student population who bring with them high expectations. For faculty, it means switching from a very traditional mode of instruction that was passive, to a more modern, engaging and active process that’s technology-enabled.

There are, of course, a number of obstacles there too. While the funding may be there for this technology-enabled learning at smaller institutions, the change management aspect is really hard for faculty, especially when there is no incentive for them to change. That’s what we’re hearing from the smaller institutions that we speak to. This is also a challenge for larger institutions, but if you add all those challenges together for smaller institutions—from a smaller pool of students to recruit from, having to keep them on track, having to give them more for their money and then at the end of that you expect faculty to change incentive—they’re all linked and they’re huge challenges.

The other challenge is that these institutions have to be more operationally efficient. To remain relevant, to sustain themselves over the long term and to fund innovation and teaching and learning improvements, they must become more efficient.

Evo: Conversely, what are a few exciting opportunities that smaller institutions could take advantage of?

NJ: Technology presents the obvious opportunity for smaller institutions. What’s more important is avoiding leveraging technology purely for the sake of leveraging technology, but instead aligning technology to institutional strategic goals. For example, there are technological tools that can help deliver online learning materials, which reduces costs of paper materials. There’s technology that can ensure institutions are more operationally efficient, so leaders get more from enterprise systems. Ultimately, leaders can make sure that they get more from their Student Information Systems; this technology helps to keep learners on track. There are numerous opportunities that smaller institutions can take advantage of to overcome their unique hurdles.

Another exciting opportunity for smaller institutions is developing new professional and online learning programs to attract new types of students—primarily working adults going back into education. Serving these “new traditional” students is a massive change for smaller institutions, but also an amazing opportunity because studies show more than 50 percent of students entering higher education right now are considered to be non-traditional students.

Focusing on this demographic presents really exciting opportunities over the long term and will help to change the business model for higher education institutions, based on the needs of these new students.

Evo: How must smaller institutions adapt to actually leverage those opportunities while overcoming some of the key challenges facing them?

NJ: The big change institutions will have to adapt to is focusing on their faculty to help them rethink pedagogy. This goes back to one of those original challenges—faculty resistance to change. Smaller institutions will have to provide incentives to help faculty change their teaching styles and adapt. The focus needs to shift from faculty the autonomy to stick to what they’ve done for years to focusing on them in a positive way to help them change. It’s important to recognize this isn’t about taking away faculty’s autonomy, but encouraging them to change.

The second way they need to adapt goes back to technology. Leaders at smaller institutions need to look for technologies that support a range of pedagogical approaches. This means, when faculty are willing to make the change and shift their teaching style, there is technology to support them and these new styles.

Smaller institutions need to adapt to this new student body to help them succeed.  That includes developing student success strategies, creating consistent, end-to-end approaches to student success and looking for the technology that supports those strategies. A lot of student success tools are coming to market that are being leveraged by small and large institutions but it really helps to build that end-to-end approach to student success.

Finally, I think institutions also need to raise more financial aid donations to be able to enroll more students who would otherwise struggle to pay tuition.

Evo: What are some of the tools on the market that smaller institutions need to be looking to invest in to meet the expectations that students have today?

NJ: First of all, if we look at the bigger enterprise applications that help engage students and build up the student experience, customer relationship management tools support students across the entire student lifecycle. There should be a focus on improving the student experience on the whole but it helps if you’ve got the right student body to begin with. The CRM helps institutions identify the right students, engages students in the beginning, takes them through that lifecycle and then engages them when they become alumni.  That’s the top-level wider enterprise tool when it comes to improving the student experience.

There are a few other administrative core applications that are important to help build out the student experience. The student information system, for example, is important, but a lot of these systems are outdated and inflexible, and they’re not able to adapt to what institutions are looking to do now.  A lot of SIS vendors are now coming to market with new cloud-based solutions, addressing a pressing need for modernization in the SIS market. A great example that shows the impact a modern SIS has on the student experience is obtaining a student’s own records in the system. A record that is, essentially, important bits of information that students need immediately. In old SIS’s it’s hard to retrieve that information, but in new SIS’s it’s a lot easier. That just helps in term of delivering a student experience where students know they’re able to access whatever information they need, whenever they need it, without it delaying their academic processes.

The learning management system is also critically important. However, again, the traditional, boxed-in LMS is not what’s going to help institutions fulfill their goal of improving the student experience because they’re designed to manage learning, not enable learning.  If we think outside the box of traditional LMS players, there are some innovative open online learning platforms that actually enable learning. They contribute directly to a better student experience because it’s switching up the teaching and learning experience.

Now, if we look at students today, more and more of them are using their smartphones, and I wish mobility was higher on the list of priorities for smaller institutions. Unfortunately, across the postsecondary space, no one really has a mobile strategy that goes beyond having a mobile app. That’s not a consistent mobile strategy and students don’t want to pay an obscene amount of money just to have a mobile app that gives them very basic information. A highly effective mobile strategy combines everything that a student needs into one mobile app, and that can contribute to improving the student experience.

Evo: What are some of the roadblocks leaders of smaller colleges and universities should expect to face when putting these key changes in place at their institutions?

NJ: The roadblocks are firstly around faculty resistance to change. Faculty at smaller institutions have followed a tried-and-tested method to pedagogy for many years and are not so open to changing. Leaders should expect resistance when they want to put new technology in place or when they want to switch from passive learning to creating an active learning environment.

Change management, then, is critical to the change-resistance roadblock that institutional leaders will face when trying to evolve their institutions. In some ways, though, this can be seen in a positive light. Going through that change management process will always lead to positive outcomes. Going through change management processes lead to important transformations for these smaller institutions, that then help them meet their institutional goals, all of which ties back into a wider cultural shift.

The roadblock will not be around what technologies to implement—that’s not hard because there are so many great tools out there that institutions can leverage and a lot of these tools are becoming more and more popular and affordable. The roadblock is around shifting the culture of smaller institutions to think more broadly and be more open to change.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about what smaller colleges and universities can do to avoid that fate of being closed or being forced to shut?

NJ: Avoiding bankruptcy and closure goes back to knowing what the challenges are and addressing them. There are some analysts who believe institutions must fail in order to fix a lot of these issues and change the way things have traditionally been done.  This is a scary concept if you think about the students enrolled in these institutions that close—what do the closures mean for them? If these challenges are clear from the beginning—alongside the opportunities—then it’s easier to figure out a strategy to overcome those challenges while at the same time building toward these opportunities. Smaller institutions need to work harder to develop clear strategies.

Adaptation is also critical—engaging in a cultural shift. This involves bringing together a range of stakeholders to meet on strategy, because part of that cultural shift is ensuring that everyone’s on board. There’s often a disconnect between different stakeholders at smaller institutions, but they can’t afford to have this disconnect. It’s important to build a culture that involves everyone who holds a piece of the puzzle coming together and helping the institution keep its head above water.

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