Adapting the Higher Ed Model to Suit Today's StudentsMichelle R. Weise | Executive Director of Sandbox ColLABorative, Southern New Hampshire University
Today, traditional-age students are a minority on campus. The average student is working part-time or full-time, has a family and is over 25. But at higher education institutions nationwide, the products and processes on offer are still designed for the traditional audience. To be competitive in today’s higher education marketplace, institutions need to move away from their traditional business models and adjust to serve the growing non-traditional audience. In this interview, Michelle R. Weise shares her thoughts on how institutions must adjust to adequately serve this demographic, and discusses some of the roadblocks leaders may encounter.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What’s missing from the traditional higher education model in terms of creating a return on investment for students?
Michelle R. Weise (MRW): We have a national agenda that preaches “more college for all” and highlights the degree as the ultimate goal, but we have so many students struggling to actually complete their degrees. Part of the disjunction is that we have a system that is very linear and insular—one that punishes students who get off-track at any point. Non-traditional students need much more flexibility in terms of what the college experience offers to them.
The thing that’s missing in higher education is a way to integrate the idea that there is more to upward mobility than a degree. There are a lot of things that come before the degree that can help working adults in particular increase their earnings premiums while also helping them move towards a credential that makes sense for them.
Evo: Is the greatest marker of value for a student the credential when they complete their education?
MRW: Making the degree the ultimate indicator is part of President Obama’s push for college completion because he realizes that more employers are asking for full degrees. The problem is employers are asking for more and more degrees—often for middle-skills jobs that don’t require a degree in the first place. Degrees are really inadequate markers of what jobs people can actually do. They’re imprecise proxies, but employers continue to rely on the degree as a sorting mechanism for soft skills or skills that aren’t even related to the job. This ultimately leads to more up-credentialing, and soon, even bachelor’s degrees are not going to be enough. The market is going to require master’s degrees for those same jobs that really didn’t require degrees in the first place.
There should be certifications or alternative credentials that could more precisely signify whether someone has the required skills. We’re at a point where we need better benchmarking. This is why there has been this pull towards competency-based education—approaches that really outline what a student can do with the knowledge that they have.
Evo: Expanding a little bit on ROI, we all know outcomes and future salary are major factors here. But given the growing tendency of students to think like customers, how do things like ease of registration, class availability and support services factor into the ROI calculations of today’s learners?
MRW: We’re seeing a real shift towards lifelong learning. As opposed to thinking that a four-year experience trains you for a lifetime, people are now realizing they have to go back and retool intermittently. That flexibility to learn anytime and anyplace and at your own pace is therefore huge.
What a lot of providers that are trying to fill this niche are very quickly learning is that they have to invest so much more money and resources into student-support services. Non-traditional students don’t have the same forms of accountability that we are used to with traditional or campus-based students. They are often not surrounded visibly by peers working on the same kinds of projects as they are. As such, they need to feel strongly mentored and coached along throughout the process of learning.
Evo: What are some of the roadblocks that tend to keep institutions from really reacting to this shift in the marketplace where students are more focused on value than ever before?
MRW: There are two major issues here. One is that it’s just so difficult to innovate within the existing business model of higher education. We call it academic inertia. There’s so much that goes into making the value proposition, resources and processes all coalesce to create some kind of stable revenue formula for an institution. Once you actually get to the point where you are generating some revenue, the business model gets locked, and the revenue formula starts to dictate backwards what value proposition you can actually deliver. Even though most institutions see a lot of advancements being made, especially through technology, or even if they see disruptive innovations on the horizon, they simply can’t react because their model is locked.
The business model that they pursue will inevitably always co-opt any kind of new innovation and turn it into something that helps them create a better performing product—and a much more expensive product—for their best customers. It’s just really hard to innovate from within.
The other challenge is that we’re at the point where there’s so much more attention on jobs. We’re realizing that a traditional degree isn’t a perfect fit for an emerging knowledge economy. Students aren’t necessarily graduating with the right skills for the jobs today. At the same time, we have an academic tradition that tends to separate itself from the workforce and not see itself as needing to train students for the workforce.
In America in particular, there’s been this undeniable denigration of the idea of vocational training, but today, there’s a push to uplift the concept of vocational and get away from this notion that job training is somehow a bad thing. Making that big mental shift is very difficult for a lot of these institutions that have been entrenched in doing the things the way they have always done them and have been so successful doing.
Evo: How can universities change to better meet the expectations of today’s students and stakeholders?
MRW: Meeting the expectations of today’s students is going to come down to a narrowing in focus. Rankings incentivize institutions to try to be all things to all people, but most institutions are realizing that they can’t continue to do this.
When we think about the shifting value proposition of higher education, we have to think about what job it is that higher education is being hired to do in students’ lives. For many of these non-traditional students, it really is going to come down to job prospects. The important thing here is to realize that many students are looking to hire higher education to help them get a job, and institutions can really nail that for them.
Evo: What do the next 20 years hold for universities that refuse to adapt to the growing student demand for improved and maximized value?
MRW: I’ve had quite a few presidents of universities say to me, “There’s nothing that’s going to take the place of the degree.” Over the next 20 years, though, there are all kinds of alternative learning pathways that are already gaining traction today that are going to proliferate. There will be a lot more pathways available to students that don’t necessarily end in a degree that really focus on one specific job to be done for a particular set of students.
There will always be a place for a four-year degree, but employers are going to start to realize that these different kinds of programs are producing a pipeline of job candidates that are just as qualified, if not more qualified, than the students they’ve been hiring with traditional degrees. That is ultimately going to put pressure on institutions that are refusing to adapt to this dramatically shifting landscape.
From the perspective of the incumbent institutions, these pathways may seem to be producing lower quality outcomes, but these alternatives will be delivering on a very different metric of performance while also at a much lower cost than those full-degree programs. Whether institutions like it or not, these seemingly marginal pathways are just going to grow and gain traction and ultimately place quite a bit of pressure on incumbent organizations.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the transformation of higher education institutions towards meeting the value expectations of today’s consumer-minded students?
MRW: There is room for experimentation here for any kind of traditional institution to think outside of the traditional degree program. There’s a $500 billion industry within postsecondary instruction that deals with alternative marketable credentials, industry certifications, apprenticeships, and professional certifications that they should consider tapping into. Institutions can start exploring options by potentially partnering with employers and building competency-based career pathways for students that don’t necessarily end in a traditional credential or degree. Although this particular pathway may not be a possible or desirable option for many institutions, the narrowing of focus will be something that all institutions should consider. The bundling of every conceivable service for every kind of student under the auspices of a single institution simply will not be a financially sustainable model for the future.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Analyst