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Mapping Higher Education’s Future: Reflecting on the Year of Living Innovatively

The EvoLLLution | Mapping Higher Education’s Future: Reflecting on the Year of Living Innovatively
An innovation does not necessarily need to be completely disruptive to be effective—sustaining innovations are equally valuable in allowing institutions to serve existing audiences in new and exciting ways.

This is the third and final part of the series we started almost a year ago, chronicling a unique approach to innovative and future thinking at Oregon State University.

To catch you up, we are at the delivery point for two investment-grade proposals designed to bring innovative approaches to the combined goals of improved learner success and revenue generation. We began by looking at currently unserved or underserved potential audiences. We looked at market demand instead of inventorying what programming we had already and trying to sell that to the marketplace. We were trying to avoid the adage “if the university is a hammer, the entire world looks like a nail.” As I said in part one of this series, a market-focused approach is not something our universities do often or well.

At the mid-point in this yearlong effort, our six-person Innovation Team had identified 41 potential audiences and their “pain points.” We debated and argued and challenged each other and reduced that list to six, then three, and finally two that made the cut.

Here are thumbnail sketches of each of the final two, and then I’ll close with some lessons learned.

Oregon State University Gateway Program

On their first day in community college, 80 percent of learners say they are planning to transfer to a four-year institution. However, only about 30 percent actually try, and of those only 14 percent eventually graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Rather than bulldoze through the bureaucracy of community college transfer processes, we focused on how to get more of these learners on a track to a bachelor’s degree immediately.

Our Gateway online program proposal suggests a flat tuition price of $10,000 for the first 90 (quarter) credits. If at that point the OSU Gateway student has a 2.5 or higher grade point average they will articulate to the upper-division courses (online or face-to-face, their choice.) On their way they will have several new advantages:

  1. Success coaches will work with them from before admission through completion of the Gateway courses;
  2. Courses will be offered on an adaptive learning platform that exclusively uses Open Educational Resources;
  3. Learners may retake a course at no additional cost; and
  4. Learners will choose among 21 degree pathways currently fully charted so there will be fewer surprises as they move through the course load.

The goal is to provide the support and information needed to help entry-level college students get on a degree path right away, as well as make the most efficient use of financial aid so they don’t run out before they reach their degree goal. From the university’s perspective the goal is to increase the number of upper-division students who are academically competitive enough to finish.

Revenue-wise we estimate breakeven in three years, $35 million gross revenue in five years, and $75 million in ten. Personally I believe these are conservative estimates.


Our second investment-grade proposal is called University to Business Engagement, or U2B.E for short. It is designed to create a reciprocal learning environment with potential corporate partners. Our research showed that potential corporate partners are looking for universities to be “customer driven in both philosophy and organizational behavior. Stay closer to customers, listen and respond to what they want, anticipate and propose services, continuously evaluate and improve service delivery, and build and maintain long-term relationships.”

U2B.E is multiphase outreach program that starts with a Rapid Engagement Team made up of faculty from our university and representatives from the company partner. The Team will be embedded in the company for one to two weeks exploring and reviewing issues the company faces. The issues identified by this team will provide the foundation for deploying existing applied research, development of new sponsored research and development of specifically customized workforce training.

The critical issue for success of U2B.E will be the people who serve as the interface between the university and the corporate partners. The right amount of experience in both the corporate sector as well as an understanding of the university process and culture will make or break this effort.

Also we estimate this program breaking even in three years and developing a five-year gross revenue of approximately $11 million.

Lessons Learned

When it comes to lessons-learned, there are a couple of critical issues to share.

One is an intentional focus from the beginning on sustainability of the innovative initiative. Since this was a new approach for our university, there was little tangibility to the concept. What we were doing was mostly abstract for people on campus who are (rightfully) focused on what short-term issue or problem they are facing. In higher education, one of the few tangible longer-term efforts typically is some kind of university-wide strategic planning. Our team was not a puzzle piece that fit well into the vision of strategic planning, even though our outcome is probably more likely to influence the overall strategic direction and success of the institution. Recognizing from day one the need for a sustainable innovation plan is something we would recommend.

The second critical issue is something I touched on in the second part of this article series: the spectrum of disruptive innovation. It seems obvious that disruptive innovation is not a light switch effort; something is not a completely disruptive innovation or a completely sustaining innovation. Ideas typically fall along a spectrum from wildly disruptive to totally sustaining. We found that while expectations might have been for totally disruptive ideas from our team, reality has a way making things fall in the middle as the details of the proposals began to take shape. In the end, we had one—Gateway—which will be very disruptive on multiple levels, and another –U2B.E—which will be built on existing infrastructure, and by its nature has been be viewed as more sustaining.

Interestingly, initial response has been stronger to the Gateway as a disrupter. U2B.E can be seen as something we have been doing in other areas. Because of that, it is easier to critique a proposal like U2B.E because we think we might have seen it or tried it already somewhere.

In addition to the two major proposals, we have a pipeline of additional ideas that, with some maturity, may surface from the Innovation Initiative. We have proposed an Innovation Hub for Oregon State similar to EdPlus at Arizona State or Southern New Hampshire’s Sandbox ColLABorative so these pipeline ideas have a place to incubate.

As of today Gateway and U2B.E investment-grade proposals are on the President and Provost’s desks. Outcomes of our “Year of Living Innovatively.”

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Other articles in the Mapping Higher Ed’s Future Series:

Introducing the Innovation Initiative

Placing Disruption and Identifying Underserved Populations

Author Perspective: