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Implementing Innovation at Flagship Universities

Large public institutions were better able to weather the pandemic’s storm, but staying relevant in the future of higher education requires offering accessible skills-based learning that allows students to succeed in the workforce.

The pandemic disrupted all higher education institutions in some manner. Just because flagship institutions were better able to take the hit than others doesn’t mean they can survive this new era of higher ed. It’s critical for everyone to re-evaluate their strategies and look to innovation to serve the new modern learner. In this interview, Marty Anne Gustafson discusses the importance of innovative initiatives, the challenges that come with it and some trends she expects to see with flagship institutions.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How have traditional, large public institutions been impacted societally and financially over the past couple years?

Marty Anne Gustafson (MG): We’re lucky because flagship institutions have fared better through the pandemic compared to small, private or regional institutions. We continue to see applications rise. Test-optional policies really change the types of students coming to the university. We came out of the pandemic in a much stronger position. We also have endowments and the ability to fundraise and get funding from other sources that support new initiatives and scholarship efforts for students.

Evo: Why is it important for higher ed to focus on initiatives designed to attract and retain more nontraditional students?

MG: We’ve already begun to go over the demographic cliff, and the pandemic showed us how vulnerable we are to changes in international enrollments and the impact they have on our universities. Knowing that demographics are shifting out of our favor, we’re a public institution with a mission to serve the public and people in our state. I work at a land-grant institution, so we’re here to ensure people in our state and surrounding area are trained to succeed in the workforce.

Our mission isn’t to only serve the 18 to 22-year-old; we’re here to look at the workforce as a whole and give the state and employers what they need. Our programs must meet their needs, while being accessible to students who can’t leave their families or jobs to spend four years here. It’s fundamental to the work we do to make ourselves available and make education available for all.

Evo: What are some of the challenges that come with implementing innovative initiatives across the institution?

MG: We have so many outdated and traditional residential policies, procedures and processes on our campuses that we’ve been trying to shoehorn to suit nontraditional students, but 2020 and 2021 really highlighted the difficulty of doing this within a traditional format. So, focusing on the student experience infrastructure is critical. Accessing information policies, enrollment policies and minimum credit policies isn’t student-friendly. Institutions have to take a step back and think about what hasn’t changed and what needs to change to serve more nontraditional students.

Evo: What are some low-hanging fruit leaders can explore when it comes to implementing the initiatives geared toward more nontraditional students?

MG: First, you must figure out how to take the traditional credit offering and content available and break it up into smaller non-credit affordable options. We have this rich content library structured around semesters, so let’s see how we can do it differently—looking at all these great things and picking them apart to make it relevant immediately.

Evo: Are you thinking of pathways you can form with these stackable credentials?

MG: That’s part of it. You can offer learning opportunities that become automatic pathways. It’s easy to offer a bridge from non-credit to credit when you’re using your own content. It can take time and infrastructure that a big public university may not have. It’s best to start with your own content and go from there.

Evo: What are some trends you expect to see at large, public institutions within the next five years?

MG: Many are among the last to realize we need to sell and skills and meet workforce needs—and determine how that connects to the curriculum. We can look at extended transcripts to talk about skills and project-based learning our students have done. We can use microcredentials to show these very tangible skills and competencies that can apply in the workforce. These skills are built into our programs, but we don’t tell the story, especially on a transcript. So, we have to make it easier for students to tell their own story and embrace digital badging and certificates.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Marty Anne wrote a chapter on this topic, along with Jeffrey Russell from the University of Wisconsin, in the book New Models of Higher Education. To learn more, click here.

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