A Look at the Current Challenges in Higher Education

July 5, 2017 John Gorup

Higher education institutions in the US are facing an unprecedented combination of pressures. Of course, a burden like tightened budgets from state legislatures is nothing new for state schools. But almost all institutions are facing new challenges — from shifting demographics, to changing student and parent approaches to education.

At the 2017 TargetX Summit in Chicago, Scott Jaschik, the CEO and Editor of Inside Higher Ed led a panel of enrollment and higher ed experts. The panel included David Burge of George Mason University, Jay Murray of Western Connecticut State University, Cindy Haney of Lehigh Carbon Community College, and Jeff Kallay of Render Experiences.

Their discussion centered around the argument that higher ed institutions live in a rapidly changing world. For the vast majority of schools without billion dollar endowments, these changes are threatening their very existence. While this upheaval is scary, it’s also producing innovative ideas and approaches to education. Here are three of the key themes from the discussion:  

Colleges work harder now

For schools in the northeast and upper midwest, population erosion is causing problems. Simply put, there are fewer students, so competition between the schools for their enrollment is increasing. And not only are schools competing with each other, in some cases, they are competing with the (thankfully) strong labor market. Cindy Haney cited “$20 an hour jobs” at workplaces like an Amazon warehouse as competition for student’s attention. On top of the demographic shift, Jeff Kallay mentioned a shift in student preference towards more urban and away from institutions in rural locations.

These changes require enrollment administrators to work harder to recruit the right mix of students. Many regional universities are expanding their marketing beyond their traditional borders, and opening up to things like the common app.

Focus on the student

Jeff Kallay put it succinctly: parents of the Baby Boomer generation were interested in college rankings, while Generation X parents want outcomes. There is an increasing financial calculation when it comes to choosing a college. For administrators, still, there is a tension between focusing on rankings (which often is a priority for a Board of Trustees), and focusing on student outcomes.

For George Mason University, they focus on dream-worthy goals like “100,000 career-ready graduates.” Of course, along with this comes the tension between focusing on majors with immediate career pay-offs (like computer science), and preparing well-rounded individuals. Fortunately, the panel agreed and cited statistics that the English major bound for a career in fast-food is a myth.

Successfully carving a niche

Basically, the generic university is in trouble. For many institutions, this means finding their brand that appeals to a narrower group of students. George Mason’s law school, for example, is the Antonin Scalia Law School and is branded toward conservative-minded future lawyers.

At Appirio, we see universities like Georgetown borrow ideas from the enterprise world in building digital experiences around their brand. Georgetown’s GU360 project is more than just an improvement in data systems, it’s about enhancing the sense of community that is central to what its constituents love about Georgetown.

For institutions across the US, this is a time of crisis, but also a time for opportunity.

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