It is easy these days to talk about how higher education is broken, and that institutions are going to quickly fail as they face the financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a lot harder to talk about ways to fix higher education. Unfortunately, there is no easy fix to a problem that has been growing for decades. The underlying problem with higher education is an inability to break away from the status quo. There is a solution for this problem, but it will take a change of mindset. Higher education can become more innovative and think outside of the box with an Agile approach to education.
What higher education is lacking is a sense of urgency and many leaders, both inside and outside these organizations, are too risk averse to take on the changes that would lead to a more student-centered approach to education and more successful outcomes for their students. There are better ways to approach the issues facing higher education that will help to support change in a rapidly shifting landscape.
One component of this has been the shift to online learning. Though this was brought about on an emergency basis in the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, this shift is likely to become permanent in many aspects. This is not like the shift to MOOCs — this is an evolution. Online learning will become the norm, rather than the exception.
As online learning becomes a permanent and predominant fixture in higher education, the evolution of the model will see improvements in quality and consolidation of online providers. The best courses and instructors will become dominant, while the average to poor ones will go away.
The financial problems most institutions are facing have come from external sources, particularly reductions in funding from federal and state sources. However, the real crisis comes from too many leaders’ inability to adapt and develop the innovations that would help them to survive crises, regardless of their source. Politicians have constantly pushed educators at all levels to do more with less. That is our reality, and the money may come back eventually — but for higher ed, we must go on with the resources we have now.
Many analysts focus on issues like declining enrollment as the culprit in plummeting revenues at institutions of higher education. It is true that fewer students are graduating from high school – but it is also true that more of those students need a college education. For example, the top campuses in the University of California System are getting more than 100,000 applications per year. More adults need retraining and want to return to college to obtain or finish their degrees. Graduation rates at the majority of colleges are around 50% — retaining even a small percentage of those students would increase revenues dramatically.
As the former provost of a small nonprofit college, I understand the challenges faced by administrators working through contingency plans for their campuses as the summer is quickly passing by. The lack of leadership at the federal level, and in some cases at the state level, has left many campuses on their own, trying to figure out how to keep their students, faculty, and staff safe while staying afloat financially.
There has been a lot of gloom and doom around higher education in the last few months, as institutions that were already struggling have had to deal with a double whammy of a deadly pandemic followed closely by a protest movement that is laying bare much of the inequality entrenched in our institutions. I have spent most of my career in those spaces, internalizing the way that things have always been done, while trying to fight for progress. I took that fight outside of academe two years ago, and founded The Center for Higher Education Leadership to address these challenges in a way no one else was.
For many in academe, this coming academic year presents an existential crisis — but in many ways it is one we brought on ourselves. Many administrators have been quick to cut budgets, including cutting programs and staff. I have seen this at every institution I have worked at in my career.
However, there is good news! The current situation presents an opportunity to take on the task of evolving. This problem has already been solved.
For the last 20 years, businesses and governments have been exploring and iterating through numerous approaches to support leaders and organizations looking to become more nimble, adaptive, and efficient. There are dozens of “delivery” methodologies and scaling frameworks which they have used to transform into “Lean Value Delivery” organizations, which have incorporated innovation and adaptability into their cultures.
Lean Portfolio Management (LPM) provides leaders a framework by which they can lay out their planning cycle and create an adaptive budgeting system. Businesses have also found LPM a valuable tool in aligning staff on vision and helping create a culture of innovation in which all Portfolio Team members can execute as one. As agility gains a foothold in education, institutions will uncover waste in their systems and identify ways in which that waste can be minimized.
Another area in which agility will support education into the next century is through the development and support of self-organizing teams. An approach that was born out of the frustrations felt in the software industry was identified after its introduction as a key component to unlocking the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. As explained by Dan Pink in his 2009 TED Talk, leaders are often mistaken when it comes to identifying what will motivate their employees. The traditional “reward/punishment” motivators have been proven in study after study to have no impact. By providing staff the freedom and training needed to self-organize, leaders can provide a degree of autonomy in achieving the institution’s objectives. When combined with a purpose and time to gain mastery, higher education leadership will be equipped to rebuild and improve their internal systems.
There are no easy decisions, but it is clear to me that the time has come to reimagine higher education. Every campus should have a strategic plan that is currently being revised to address not only the threat of COVID-19, but what their campus and offerings will look like in the next year, five years, and 10 years. New challenges are going to present themselves — the question is, how do campuses become more agile in the face of crisis? I believe that institutions and jobs can be saved. With coaching from our group of consultants at The Center for Higher Education Leadership (CHEL) in collaboration with leaders like Agile coach Jeff Burstein, we are ready for this challenge.