It’s Sink or Swim for Higher Ed: A Reality Check for What Must Come Next
October 5, 2020
October 5, 2020

The pandemic has doled out some harsh lessons to the higher education system—lessons about pivoting in the face of crisis, remaining resilient through uncertainty and providing value to students. The spring of 2020 was unquestionably devastating for higher education. Despite best-laid plans, the fall semester is off to a turbulent start for faculty, students, parents and administrators.

Even if it isn’t as bleak as predicted by higher ed’s “prickliest pundit” Scott Galloway, difficult changes are ahead. We certainly agree that a number of colleges and universities without stellar credentials and large endowments may tread water for a while but will ultimately sink.

While top-tier universities and the schools and centers under their umbrella have the assets needed to endure this crisis, let’s not sugarcoat this: To emerge from this crisis in a genuinely future-ready state, these top-tier schools must move beyond the swirl of the current semester, and think and act differently to prepare for a future that’s most definitely not what they’d expected. Here are a few guiding principles:

Unprecedented? Not Really.

“There’s simply no precedent for what’s happening in higher ed.” We hear comments like this from university leaders, journalists, and worried parents and students, even. But we—respectfully—disagree. There is precedent if you just shift your gaze a bit. Large-scale disruption has been raging across the business world in one way or another long before COVID-19. In fact, the largest companies have been grappling with an ever-churning tide of change for years.

Whether we’re talking about major global events—the War on Terror, the Great Recession, countless natural disasters—or “big bang” innovations that have upended entire markets, like the proliferation of smartphones, ecommerce and the sharing economy, disruption has indeed become the norm. At Navigate, we’ve been working with both big universities and large companies for a long time. We know all too well that they are different beasts, and while we’d never conflate the two, there are lessons higher ed can learn from the for-profit world. For instance, just as retailers were forced to prioritize change to provide superior customer service in order to survive the Amazon effect, academic institutions are facing a similar make-it-or-break-it inflection point. Thus far, these institutions have been insulated from widespread turmoil, but as 2020 has made abundantly clear, this is no longer the case.

A Method to the Madness

While companies in the private sector grapple with COVID-induced disruption, many are being forced from their comfort zones as they rethink their processes, policies and in some cases, entire business models to better fit a new future. For the higher ed cohort, taking a page out of the for-profit playbook might not be such a bad idea, especially as private companies and universities alike attempt to accelerate strategic initiatives and salvage revenue.

Here’s an approach we are using with many of our clients to help them set their go-forward strategy, the broad strokes of which are entirely applicable to the work higher ed needs to tackle, starting now. R3, our simple yet sophisticated method for aligning organizational goals with practical strategies, enables businesses to reevaluate what’s working and what isn’t, reimagine and define their vision for the future and reemerge from the crisis stronger than they were before it hit. With this playbook in hand, colleges and universities can thrive—not just survive—in a post-coronavirus era.

Choppy Waters Ahead

After years of working with top-tier universities, we feel your pain: You have a lot of stakeholders to consider and consult—many more than the average corporate company. Incremental change is unlikely to really prepare large colleges and universities for the future, and swift movement is downright difficult. Higher ed institutions approach change methodically; not because they’re resistant to it, but because of their inherent complexity and decentralized structure.

When the coronavirus struck, this slow but steady approach went out the window as schools took swift action to redefine the college experience. Students were shuffled off campus in the blink of an eye, educators revamped lesson plans to accommodate a remote-first model, and administrators worked tirelessly to ensure a smooth transition. Were there a few hiccups along the way? Of course, but overall, colleges and universities rose to a seemingly impossible challenge to keep their communities safe.

Moving forward, making lasting, sustainable change will require managing each stakeholder group differently. But it’s important to note that during this process, as you reevaluate, reimagine and reemerge, you are bound to ruffle some feathers. It’s simply part of the process. Part of the way you mitigate the fallout is through effective change management. At Navigate, we’ve helped a number of top-tier schools through these situations and programmatic changes large and small. This transformational work is important and it’s necessary—and it’s a skill set you will need to teach your team at scale, because it’s going to be critical to your mission for a long time to come.

Value is as Value Does

In the private sector, shareholders want a return on investment. Companies—for better or for worse—live and die by this, and adjust their customer experience strategies accordingly. Although higher ed institutions aren’t as quick to label their students, faculty, research partners, parents and community as customers, that’s exactly what they are, and their experience is of paramount importance.

Universities need to take a look at what value really means to students (and to be blunt, to those writing the tuition checks). Families are paying much closer attention to what they’re getting for their money, making the intersection between value and price more crucial than ever. A university’s ability to deliver on students’ and parents’ perceived value will play a major role in its success. For example, value often revolves around job readiness. Students seek programs that provide a blend of specific and general skills that will make them more likely to land a job after graduation. As a higher education leader, ask yourself: How is my department or school responding to changes in the workplace and how are we aligning degree requirements to the career paths our students are likely to follow? Sure, we have great intentions, smart faculty and caring administrators, but how are we demonstrating the value we provide students, and by extension, their parents?

Students and families aren’t the only stakeholders that universities need to court now more than ever—research institutions should be at the top of the list, too, especially for top-tier schools who rely on research grants as much, or more, than tuition alone. While the impact of the pandemic on academic research grants remains somewhat unknown, and outcomes will depend largely on the source of funding and the nature of the work, it’s still an issue higher ed leaders will obviously need to keep top of mind as they forge ahead.

Easier said than done, for sure.

But this is a big moment.

Hoping things “return to normal” is intellectually lazy.

Of course, navigating change and the setbacks that inevitably come with it won’t be easy. But with the right tools, technologies, and most importantly, mindset shifts, even the largest and most complex school systems can emerge victorious.

We’re with you, ready to help you figure out what we’ve already solved for other colleges and universities.

As the expectations placed on institutions of higher learning continue to grow, academic organizations that embrace the challenge will be able to adapt to evolving trends and ensure their faculty and students evolve along with them.