Students In Classroom, Higher Ed Disruption

Leading in the Midst of Higher Ed Disruption: Experts Discuss Paths to Innovation

This episode is part of the EdTech Times podcast series Higher Ed Transformation for the Campus of Tomorrow, sponsored by Huron.

Today, higher education is in the midst of a major disruption. Every element of higher ed is changing: the traditional student, classroom models—even expectations for support after graduation.

And of course, technology is at the center of many of these changes. New technologies are allowing campuses to have a broader reach, more efficient business practices, and new methods of instruction. But technological innovation brings an entirely new set of challenges to higher ed

As online education becomes more ubiquitous, higher ed now needs to adapt to compete not just with the campus next door, but with emerging education opportunities that might be easier and more affordable than attending a four-year institution.

So how can higher ed transform its practices to stay financially feasible, innovative, and competitive? According to Charles Welch, President of the Arkansas State University system, higher ed institutions should adapt to be more accessible to first-generation college students. Welch himself was the first person in his family to go to college, and he says he wants to help students overcome those barriers to get a degree. For many first-generation students, even the tiniest details of going to college can seem intimidating.

“They’re concerned that maybe they’re not smart enough,” Charles says. “Or no one in their family has gone, so why should they? Or, can they afford it?”

“So if I can tell them, ‘Hey, I’m exactly where you were…I had that exact same upbringing and challenges. I had student loans and all of those things.’ I think it helped show them, ‘Hey, this is possible. If my family can do it, your family can do it.’”

Charles says higher ed leaders should focus on selling the investment of higher education, and the benefits it can provide for those who choose to continue their education.

“All we talk about is the cost of higher education—the cost of the individual, the cost to the state. We never talk about that investment. We never talk about the fact that incarceration rates are significantly lower for an individual with a college degree. We never talk about the fact that unemployment rates are half, typically, for a college degree [holder] of what they are for a high school [degree holder]. The cost of healthcare for a college graduate is much lower than it is for high school graduates. We never talk about how they lead longer lives, how they’re more philanthropic. There’s so many different things, that are positive for society, and for what we spend governmental funds on.”

Welch isn’t alone in wanting to focus on current students’ needs. According to Dr. Mildred García, President of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, changing demographics in the U.S. should be a number one priority when focusing on the needs of current college students.

“Our students are no longer 17 through 21,” says Mildred. “They are very diverse, from all social and economic and ethnic backgrounds.”

“They are no longer the student that we were thinking about maybe 30 years ago, where the parents would send their children to college. They would be taken care of. They didn’t have to work. And they went off to dorms. As a matter of fact, that’s the nontraditional student today.”

Yet, creating an easily accessible college education for a new demographic of students isn’t always simple—especially as government funding is diminishing, and operational expenses keep rising. So how can higher ed institutions provide affordable degrees, while at the same time staying financially sustainable? Dr. García says creating student-centered institutions involves asking some long-term planning questions.

“It is about looking at ‘Where are the programs? How many students are we enrolling? What are the support services? Which support services are really working and which are not?” And actually transforming the institution to be student-centered, and ensuring that they’re graduating at a pace that is good for the student as quickly as they possibly can. So, they’re putting together a lot of mechanisms based on their context, their reality in their state. But being focused, intentional, and executing. And then measuring to see how well they’re doing that.”

Retention is also a major concern for higher ed institutions today, as the pressure is on to not only attract diverse groups of students, but to provide support for them to complete a degree. Dr. García says tapping into alumni resources and stories can help inspire students to finish their education.

“As I think about the three institutions I served, there were some very powerful success stories. We need to use them to talk about what the AASCU institutions do for them, as first generation, low-income [students], who are now these big CEOs, are running their own companies. And saying ‘Wait a minute.’ Because people will listen to people that are outside of higher ed, and hear their story along with the data.”

President Clark Gilbert, head of BYU-Pathway Worldwide, says the solution to creating student-centered education involves focusing on learning outcomes, and the quality of a student’s learning experience.

“For too long, online learning has tried to replicate the classroom,” says Dr. Gilbert. “We should be asking, ‘What can we do with online learning that you can’t do in a traditional classroom?’ And that’s where we’ll start to see the real outcomes.”

According to Gilbert, online learning can create what he calls “innovative disruption,” which allows new models and populations to develop in higher ed.

“If you make online learning available, you’re going to reach a larger audience. You’re going to reach an audience that traditionally didn’t come to residential campuses—which means you’re also going to expand the risk profile of that audience. So, you need to have two things at the center of what you’re doing. One is student outcomes. And the second one student retention.”

According to David S. Duncan, senior partner at Innosight, higher ed institutions can use business transformation practices to stay innovative. One of the guiding principles of Innosight is ‘dual transformation,’ which he says helps companies compete in today’s market while creating long-term plans for consistent growth and efficiency.

“They have to simultaneously worry about the businesses they’re in today, and they have to continue to defend and strengthen and extend those businesses and compete you know day in and day out in the markets they’re in today. And at the same time, they have to create new sources of growth, new businesses that look, by definition different than who they are today. And they have to do both of those things at the same time.”

Peter Stokes, Managing Director at Huron, says the way higher ed can stay innovative is by asking and thinking about the contemporary needs of the customer, and not just assuming that what the customer needed in the past is the same as what they need today.

“What is the solution that the customer is looking for? What are they hiring the university to do for them? What’s the job that they want the university to perform for them? And what they want is certainly personal enrichment skills, enrichment career opportunity. All of these things and some combination. And so the challenge for universities that want to continue to be leaders in the field is to stay close to the customer and to continue to get better and better at that kind of empathic understanding of what it is that customer is seeking and to continue to evolve their services in ways that meet the expectations of customers because there are other alternative providers out there seeking to do that as well and I think that those competitors can help make our universities more competitive.”

According to Peter, higher ed institutions should focus more on introducing personalized education and providing support to their students even after graduation.

“We’re dealing with a growing population of students that have less familiarity with what it takes to get through a college education. One of the ways that we can address that apparent mismatch is to drive toward increasingly personalized education. And again, that can be driven in part by technology, but in part by human interaction as well. So, I think the drive toward personalized, outcomes-oriented education, that’s not a one and done kind of experience where you get that bachelor’s degree over four years and then you go off into the labor market for the next 40 years. Instead really doing that in an environment that’s truly lifelong, where institutions are providing service to their alumni over the course of their careers.”

Whether institutions work toward a short or long-term solution, it’s clear that higher ed has to change the typical model if they want to stay innovative and competitive for years to come.


This episode is brought to you by Huron.

Huron is a global professional services firm with an extensive history in higher education. For nearly two decades, Huron has provided consulting services for over 500 educational institutions, including all 100 of the top research universities in the United States.

You can learn more about what Huron does by visiting

Listen to the full series:

Higher Ed Transformation for the Campus of Tomorrow