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Jun 30

Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education

Demographics, technology, and the preferences of adult learners have created a disruptive environment in higher education.  If you work at a college or university, your world will never be the same.

For several years now, I have explored the implications of that first sentence.  More recently, the themes of this blog, built around positivity, strengths-based teams, leadership, design approaches to innovation, cross-generational teams, and encore careers all tie back to taking charge of your individual future and the future of your organization.  In my next few posts, I want to describe some implications of a disruptive environment, and I hope the connection between the themes of this blog and the challenges facing higher education will be apparent.

First, to parse the opening sentence:  In most parts of the country, the population of 18-year-olds available to recruit for a traditional residential experience has been declining.  Many institutions struggle to fill their freshman classes, with the result that they face increased costs from a variety of directions, including financial aid, in order to try and maintain enrollment.  Even worse, I’ve seen institutions that absolutely cannot hope to break even on the cost of educating their residential students.

Thus, it hardly is surprising that many institutions are trying to increase enrollment from adult learners.  Unfortunately, at least in my experience, most are not well prepared to do so.  They have erected a bewildering array of barriers to frustrate potential students, and this is an audience that either will not accept poor treatment or will be quickly discouraged by hurdles that reinforce their concern that college is not for them.

A major problem, of course, is that many universities fail to appreciate the importance of customer service.  Their recruitment, advising, registration, financial aid, billing, and student life practices all are geared to the wrong audience, if the target is adult learners.   As a friend of mine has said, adult learners have to be persistent, just to get through the door.

As some institutions, whether non-profit or for-profit, figure out how to reach, encourage, and serve the adult audience, they are seeing exceptional increases in enrollment.  Unfortunately, those who do not “get it” are likely to fall behind, failing to adjust until it is too late.  That, in essence, is the implication of a disruptive environment.  As they say, you can be on the train or on the platform, but either way, the train is leaving the station.

Certainly, there is ample research to tell us what adult learners value.  They seek specific programs, offered flexibly and at a price they can manage.  They care about service, in various ways, but they do not care as much about brand, as many people think.  Increasingly, they prefer online and blended/hybrid delivery, and they do not want to pay for things that do not matter to them, like football teams, fitness centers, social organizations, and the like.

In my next few posts, I will expand on some specific implications of the disruptive environment, including the difference between sustaining and disruptive improvements, a focus on current nonconsumers, and how financial models need to change.