Last week, one of the “memories” that popped up on my iPhone was a photo from 2013. It was a picture I snapped on a visit to see Sebastian Thrun at Udacity’s Mountain View headquarters (see below).
You might recall Thrun was the Stanford professor who a year earlier opened up his course on artificial intelligence to anyone. That landed him on the front page of the New York Times and started the short-lived “MOOCs are going to put higher ed out of business” craze. (MOOC=massive open online course).
As I flipped through my pictures and videos from 2013, I’m amazed at how little I captured at the time. Perhaps we weren’t yet accustomed to carrying a camara with us everywhere. I was in Mountain View to speak to employees at Udacity about my first book, College (Un)Bound, and to report for an e-book I was working on called MOOC U.
My notes from the visit show Thrun wasn’t humbled by some failed MOOC experiments the previous summer. He was still predicting that in 50 years there would be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher ed.
Even if there were only 10 institutions in the U.S. alone, that means each institution would enroll some 1.6 million undergraduates. That’s not even including graduate students nor the growth in the number of learners expected over the next 40 years.
During the pandemic, the rich got richer in almost every industry as scale was critical to thriving when habits got upended. Think Amazon, Netflix, Zoom.
The question in higher ed is whether those mega-universities that had massive online operations—such as Arizona State, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors among a few others—would also grab a bulk of the market share from bricks-and-mortar competitors who were struggling to deliver education remotely?
As Goldie Blumensyk reported recently in her newsletter, The Edge, Western Governors now has an enrollment of 132,000. That’s a big number but nowhere close to the 1.6 million+ needed under Thrun’s prediction nor the monster growth we saw in subscriber numbers for streaming services during the pandemic.
More than two years into the pandemic, the more likely scenario for the future of higher ed is one that NYU’s Clay Shirkey laid out in 2019: a few market leaders at the “upper end of a continuum” in online education and then a bunch of other institutions that have a much smaller piece of the online pie.
In other words, online education looks a lot like the distribution in bricks-and-mortar education, just a different scale: there are a group of leading institutions that draw students from around the world to their online offerings and then there is everyone else.
But the key here for that “everyone else” group is that they have some online presence. Shirkey made this point in 2019, referencing a report I co-authored with EY-Parthenon on the risk factors for closure and mergers. One of the major risk factors was having no online classes.
Of course, there are fewer colleges that offer zero online classes after the pandemic. While smaller or less-resourced or regional universities might not have to worry as much about the Amazon-effect in higher ed, it doesn’t mean they can return to business as usual from 2019, and ignore online altogether.
The future of higher ed is clearly an omni-channel approach with a mix of face-to-face, online only, and hybrid offerings. Those institutions that don’t offer such optionality to students—and lack a name brand or a huge endowment to ignore such trends—put themselves at substantial risk.
🖥 Join me for a rescheduled discussion of smart tech and student success on Next on LinkedIn Live: Thursday, June 23 at Noon ET.
My guest will be Kyle Collins, vice president and chief information officer at Saint Louis University, who will talk about how the institution deployed smart speakers to dorm rooms and campus apartments outfitted with a chatbot programmed to answer student questions.
To watch, go to my LinkedIn page or click +FOLLOW on my profile to be notified when we’re live (the conversation will also be archived there).
Shifting Student Preferences
When the Education Advisory Board (EAB) asked more than 100 college and university CFOs and campus business leaders to rank the top 3 risks facing their institutions, “student consumer preferences” came out on top across all types and sectors of higher education ahead of the pandemic, demographics, and budget deficits.
The big picture: The student experience encompasses every aspect of a college’s offering—the quality of academics, advising, well-being, communications, and access to hands-on learning and resources that help train and prepare students for the workforce.
Right now, that experience is full of unnecessary friction for students at many colleges and universities.
Case in point: A junior at a flagship public university told me recently about his experience in trying to obtain credit for an internship. He started at registrar’s office, which sent him to the financial aid office, which sent him to the career center, which sent him to his academic advisor, before he finally ended up in the dean’s office where he got what he needed.
Each time he had to repeat his story to a university official. “It was really frustrating,” he told me. “What if you had that experience in returning something to Target?” I asked him. “I’d never go back,” he said.
Why it matters:When the student experience is positive, it results in higher retention and graduation rates, and provides the ultimate return on investment in a college degree.
Competing on the “student experience” is a way colleges can differentiate themselves and stay ahead of the competition in the decade ahead, I wrote in a recent white paper.
An enhanced student experience also creates a more inclusive future for higher education because it meets students where are, in terms of how they learn, how they connect with peers and mentors, and, fundamentally, whether they feel a sense of belonging and purpose to their education.
—The challenge in higher ed, however, is that few of the people responsible for the student experience on campuses have given sustained thought to how their separate decisions shape a student’s pathway through college. And to the extent they do think about it, they all have different ideas of what the student experience means, and no one oversees the entire journey.
Campuses that are deliberate about their strategy to improve the student experience view it as an investment rather than an obligation.
What’s happening: Rather than try to revamp the student experience all at once, I found in my research colleges are focused at first on three critical areas—what I call a service, access, and learning approach.
🛎 Service is focusing on technologies that enable frequent and customized interactions with students. This is where machines can replace humans in some areas of campus to free up people for other activities.
Saint Louis University, for instance, has deployed more than 2,000 smart devices to dorm rooms and campus apartments. The device is outfitted with the “AskSLU” chatbot that was programmed to answer about 130 questions from “What time does the library close tonight?” to “Where is the registrar’s office?” In the first year of the project, students interacted with the devices more than 150,000 times.
🚪 Access is providing resources to students, like digital course materials or virtual computer labs, anytime and anywhere. This is an often overlooked approach in improving the student experience because learners might choose their classes or enroll in fewer courses based on the cost of textbooks or access to digital materials.
The Bay Area Community College Consortium (BACCC), which works with colleges and K-12 students enrolled in career and technical education programs in Northern California, set up virtual machines early in the pandemic so that students could access high-end software needed for design, data analytics, and engineering courses from their tablets and laptops.
📚 Learning is how colleges integrate hands-on learning into the overall student experience. Such experiential learning, according to research, is critical to improving student engagement and retention.
California State University at Fresno opened the Hub of Digital Transformation and Innovation in 2019 to provide an outlet for students to work, intern, and volunteer on university projects related to digital transformation. The students have helped build Fresno State’s AI chatbot, a virtual 360-degree campus tour, and a new platform to control and plan for internal email communications, among other projects.
Bottom line: The decade ahead will require institutions to better connect the physical infrastructure they built up over the last 20 years with the services infrastructure—academic advising, career services, and mental health counseling—into a connected student experience.Improving the student experience will require colleges to map and then rethink if needed almost every process and interaction they have with students on campus.
👉 Download the brief, Enriching the Student Experiencehere (underwritten by AWS; free registration required)
😟 Humanities/Arts Lead Major Regrets in College.A new survey from the Federal Reserve Board provides some evidence as to why colleges and universities might be struggling to attract new students to the humanities. The Fed found that among adults who had completed at least some college, nearly half who had studied the arts and humanities said they would pick a new field if given a chance. (Federal Reserve)
📈 The Pandemic Fiscal Cliff. “The median college received $13.2 million in government relief funding over the course of the pandemic,” according to S&P Global Ratings, which “expects almost all of the government coronavirus funding to be gone in the 2023 fiscal year, which starts in July for most colleges. The source of revenue is going away at a time of increasing costs.” (Education Dive)
🧮 To Send Scores or Not? The rise of test-optional admissions during the pandemic has raised the anxiety level of students, parents, and counselors who now must decide whether or not to send that 1450 or 1300 score to certain colleges—making the process of getting in to selective colleges that much more ambiguous.
“Submitting your test scores improves your chances of being admitted in the same way that eating more mozzarella improves your chances of earning a doctorate in civil engineering. The two may be related but not causal,” writes Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois, who shares data that most other institutions don’t about who submits scores and who gets in. (Twitter)
💰 The ROI of a Degree. The University of Texas system, with its seekUT tool, “allows students to calculate potential earnings at one of its colleges and pulls in data on student debt of those degrees—1, 5, 10 years out. The tool has also led to discussions about salary disparities around race and gender.” (Gates Foundation)
🎙 The Future of the College Presidency. On the latest episode of the Future U. podcast, the new presidents of Fordham University and the College of the Holy Cross talk about their pathway to be the first lay leaders at their Jesuit colleges and the first female and Black presidents, respectively. Oh, and they’re both lawyers. (Future U.)
Finally, my friends at Grown & Flown have started up another year of their paid membership group for parents navigating the college admissions process. It offers live sessions with experts and a community of parents to help answer your questions about getting in and paying for college.
Right now you can get access to a 21-day free membership + a free Fiske Guide by signing up here.
As part of the 21-day membership you’ll get access to presentations from Jeff Levy on the FAFSA (June 14) and Jennie Kent on trends in ED applications (June 21).