This piece was authored by the Presidents Forum.
For decades, higher education was defined by rankings lists, with those at the bottom scurrying to catch up to those at the top. But the tumult of COVID seems to have accelerated the technological disruption that has long been taking place in higher ed, and, in this wake, traditional rankings seem closer to irrelevance than ever. Indeed, in a moment of generic gloom about the future of higher education, online institutions have seen their enrollment grow, especially among traditional-aged students. Higher education’s fastest-growing institutions are those that serve what the Theory of Disruptive Innovation calls the unserved and overserved—those who prefer a simpler, cheaper, more accessible option than what an industry has traditionally had on offer.
As Clayton Christensen and Michael B. Horn predicted nearly ten years ago, “The lessons from any number of industries teach us that those that truly innovate—fundamentally transforming the model, instead of just incorporating the technology into established methods of operation—will have the final say.” In 2023, we are reaching the inflection point whereby the innovators are clearly seen as driving higher education’s future relevance, rather than the Ivy League.
Many of those innovators work together and compare notes through the Presidents Forum—a collaborative group of college presidents leading institutions that serve non-traditional students in innovative ways. The Presidents Forum institutions spent much of 2022 developing a common vision for how to better serve adult learners. They reflected together on their hopes and dreams for their students and their institutions in this new year.
Identify struggles, provide support, connect learners.
Frank Dooley, President, Purdue University Global
Purdue Global’s New Year’s resolution to better serve our working adult learners centers on three efforts to build deeper engagement among our learners, faculty, and staff. First, we continue to enhance our teaching model so that our faculty have better ways to identify students in their courses who might need additional assistance. Second, we are rolling out success coaching for our students to provide an additional level of support, especially for non-academic questions. Finally, we will go live with Get Set, an app for a student-only online community that builds a support structure to help navigate our online educational model. We hope that by providing more ways to engage our students with their peers, professors, advisors, and coaches, we can help them successfully reach their educational goals.
Give lifelong learners clarity and value.
Greg Fowler, President, University of Maryland Global Campus
Too often, higher education has been like purchasing a mystery box or a grab bag: You aren’t sure what you will get, and you hope it is worth the cost. My resolution is to change that by building an ecosystem that clearly defines the knowledge, skills, abilities, and dispositions (KSADs) that our students will acquire and how they will acquire them, while providing a context for communicating those competencies to employers and others. At the same time, we seek to align and refine our global learning experiences to ensure equivalent outcomes regardless of geography or learning modality while also emphasizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Finally, we will work more closely with corporate and community partners to grant credit for learning that happens outside the classroom and to share or absorb the costs for students as part of our commitment to affordability. In short, we seek to make lifelong learning more than a catchphrase.
Drive equity from the ground up.
Ed Klonoski, President, Charter Oak State College
Like every institution in higher education, Charter Oak State College is constantly working to improve our retention and graduation rates. We noticed that in our most heavily-attended courses, the success rates of our black and brown students are not equal to those of our white students. This gap is statistically significant and not related to socioeconomic status. So, we decided to redesign these courses to try and make the content less divisive. We examined the readings, the class posts, and the vocabulary of the entire course to make these elements more neutral. We also trained our faculty to help them improve their own unconscious biases. Our preliminary data is encouraging, and we will continue to tweak these courses until the difference is resolved.
Meet learners where they are.
Paul LeBlanc, President, Southern New Hampshire University
The learners we serve were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and we had vivid insight into the level of basic needs so many of our students struggled to address (64% of the emergency requests we received were related to food insecurity, followed closely by housing insecurity). So, we resolve to better address basic needs, using a whole learner approach to student success, and to understand our students not only in terms of their academic performance and career aspirations, but to know them fully as human beings with complex lives that defy easy categories or segmentation. To do that, we will invest in lower caseloads for advisors, more voice-of-student research, richer data insights, and a broader portfolio of support services.
Break down the barriers to getting students to—and through—college.
Justin Lonon, Chancellor, Dallas College
Dallas College is in the barrier-busting business. We’re focusing on those barriers students face to get to, through, and beyond our doors. In 2023, we resolve to continue to identify and partner with others to address student barriers. This means we will have to get even more creative to serve our adult population of students to offer programs at times and in modes that meet the unique barriers they face. We resolve to work with our employer partners to implement new earn-and-learn opportunities for students. Higher education must continue to evolve to keep up with an ever-changing economy. Dallas College is excited about 2023 as we build for the future.
Prove out technology that gives students ownership of their skills.
Scott Pulsipher, President, Western Governors University
At WGU, we recognize that for students to derive real value from their education, learning outcomes must be aligned with the rapidly-changing needs and opportunities of our future economy. It’s important that these outcomes encompass both enduring skills and professional skills. While the former—including skills such as reasoning and interpersonal engagement—remain high on employers’ needed skills list, research shows that a focus on professional skills—for instance, data analysis and marketing—increases graduates’ job prospects and earning potential. But the skills students accumulate through their education mean little without a way to talk about them and a mechanism to verify them. That’s why WGU will continue working with other stakeholders to build a common language around skills so educators, employers, and job seekers all mean the same thing when communicating through job listings and course descriptions. This year, we’re also excited to prove out the concept of a “Learning Employment Record” (LER), which gives individuals ownership of their verified skills and credential attainment, and allows them to seamlessly share their know-how and can-do with potential employers and academic institutions.
Make learning deep, meaningful, and relational.
David Schejbal, President, Excelsior University
The online education space is maturing, and adult learners want a relationship that is more than transactional. At Excelsior, we are building a fully supportive experience that creates a space for community and connectivity, so that students can make the most of their online learning experience. This year, we resolve to serve adult learners even better by deepening their learning experiences, expanding our support services, and building lifelong connections throughout the online journey.
Encourage flexible options that can better serve students.
Dick Senese, President, Capella University
Adult learners can be better served by education options that fit into their busy lives. Discretionary time is more precious to them. We believe this is why we have seen continued interest in FlexPath, Capella’s direct assessment model that allows students to go at their own pace. Innovative programs that have the potential to save learners time and money, paired with solutions like credit for prior learning, should be the norm across the industry. We at Capella University look forward to the coming year when we will share new research about FlexPath, and we hope higher education will join us in our continued resolution to serve adult learners in new and better ways every year.