Transforming college: What can leaders do?


Feb 22, 2017

A year after Ernst & Young’s (E&Y) UK office announced it would no longer consider educational backgrounds in its recruiting criteria, the firm has seen more applications and greater diversity in its recruits. Instead, E&Y has been using online assessments to identify candidates with the skills and competencies required for success on the job. As more companies move away from GPA minimums or scrap degree requirements altogether, how can higher education remain relevant?

To remain competitive, institutions will have to look long and hard at how they compete and improve over the coming decades. To date, higher education has been on a continuous trajectory of developing more complex and comprehensive institutions to build and disseminate knowledge and educate students. Optimizing for institutional prestige has long guided these efforts. But moves like E&Y’s suggest a crack in the foundation of prestige. At the same time, technology is enabling a new, disruptive path to postsecondary education: simpler, more affordable, more accessible educational experiences built in alignment to the needs of the workforce. This poses a key question to existing institutions: continue competing along traditional dimensions or pursue new pathways poised to disrupt traditional degree-granting models?

In a new paper out this week, titled College transformed: Five institutions leading the charge in innovation, I highlight five case studies of colleges who are trying to tackle this question. Each is innovating against the interlocking challenges facing higher education: affordability, access, business model issues, and the shifting demands of the workforce. The institutions profiled in this paper are diverse—some are small and some are large; some are public and some are private; some were in financial straits, whereas others were hoping to broaden their missions. The range of problems they are tackling is equally broad. But each is masterfully bringing the tools of innovation to bear against a particular challenge. Taken together, these examples not only elucidate insights about how to innovate—that is, how to classify innovations, how to identify what types of innovations will be easily accepted by the organization, and how to execute on organizational strategies—but also why to innovate.

  • Arizona State University: Its open-access Global Freshman Academy creates a new pathway into the institution, and an innovative business model allows students to pay when they successfully complete courses.
  • Northeastern University: Drawing on its expertise in experiential learning, it established a coding and analytics bootcamp, Level, that defines success by student outcomes in the workforce.
  • University of Wisconsin: In order to address workforce challenges in the state, it deploys a competency-based degree program that draws on the academic resources of the UW System to develop new, accessible programs targeted to adult learners.
  • Simmons College: In partnership with 2U, the college transformed its business model by developing high-quality, online graduate programs that expand its reach beyond geographical constraints.
  • Southern New Hampshire University: Its radically affordable College for America creates opportunities for adult learners through a competency-based degree program in which the university partners with employers.

Leaders at these institutions used a variety of strategies to ignite different types of innovation, including building heavyweight teams, developing autonomous units, partnering with external organizations, and creating alliances with employers. But similarities also emerge: successful innovators focus on solving specific challenges for specific types of students and proactively build their institutional capabilities for innovation.

As trailblazers in the evolving higher education ecosystem, these institutions illustrate how innovation, even innovation that goes against the organizational grain, can be successfully deployed. Their experiences offer lessons for any leader hoping to carve an innovative path forward in today’s turbulent environment.

Alana’s higher education research works to find solutions for a more affordable system that better serves both students and employers.