College 2030: A conversation on the future of higher ed

Michael Huseby, the CEO of Barnes and Noble Education, discusses the value of colleges and universities forging strategies over the next decade to meet student needs.
By: | April 19, 2021
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Several months ago, Barnes & Noble Education conducted a research study that looked at student, faculty and administrator experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of its findings came COLLEGE 2030: Transforming the Student Experience, a future-focused report that offered insight into how higher education needs to adapt over the next decade.

At its core were college and university responses to seismic shifts in the delivery of education and supports for students, notably how well-positioned they were to deliver more accessible and more flexible options for students. Many institutions may not have been ready for it, but students were. Nearly 70% said they wanted less rigid learning experiences.

“The pandemic did not change the path for higher education, but it did change the speed at which we’re traveling on that path,” said Michael Huseby, CEO and Chairman of Barnes & Noble Education. “Within the next 10 years, we will see a transformation of the student experience – from admissions through graduation – that will ultimately create a better, more inclusive and smarter world.”

The reality is, that must happen for higher education to remain competitive. From the survey of more than 1,400 students, 323 faculty and 100-plus administrators, there was division on how well colleges and universities were meeting student needs. For example, while nearly 95% of students surveyed felt online courses should cost less than those in-person, only around 40% of faculty and administrators agreed.

Barnes & Noble Education researchers said it is imperative that institutions begin to turn their focus to career development – especially as 84% of students expressed the value of having those services and around half wanting colleges to provide more career planning. Many institutions are leaning that way by boosting micro-credential offerings and lifetime learning for students.

But they can’t stop there, College 2030 authors say. Students who’ve lived through the pandemic have additional needs that require many more supports outside of the classroom such as “faculty advisers, mental health professionals, success coaches and peer mentors, all acting in a collaborative, integrated manner to guide each student through their college (and life) experience.” And they need to be more affordable, according to two-thirds of students polled.

To truly be considered a transformative institution over the next decade, that all-encompassing model need to be followed.

“Students, above all, want to know that they’re being heard,” Huseby said. “We’re seeing colleges and universities increasingly take that into account as they work to balance the short-term challenges of the pandemic with the long-term needs of higher education growth. No one group can determine what the future of higher education will be – it will take students, faculty and administrators working together to build the new framework for learning in the U.S.”

To gain more insight into the College 2030 report and how colleges and universities can help drive positive change, University Business sat down for a conversation with Huseby about the future of higher education:

Talk about some of the key statistics and findings from the study and why those are important.

Affordability and the model that colleges are using to deliver has an impact on the perception of value. 94% of students thought that online learning should cost less than in-person learning, while 43% of faculty felt that it should not. So that’s an area that has to be worked on, where students as a consumer are looking at it one way and becoming much more sophisticated with a much louder voice.

One of the other interesting statistics is that 82% of the faculty said they really understand how this generation learns, while less than half of students agree. There is an opportunity to get together and better understand each other in terms of methodologies of teaching, getting inside the students’ heads.

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What are students looking for?

Students are looking for kind of a new academic experience, one that’s more personalized and flexible, the non-traditional definition of students. A lot of them are working. They have a lot of other obligations. Not surprisingly, they want more for less. They want the same thing that most customers want: more convenience, more choice, the quality to be better. They want to be more efficient. That’s a challenge for the traditional format of teaching. It’s the center of the fulcrum of the ROI question. 50% of the students we talked to said they thought the value of higher education had gone down. Some of that may have to do with COVID and the frustration around online learning.

There’s still a lot of value in the on-campus experience, but there’s no doubt that faculty and administrators are going to need to leverage what they’ve learned in terms of using hybrid methods to develop a better mix of how they teach from an efficiency and cost perspective, as well as personalize it for the student and make it more meaningful. Students are saying, why can’t we learn on a more virtual basis? Why do we all have to be in that class at that particular time?

Barnes & Noble Education in its report talked about the value of providing support services. What would you say to colleges and universities who have been slower to offer and promote them?

Before COVID, almost two thirds of students said they had some kind of mental health issue, whether it’s anxiety, or depression. That’s probably gone up to close to 80% as a result of COVID. There’s a lot of anxiety about going to college to begin with. Do whatever you can to put the services behind it to make sure students are comfortable. Make everything available that students need on the first day of class, welcoming them and trying to make them part of the community.

How are colleges and universities responding to student needs?

They’re listening to students more. The students’ voice counts more. Students are having a much more active input into the design of how learning occurs and the flexibility of it.

It’s amazing to me how much schools really did have to get involved in every aspect of the lives of students once COVID shut down campuses. You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the schools for the adaptability that they’ve shown. We went through it as a company. We mirror what’s going on in higher ed because we serve it. It’s been extremely challenging. We’ve got a lot of respect for how schools have responded under very difficult circumstances. That doesn’t mean we all can’t improve.

There have been myriad challenges for institutions throughout 2020-21 that likely will last far into the future. How can they ensure they’re continuing to deliver for students?

We tend to segment them between large privates and publics, and small privates and community colleges. They all have their own challenges by segment. They all have their own their own challenges individually, in terms of geography, the students they serve, and what their mission is. But one common thing that they really should be asking is, are they listening to students? What is our investment in technology? Are we staying up with the demands of students? Are we willing to change? And are we making the changes that are smart changes for us to make better serve students while also being more fiscally responsible to manage our institution and our long-term relevance.

The value associated with higher education is something that schools have to work on differently, using data to understand the students. What kind of students are they trying to attract. How are they gearing programs to them? How are they adopting technology, so that students are being taught the way they’re used to learning and the way they interact? Colleges are up against it because their resources are strained, but they should do anything they can do to help – with financial aid, scholarships, mental health and support services.

What are the critical elements from the business side that institutions should be considering?

Most schools are making sure that funding sources are creatively looked at. The fiscal part is really important. You see colleges looking at this more through a business lens, in terms of some of the leaders being hired. Like a mini corporation, you’ve got to have leadership that drives change and believes in it and has the expertise to actually be effective. Those academic leaders that have that skill set are going to be in very high demand. It takes courage. It takes people who have decision-making authority who have courage to really stand out in times like this and put a stake in the ground for their institution or company.

What has to happen on the academic side to get higher education to 2030 in a position to truly serve students well?

They have to have a realization that there is a demand for change. There’s going to be much more of an emphasis on-demand learning. There’s a lot of money being invested in ed tech. As those products get better, they’re more valuable to students.

They have to have the kind of leadership willing to say, if our students are demanding access, even if it’s as simple as connectivity, making sure we have connectivity. How do we take what we’ve learned during the past year in terms of delivering a virtual learning model, the services that support students, and mold those into something that’s more sustainable so it’s more responsive to students’ needs … thereby demonstrating to the students that we’re willing to change, and that we’re listening to them.

We’ve got to make sure we’re going into next year with a good plan. Most schools are saying we’ve got to get back on campus. Are we going to keep [virtual models] in place and not go back?

The question is, is that an effective way to teach? In some subjects it is and for some subjects, it is clearly not so good. So, taking the learnings, digesting them, and putting that into your plan for, fall 2021 and beyond. How are you going to change what you do for the next 12 months based on what you’ve learned? And then how are you going to change more strategically based on what you’ve learned so that you can flourish as an institution and so that you can be more relevant to future generations.