Experts weigh in on 2022: Colleges must start ‘operating more like businesses’

ROI, partnerships and meeting student needs will be high priorities for colleges and universities this year.
By: | January 7, 2022

The 2022 academic semesters have just begun and already there is one change coming at the top of a major university with Kent Fuchs announcing he will leave his post as University of Florida president at the end of the year. The question is, who will replace him—someone from the university or someone from the outside?

A few experts from two companies with ties to higher education—software company Modern Campus and advisory firm Tyton Partners—weighed in with predictions and trends they expect to see transpire this year as colleges and universities position better for the future. One of those is what the sector might see in transitions at the top.

“More commercial leaders will move into post-secondary education as presidents,” said Brian Kibby, CEO at Modern Campus. “This is because higher education institutions need to start operating more like businesses than ever before, requiring new leadership competencies, new cultures and new ideas.”

Kibby also said partnerships between institutions and employers will continue to grow, defying the often-traditional notion that career-oriented paths aren’t “aligned with their purpose and mission. “As students begin to demand clearer outcomes and ROI from their education, colleges and universities especially will become more open to engaging directly with employer partners to develop and expand offerings,” he says.

Kristen Fox, managing director in Tyton’s senior higher education team, noted there will be increased attention from leaders on return on investment and connecting students through career paths.

“Students (and parents) are becoming savvier consumers, considering the value of education purchases with better cost information from more sophisticated college search tools,” Fox said. “While a postsecondary education still pays off, it depends on which institution you attend and which major you pursue. In 2021, institutional leaders increased focus on student outcomes by program/major and by student population, a trend I expect to see continue along with a consideration for how financial aid is awarded and applied across programs of study. In addition, institutions will increase their focus on more seamless pathways in and out of work and education, with expansion into the shorter workforce aligned experiences and shorter form offerings.”

Amrit Ahluwalia, Director of Strategic Insights at Modern Campus, highlighted the value of microcredentials and noted that alternative education paths will increase especially in areas where higher ed has taken a tepid approach.

“The traditional degree-based education model isn’t working when it comes to expanding access to education, reducing time to completion, or decreasing costs,” he said. “College and universities will begin to look at alternative mechanisms to deliver and recognize education to buttress their falling enrollments and support clear labor market outcomes.”

One of the ways to meet the demands of more discerning students, said Tyton managing director Mike Goldstein, is to fully embrace the idea of a three-year degree. “We may well be entering a time when efforts to make the American undergraduate degree more efficient and more globally competitive gain serious traction,” he said. “Perhaps the impact of COVID-19, like the Cretaceous meteor, will dethrone the sacred four-year baccalaureate and its evil sibling, the credit hour, in favor of new and more effective learning models. The future is arriving ahead of schedule. We have a train to catch.”

Zooming ahead, literally, might be a path forward for institutions wanting to attract and retain more students. The hybrid model, for all of its faults, is cherished by many who want more flexible learning options.

“While the majority of college students disliked, the pandemic Zoom school, they did appreciate a number of its benefits,” said Tyton’s Trace Urdan. “Our conversations with institutional leaders suggest that even at schools that did not previously offer online alternatives, students are advocating to retain the flexibility of at least some online courses, and that competition for traditional students being what it is, many faculty members may have to make a quick peace with online instruction. The future is likely one in which students that can afford to will still live on campus, but courses are just as likely to be online as in-person.”