4 ways to support greater access to higher ed

Pivoting away from tradition is key for colleges and universities in 2020
By: | March 12, 2020
(Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash)(Photo by Felicia Buitenwerf on Unsplash)
Mark Lombardi is the president of Maryville University in St. Louis.

Mark Lombardi is the president of Maryville University in St. Louis.

Higher education is more necessary to our society than ever. However, it soon will look completely different–and that’s a good thing.

The U.S. higher education model is long overdue for reinvention. Today, societal and market forces are compelling colleges and universities to pivot. We’re moving away from institutional conventions and a culture of stasis, and toward the workforce needs of the future.

That future is grounded in one undeniable truth: greater access and opportunity for students. In 2020, colleges and universities must begin rethinking the way they approach admissions, program offerings and business operations to ensure they can survive and thrive in the 21st century. Here are four ways to get started.

1. Eliminate unnecessary admissions gatekeeping

In a competitive market, adhering to practices steeped in elitism and exclusivity only inhibit the potential for growth. For example: requiring potential students to submit SAT and ACT scores. These tests have no reliable correlation to collegiate or career success, as research consistently shows. They do, however, fuel cottage industries that give disproportionate advantage to students with greater financial resources–and, as the admissions scandals of 2019 showed, present opportunities to game the system.

We must lead by example, pursuing opportunities on a timeline of weeks or months, not years.

More schools should rethink their SAT/ACT admissions requirement, joining the more than 400 that have eliminated it. Doing so tears down a barrier to access for underrepresented students. Maryville University in St. Louis eliminated this requirement in 2015, and the change has not hampered key measures of success. Enrollment grew by 42% from 2015 to 2019—and is anticipated to double over the next five years. And, even more important, the university’s job placement rate has held steady at 97%.


Read: Will University of California dump SAT and ACT? Not yet

Read: Test-optional admissions policies advance


2. Move away from liberal arts for liberal arts’ sake

Higher education will always be about the pursuit of knowledge, but that knowledge cannot stand alone. It ultimately must build the skills and experiences needed to pursue meaningful careers. Colleges and universities must take a perpetually evolving hard look at how well their degree programs align with the needs of regional and national employers. This exercise should help identify which programs need to be retooled to develop practical skill sets; which programs are no longer relevant for the students and markets served; and which new programs could offer the most value.

Maryville, for example, has made some tough decisions about how courses are offered–on campus or online—but it also has added an online master’s degree program for nursing and a cybersecurity degree program to meet widespread market demand. Many institutions will face hard choices, but finding the right mix of offerings is key for growth.

Colleges and universities also need to engage industry partners more deeply to create tailored degree programs that address employers’ most high-priority needs. Maryville partnered with Rawlings, a St. Louis-based sports equipment manufacturer, to develop the Rawlings Sport Business Management program. It delivers a foundational curriculum of accounting, economics, finance and communications—all tailored to the unique dynamics of today’s sports industry. The program emphasizes real-world problem-solving in the classroom—and supports internships and employment opportunities with Rawlings and its many connections.


Read: Corporate collaboration prepares college graduates for day one


3. Act with speed and purpose

It will be increasingly important to act fast, fail fast, learn and stay nimble—not characteristics historically associated with higher education. Colleges and universities must adapt quickly and decisively to match how students learn and meet workforce needs. Ongoing market analysis can help schools create the most relevant certifications, courses and programs, including accessible, high-demand online offerings.

We must lead by example, pursuing opportunities on a timeline of weeks or months, not years.


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Maryville’s online master’s degree program in nursing came together within one year, and the university developed its cybersecurity program in just eight weeks. Students demonstrated immediate and growing interest. Since their inception, the programs have grown by 535% and 868%, respectively, with regular year-over-year growth. Every such undertaking may not be successful, but it’s crucial to advance at the rapid pace of today’s digital world.

4. Take bold strides toward affordability

The cost of college has surged to unmanageable levels for many students and families. At least some answers lie within the traditional university business model. As an industry, we need to become less labor intensive—not in the classroom, but in the back of the house. Colleges and universities need to be more efficient, eliminating paper pushing and outdated systems and processes.

Automation rooted in data analytics provides widespread opportunities to drive down the cost of services. New systems to automate the processing of financial aid and student information at Maryville, for example, are intended to trim bureaucratic costs—potentially by hundreds of thousands of dollars. The university also recently launched a block chain solution for students to receive transcripts and diplomas digitally, simplifying the process for administration and students alike. Similarly, Maryville is launching a fully digital degree planning process that the students manage themselves.


Read: How AI provides answers on campus


These measures create efficiencies and operational savings that can be passed down directly to students, helping stem the tide of rising costs. At a minimum, every institution should be working toward the goal of freezing tuition before reducing it and bending back the cost curve. Such efforts are critical in creating greater access and opportunity for students across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Higher education is at turning point, and the time is ripe for institutions to remake themselves. Leaders must be open to seeing their world through a new lens for a new era. Those who do will position themselves and their students for growth and success in 2020 and beyond—and those who do not will fade into oblivion.


Mark Lombardi is the president of Maryville University in St. Louis and co-author of Pivot: A Vision for the New University.


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