How Should Boards Respond to Disruption?

By Peter Smith    //    Volume 27,  Number 2   //    March/April 2019
Responding to Disruption

From nontraditional students and classroom models to the programs and services that support institutions, today’s colleges and universities are facing major disruption. How can higher education leaders respond to this multidimensional sea change and embrace the future in progressive new ways?

Harvard Business School professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” has its roots in the collapse and bankruptcy of four major computer companies in the late 1990s. Why did the Digital Equipment Company (DEC) and others, including Data General and Wang, go out of business while IBM survived? Christensen analyzed all the markers of success—satisfied customers, product dominance, strong organizational cultures, and competitive pricing—and concluded that they made it impossible for DEC and the others to respond to their emerging competitors. From the companies’ perspective, everything was going well. But before they knew it they were out of business. The newcomers to the marketplace
boasted superior quality and dramatically lower prices, greater capacity, and innovative features that changed the market. Those that failed were locked into their historically successful status quo, making no effort to adjust to the new reality.

The managers of the failed companies were hardly naive. They were intelligent and successful. Their companies failed because they did not adjust to a changing marketplace that outgrew and undercut mainframes and minicomputers. Twenty years later, such trends are multiplying and accelerating.

Now consider higher education today. Who were its customers 15 years ago? Who are they today and how many of them are there? Due to lower birthrates fewer 18-year-olds are entering students than was the case in 2004. And older learners, long marginalized by traditional institutions, are migrating to new types of instruction, including online and low-residency programs and such options outside of the postsecondary space as skills boot camps.

What was higher education’s main product 15 years ago? And how is that product viewed today? The degree’s effectiveness in achieving traditional academic goals and workplace viability in four to five years is under attack. Polls show that while more than 80 percent of academic vice presidents think their graduates are ready for the workplace, fewer than 20 percent of human resources professionals agree. Simultaneously, the time and cost required to earn a degree are increasing.

What was the typical higher education organizational structure and culture 15 years ago? And what is it today? Has it changed much? The campus is a physical place but it is also composed of an organizational structure and culture that encompass the academic program. And for many potential students these traditional forms no longer align with their needs or desired results from their learning.

What was pricing like 15 years ago? And what is it today? The organizational structure and culture described above is also an economic model. Once seen as worthwhile and competitive, higher education’s pricing is a source of growing concern. Legislative support has flattened for most public institutions while flat or declining enrollments are producing lower tuition revenue. These forces have pressured endowments, where they exist, and significantly driven up tuition and other charges. Taken collectively, these forces have led to huge student debt amid mounting concern about the value of a degree.

“Disruption” is not just a word to describe another wave of change coming at higher education. Disruptive forces, if understood thoroughly, pose a threat to colleges and universities as they are currently organized and managed. Successful solutions, innovations, and adaptations may vary widely among institutions because their circumstances, aspirations, and cultures vary as well. One thing, however, is certain: In this environment standing still is not an option. Higher education institutions should answer these five questions as they respond to disruptive forces and adapt to a changing landscape that threatens the status quo but holds promise for new opportunity:

Why are these times different and these forces so intractable? College and university campuses encompass class-room buildings, dormitories, libraries, laboratories, and an array of other human and physical resources. Indeed, from the time campuses were originally created until recently there was no option other than the campus concept. And the unique value of campuses as oases of information organized into academic and increasingly specialized services has largely characterized higher education throughout its history in the United States. As recently as 10 years ago, in the vast majority of cases, if adults wanted a certificate or degree that would qualify them for further learning or work, the only way to achieve that was via the college campus pathway.

Colleges have historically interpreted what was best for their students because they controlled the overall education process. The faculty-centric governance model in particular—which comprised the development and control of curriculum along with its teaching and evaluation—lay at the heart of the campus organizational and cultural model and had no competition.

Today, however, educational, training, and support services powered by increasing technological enhancements are challenging the status quo of campuses. And for the first time the drivers of these new services are located beyond the boundaries of the campuses—and beyond their control as well—and represent the seeds of disruption for the campus model.

Technology is not the solution, but it is a tool that in its ever-increasing forms and adaptations encourages and promotes alternative learning solutions that can occur anytime, anyplace, and for anyone. Many of those solutions, while appearing very different, offer lower prices and learning experiences of equivalent or superior quality.

What impact will “learning anything, anywhere, anytime” exert on colleges? This revolution will force profound reconsiderations of traditional policies and practices. During the era when colleges controlled the marketplace for teaching and learning, college policies and practices—driven by the faculty—determined what students learned and how well they learned it. And although prior learning assessment and transfer programs existed, the general practice favored “learning done here.” Essentially, there has been an institutional monopoly on the evaluation and validation of learning, usually through exams, essays, and term papers despite the wealth of other qualitative learning.

Now the traditional practices regarding the evaluation of learning are coming under fire and those walls are coming down. In a world in which we know that learning can take place anytime
and anyplace, the preexisting academic monopoly begins to look like “knowledge discrimination”: valuing learning on the basis of where it took place not on how well students understand and can apply what they have learned. My research has uncovered scores of stories of valuable life-based learning and experience that are ignored by colleges and employers alike in deference to the college-issued certificate or degree.

For example, one man had been bypassed for a promotion three times even though he had performed the tasks associated with the job during each interim period in the search for a new hire. His problem was that he did not have a degree. “I am trapped,” he said. “I’ve got to work, so I can’t go back to college. I drive past that college every day on my way to work and back. That’s no shining city of opportunity on a hill. It’s a bastion of privilege with the drawbridge drawn up.”

In a world in which superb content is readily available—sometimes at no cost to the learner—and valid assessments of learning can be applied to academic and employment requirements, knowledge discrimination and the college monopoly on defining where learning takes place and how its value is determined is being challenged.

What are the characteristics of “adult-friendly colleges”? Colleges can take a number of steps to make themselves more adult- or learner-friendly. Interviews with five college presidents whose institutions are organized differently revealed their thoughts on properly serving adults with multiple and complex needs. Despite their different approaches, the five presidents agreed on the core characteristics of an “adult-friendly college.”

The value that tied together all of their comments was “personalization,” the concept that policies, procedures, and practices in the adult-friendly college would anticipate learners’ personal needs and aspirations by providing academic and nonacademic services.

There was broad agreement that academic advising, as well as nonacademic and peer support, would be essential going forward. We know that almost 60 percent of the adults who drop
out of college do so for nonacademic reasons. They have the capacity to succeed but life intervenes, and the college’s policies and practices make dropping out the only plausible option.

Another characteristic identified by all of the presidents was “convenience” for the learner. This includes scheduling, shortened time in school, and lower costs to complete the degree as well as a comprehensive assessment of prior learning and engaging an institutional advocate to help with administrative difficulties.

These new attitudes represent a sea change in how students are being treated. When it comes to the “user” experience, we have traditionally described success in college as the learner’s ability to “persist” to the certificate or degree. This suggests a difficult, uphill struggle against odds. In the disrupted world, however, the “user” experience will be more like the shopping experience that offers a concierge to assist the customer, removing obstacles and explaining the opportunities. Convenience, in this case, does not mean lower standards; it means that colleges will build their offerings around and in response to the complexities of their learners’ lives.

Finally, all five presidents agreed that everything a college or university does should be closely referenced to the outside world, especially employment and job readiness. Common themes include working with employers to directly connect learning outcomes with job requirements, focusing on the ability to apply the knowledge productively in the work setting. In addition, the presidents agreed that in-house training and on-the-job development programs should be recognized for advanced placement.

What is a GPS for learning and work? Today we would be surprised if we drove a car or pulled out a tablet that did not provide a mapping feature to guide us to our destination. In fact, these devices even have alternative routes if time is not of the essence. But a similar service to clarify career opportunities has not been available to students. The career services offered in higher education are often only marginally helpful.

Learners of all ages respond well to specificity in their learning pathway. Gone are the days when the primary purpose of college was to “find yourself.” Most learners today want to know where they are going and the relevance of their college or professional experience to their short-term and long-term goals. Whether the GPS for learning is employment-oriented, academically oriented, or both, it should contain these elements:

  • An appraisal that tells the learner where he or she is in terms of knowledge, skills, and behaviors;
  • A picture of the learning destination that will qualify the learner for the occupation or job to which he or she aspires;
  • A “gap” analysis that lays out the learning journey required to get the learner from point A to point B;
  • An academic/learning plan that will get the student there; and
  • The support services to help the student along the way.

A traditional career services office is not going to implement this type of GPS service. Sophisticated data analytics will drive the GPS for learning and career. Connecting the learning outcomes to employment and other requirements will require a redesign of curricula, including technological enhancements to capture the information needed in a consistent and qualitative manner.

What is a “networked college” and why is it important? Historically, colleges were organized as a vertical stack of such services as groundskeeping, maintenance, dining, and so on to the faculty, librarians, and lab technicians. The institution employed everyone and controlled every-thing. Then, little by little, such services as groundskeeping, maintenance, and dining were outsourced. More recently, libraries have transitioned from ownership of all resources to memberships in online consortia, which enable libraries to electronically access up-to-date information instead of purchasing it and placing it on shelves. Outsourcing initially was controversial in some quarters because it suggested the institution itself was no longer the impregnable tower of quality it had once been. The implication was that outsourcing meant diminished quality.

Today, however, the tables have turned. Only by outsourcing service and creating partnerships can some services, including academic and support programs, be offered and sustained. In each case, developing, implementing, and improving those services and programs over time will cost money. For example, can each institution support its own version of the GPS for learning and work or the characteristics of an adult-friendly college?

The answer is no. Each of these newly conceived and available technologically enhanced services costs a considerable amount of money to develop and even more to sustain and improve over time. No single institution can support all of the investments and upgrades across all of the service areas. The key here is for the administration and the board to determine the core services they are going to retain control over, invest in, and use to brand their quality. Having done that, they can look beyond thplete, supported learning environment for their students.
From the learner’s perspective the col-lege still might appear to be a set of ser-vices providing a pathway to graduation. But beneath the surface the college incor-porates an integrated set of services that are interwoven and supported by multiple entities in a networked pattern. Collec-tively, these interwoven services consti-tute the learner experience. Partnerships define the networked college.

How do we know where to begin designing our response to the disruptive forces and with whom? Given the old planning adage, “If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there,” taking time to consider the end state you are seeking is critical. Will it include low-residency programs? Workplace-based programs? Evidence-based assessments of learning? Anytime, anyplace student support and advising? Critically important to any end state you select is the understanding that it will be dynamic and continually improving, not static. Any end state will require data analytics to support continual evaluation of effectiveness and identify areas where improvement is needed. As you go through the process this step-by-step approach also requires research and analysis of the services you will outsource and the ones you will own as you go through the process.

In conclusion, trying to assess all of the disruptors that are driven by the techno-logical revolution is like skiing in a blizzard without goggles. This article attempts to provide a set of goggles through which to view and understand the onrushing change. In my estimation, there will not be a new “normal” for higher education—a singular model for its delivery and sup-port that has characterized the traditional campus. Instead, there will be a combination of services offered in a wide variety of configurations that are located beyond the boundaries of campuses—and beyond their control as well.