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Managing HigherEd Disruption through Planning

The need for change is real; the pace of change is unbelievable

By Nicholas R. Santilli and Michael Moss

Large-scale, industry-disrupting change used to take decades, if not a century. Now with a hyper-connected world and information flowing at a faster pace every day, global movements can drive significant societal changes within a decade, and sometimes within years. Higher education, long thought to be recession proof and resistant to market forces, is not immune from global or disruptive change realities. Powerful environmental forces including technology advancements, political transitions, changing workforce realities, and shifting demographics create a far more heterogeneous pool of students seeking higher education influence the sector more quickly and deeply relative to past eras.

To their credit, however, higher education leaders have historically adapted to shifts in the educational landscape.  In recent years, however, for colleges and universities in the U.S., the conversation has shifted, and it is no longer a positive dialog. From funding challenges to evolving social norms to tuition cost conversations and student retention rates – rarely is the business of higher education cast in an optimistic light.

In short, the pace, demand, and competition across sectors of higher education make it increasingly difficult for institutions to be nimble, compromising the ability to serve students with high-quality learning environments and promote the public good.

These challenges notwithstanding, what if large-scale disruption in higher education has actually yet to begin? Is the higher education community prepared to manage the change and make the hard decisions required to retain relevancy in a time when societal level change happens within a decade?

To illustrate this point, following is a small sampling of the trends that are impacting higher education campuses today:

  • Generational changes and the arrival of Gen Z on campus
  • “Soft” skill development demands by employers for graduating students
  • Integration of emerging technologies into the learning environment (VR, AR)
  • Demand for active learning within STEM disciplines
  • Student debt and paying for school after graduation
  • Reporting pressure to justify the ROI of higher education
  • Next generation learning infrastructure requirements on aging campuses
  • Student data privacy
  • Providing students safe environments for learning and social interaction
  • International student recruitment and retention
  • College affordability
  • New business models including equity partnerships and institution mergers

It Starts with Relationships

To manage just this small list of trends in a manner that creates durable change is not an easy endeavor. In addition, this list barely scratches the surface of what higher education professionals are tasked with addressing on a shorter timeline, with fewer resources, and greater oversight. So where does the solution journey begin?

In our opinion, the launching point for creating long-term capability to manage change starts with building durable cross-functional relationships across the units of an institution. These strong on-campus partnerships create a culture that embraces the integrated planning requirements for sustaining the execution of the integrated plan, namely from strategic vision to operational tactics for organizational viability. Administration, faculty, students, employers and even the institution’s local community all have a stake in the success of a campus and must be included in the planning processes that ultimately creates a durable culture to manage change.

The ability to address the non-stop emergence of new trends on a campus through a responsive planning process is critical for all institutions, regardless of size or current financial standing. In the absence of good planning, even the largest of endowments can suffer quickly if the campus culture is reactive to change. Build strong relationships anchored against the desire to support the greater good of an institution, and one will be ready for whatever trends come his or her way.

Extended Collaboration

The positive outcomes of a well-designed strategic plan are born from collaborative work anchored by the academic plan and supported by financial, human resource, budgetary, student success, and physical campus planning.  To support campus-wide efforts that are responsive to change and allow for buy-in from diverse stakeholder groups, collaboration must extend beyond the campus gates into the stakeholder organizations of higher education.

For example, in an effort to better leverage financial resources, the emergence of public, private partnerships (P3) for physical campus projects represents a collaboration practice allowing institutions an alternate funding model for meeting campus needs. Where a construction firm in the past was secured to build a student housing facility, today that same firm may own an equity stake in the long-term success of the facility. Another collaboration example on urban campuses is mixed-use facilities that blend institutional and community requirements within a single facility.

Where do institutions find support for their planning efforts?

As with every industry segment in the U.S., there are numerous professional associations whose missions are directly aimed at creating and maintaining success for higher education. The collaborative culture that institutions require to manage change needs to also extend into the higher education association community to create the cross-functional cooperation that drives innovative ideas and change durable solutions for campuses.

While there are numerous historical examples of successful partnerships between professional organizations, the opportunity is to extend these relationships beyond traditional co-sponsorship arrangements and into the development of products and services specifically designed to support collaboration cultures at institutions. Traditional MOU structures will no longer provide the robust requirements that higher education professionals require to address increasingly more complex challenges on campus. The trend of creating strategic alliance goals in association strategic plans is aligned with durable and flexiblethe reality that the supporting communities of higher education must align in intelligent ways to provide co-developed solutions to complex problems. It is critical for associations serving higher education to recognize the value the association brings to the membership lies not just in publications and annual meetings, but by seeking ways to accompany members in their institutional journeys. True partnerships, not just membership, need to be established to deliver greater value to the membership and the institutions they serve.  


As new trends emerge, higher education professionals will continue to develop creative ways to make complex challenges manageable.  Collaboration and engrained change management cultures designed to create flexible, yet durable learning environments will be the norm. With collaboration within and beyond the walls of the campus, as the disruption in higher education arrives institutions will be prepared to continue providing high-quality education regardless of the trends and challenges that emerge.

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