The Pulse of Higher Ed

Perspectives on Online and Professional Education
from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Who’s in the Driver’s Seat?

A person (Jim Fong) smiles at the camera

By Jim Fong

The saying “who’s in the driver’s seat” commonly refers to driving a car and the decision of whether one person should lead or if input is necessary. Similarly, the term “backseat driver” describes someone not in control attempting to influence or take charge. Both phrases suggest notions of control and ego. One could argue that for decades (or even the better part of a century), colleges and universities were in the driver’s seat in providing educated human capital into an economy that would otherwise buck or jerk forward without them. Over the past two decades, the car that institutional leaders were driving has changed dramatically. The fuel has changed (funding). The look has changed (perception and brand). The engine has changed (delivery). Our roads and cities where they drive have changed (policy and politics). There are also more alternative forms of transportation (competition). Theoretically, the car could also potentially drive itself (MOOCs and other fully asynchronous learning). The higher education car of the future requires more input and collaboration for it to be successful.

According to a recent snap poll conducted by UPCEA and MindEdge, it’s evident that more institutions are increasing their efforts to collaborate closely with employers. While colleges and universities have always claimed strong relationships with employers, one could argue that many of the discussions have been lopsided … more in favor of higher education. In the past, colleges and universities traditionally managed high level advisory boards, held their career fairs, curated internships and fostered relationships with well-placed alums. Over the past few decades, economic pressures have pushed more employers and colleges closer together to address workforce development challenges. Of the 75 UPCEA member institutions responding to the survey, 75% said that revenue generation was driving corporate outreach initiatives for their online and professional continuing education units. Another 61% said program development while just under half (49%) said credential development were factors.

One-third of responding institutions were satisfied with their unit’s corporate outreach being effective in reaching their intended goals. Just one-in-four feel their corporate outreach initiatives are adequately staffed. Past UPCEA research and interviews suggest that formal and fully resourced corporate outreach initiatives favor larger institutions, with smaller institutions often redirecting existing staff and resources to respond to more immediate or short-term corporate needs.

Recent UPCEA studies in partnership with Collegis and InsideTrack show that employers desire a stronger, but more balanced relationship with colleges and universities. The research shows that employers acknowledge the need for degrees, but also want other options, including certificates and digital badges as milestones earned for training. Employers want a stronger workforce and often seek reskilling in a number of areas. Given these needs, they also want to be more involved in the process, including input or guidance in curriculum design or serving in active advisory committees. Additionally, the studies identify a need to improve communication between the college and university and the employer.

With unfavorable demographics, the politization of higher education, declining high school graduate participation and perceived high tuition, colleges and universities will need to diversify their offerings beyond the 120-credit bachelor’s degree. New credentials will need to be created to keep pace with a fast-moving economy.  Greater engagement with employers will also be critical to offset the anticipated loss of eighteen year-olds on campus.

Imagine the perfect college experience: it gets you where you need to go, ensuring safety and resource conservation along the way. That’s the goal for the future of higher education. But just like a car that needs upgrades to be super-efficient, colleges will need some changes to reach this ideal. The future higher education vehicle can operate more efficiently, faster, and safer, but it’ll need modifications. Some parts might need a complete overhaul, while others just need fine-tuning. But reaching our destination will be a collaborative effort. Planning our route beforehand, involving institutional leaders, employers, and learners, is crucial. Egos must be set aside for this journey.

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