We asked 100+ presidents about the state of higher ed. Here’s what they said.

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We asked 100+ presidents about the state of higher ed. Here’s what they said.

Will higher ed be ready for the seismic shifts predicted for the next decade?

Each college and university will need a bold strategic vision to continue to thrive—and this puts rising pressure on presidents and their leadership teams to create that vision and communicate it effectively across campus. No wonder the average tenure of a president is falling.

To better understand the challenges facing presidents today, I sat down with EAB General Manager Melanie Ho, who recently wrapped up a listening tour with more than 100 college and university presidents.

Q: Was there anything that surprised you during the conversations?

“Incremental change won’t be enough… [Our school has] to start shifting our future model, and it needs to happen on our current leadership team’s watch.”

College President

Melanie Ho: I was struck by how many presidents feel like this is a pivotal moment, not just for their own institutions, but truly for higher ed as a whole. One president told me, “Incremental change won’t be enough… We have to start shifting our future model, and it needs to happen on our current leadership team’s watch.”

And, behind closed doors, some worry that they’ve actually missed the moment—that while campus leaders were busy putting out the day-to-day fires of the past few years, they were forced to hold off on preparing for some of the longer-term changes heading their way. And now those changes are happening, and they’re bigger than they were predicted to be, and they can’t be ignored anymore.

Q: Can you give me an example?

Melanie: Changing demographics. Higher ed has known for decades that they’d need to serve more low-income, first-generation, and historically underrepresented students. And we knew this would mean contending with deeply rooted achievement gaps and the potential for the college-going rate to fall, because these students didn’t grow up taking college attendance as a given.

But now, the demographic shift is hitting at the same time that the value of a four-year education has been called into question with unprecedented intensity, in the wake of the recession and with political rhetoric coming from both sides of the aisle. What presidents said they find most concerning is that it’s often those students and communities who might benefit most from higher education who are failing to see its value.

So not only do presidents feel less prepared for the demographic shifts than they’d like to be, but now the college-going rate could fall more than anyone expected. And as challenging as all that sounds, that’s just one “perfect storm” out of many.

Q: How are presidents responding to all this so far?

Melanie: The first order of business is to understand the trends and make a plan. Presidents are looking at questions like: How much will my institution need to change to remain relevant? And given that most strategic plans sound the same, how can I make sure that ours is truly “distinctive,” as well as focused on the right areas, rather than trying to be all things to all people?

Q: You said that’s the first order of business. What’s the second?

Melanie: Having a bold institutional vision is only the first step. In higher ed, change is usually incremental and happens in silos. But presidents know that the kinds of reforms they need to make are going to require systemic, holistic change across campus. They know they’re going to need to review their organizational design, as well as win over any pockets of resistance or complacency.

The other challenge in this area is how to move more quickly from vision to execution. As an example, university leaders lament that general education reform can take seven years, and has cost some provosts a job, only to end in one or two minor requirement changes. When you’re in that reality, how can you consider more monumental changes?

Q: That sounds overwhelming! What’s the way forward?

Melanie: It does begin to sound overwhelming. My team and I have already started conducting follow-up research in two focus areas: first, we’re looking at the future of university strategy—where are current strategic plans most at risk, and what are better ways of approaching the strategic planning process.  Second, we’re looking at how to provide distinctive value to the student of tomorrow.

We’re also seeing more and more interest in presidents collaborating across institutions. To help facilitate that, we’re bringing together groups of presidents for peer roundtable sessions to discuss future strategy and lessons from higher ed innovators. Many presidents are interested in what lessons for the student experience and organizational design can be gleaned from other sectors, and we’re also hosting out-of-sector experience labs, like a trip with 30 presidents to Zappos next month.

We hope our research and presidential gatherings will help university leadership teams set frontier strategy, engage with campus stakeholders, and work more effectively with their boards.

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