The best innovations sneak up on us. We know it when we see it but don't always recognize it while it is happening. Innovation is often a natural process of change—one that ebbs with market demand and flows with institutional norms. In the simplest terms, it is born from questioning old strategies and letting go of traditional mindsets.
All levels of education are consistently questioned in the modern economy. The competition for institutions of higher learning has always been stiff, but now prospective students have new alternatives to consider. Mix in the fact that the college selection process has changed dramatically over the past decade, and it is clear that a level of innovation is required for selling students on a particular institution.
Can colleges and universities simply curate innovation and insert it into their recruitment process? The quick answer is "no" because there is no specific recipe or model that you can adopt and deem as innovation. Colleges need to make big changes, which means that they need to adopt a disruptive model of innovation.
Netflix and Amazon are poster kids for disrupting industries. They capitalized on being first to market, and the press they receive after the fact only serves to elevate their performance. But you couldn't have "seen it coming." In that way, disruption is something that can only be defined after it has occurred. So, it's not the process, perhaps, but the mindset of innovators from which we should take notes.
The Students Have Changed
A review of the prospective student market is the first variable to consider. For enrollment specialists especially, attention must be cast to the change in the traditional student demographic. The kids completing their applications no longer only come from upper-middle class and well-off white families. By and large, the demographic is much more diverse—ethnically, economically, and otherwise.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Higher education has become too expensive for the majority of average Americans. And that’s troubling for families who place a great deal of importance upon a four-year college degree.
And while modern cultural influences have led us to believe that the traditional four-year college experience is coveted by students and parents alike, Melissa Morriss-Olson, Ph.D., doesn't believe that's the only buying persona anymore.
“Historically, college has been viewed as a bundled experience,” says Morriss-Olson, Provost of Bay Path University in Massachusetts. “You go to class, you live in a residence hall, you get involved with activities, and you pay one lump sum. But I think that model is beginning to shift, especially with this newest generation of students who are now entering our doors.”
One of the new shifts comes is in the form of online learning, which is helping reinvent the college experience. Morriss-Olson says that by the time they arrive on campus, first-year students have already been introduced to the wonders of technology throughout their K-12 experiences. This has an enormous impact on the college choice.
“For traditionally-aged students, colleges are still struggling to figure out how to more seamlessly integrate technology into the full educational experience,” Morriss-Olson says.
And that's a must. Morriss-Olson predicts that emerging college models will be more of a mix-and-match situation. Think of it like creating a playlist on your iPod. Because the typical 18-year-old is used to customizing experiences (whether it's a playlist or an online game), it is reasonable to assume that they now expect to be able to customize their college experience. Instead of paying a lump sum, they will be able to pay as they go, semester by semester, mixing online with in-class courses (also known as “blended learning.”)
"Most colleges by and large are not structured to be able to accommodate this level of customization," Morriss-Olson says.
This past year, as a way to combat college "sticker shock," Loyola University in Chicago put a cap on tuition. The forward-thinking decision, which might be unpopular at most colleges and universities, is the kind that more schools must embrace, according to Heather Taylor, Director of Enrollment Marketing, Loyola University Chicago.
Rather than owning innovation, Taylor inspires it through the use of an innovation team, which encourages people all over the institution to submit proposals for new ideas. Taylor, along with representatives from other departments, helps review the proposals and decide how much funding each receives.
The criteria? "The ideas must be able to generate revenue and be forward-thinking," Taylor says.
Past successful proposals have included new academic programs and communications certificates based on market demand. As long as the ideas are backed by data and market demand, Loyola's innovation team is able to gather the resources and make these ideas come to life.
Bay Path has instituted a similar process. “You need to have a discipline between vetting ideas and being highly curious,” Morriss-Olson says.
Enrolling a new standard
With a long-predicted drop in the number of eligible high school seniors enrolling in college, 80,000 fewer prospects are available this year due to the demographic shifts. Morriss-Olson says this drop is being felt most intensely by colleges in New England and the Midwest.
Increased competition among institutions means enrollment specialists scrambling to find the best, most pointed ways to reach high school seniors that are mostly found inhabiting various corners of the internet and social media.
Morriss-Olson says some ways to shift enrollment strategies would be to look at your institution's DNA and ensure your program offerings are as distinct as possible. Similar to the idea in the cover feature of Relevate's previous issue, "Why Should I Go Here?", the provost's advice suggests that narrowing in on your target student audience is more important now than ever.
"Sometimes the faculty may not like its innate market or brand, but your easiest recruitment will happen with those students who best fit your institutional brand and DNA," she says.
"It is critical to take the time to analyze your enrollment results as deeply and as broadly as possible so you know who is enrolling and who is not—and then target your outreach and marketing efforts to attract more of the students who you are successful in enrolling," she explains.
Lastly, Morriss-Olson concludes that enrollment specialists have to be vigilant in leading the way to ensure their efforts are defensible and strategic based on the data. It's imperative to garner a realistic understanding about their niche in the higher education marketplace.
Curiosity could save the college
There is no denying that disruption means stepping outside of the box. “If you’re going to disrupt, it means doing risky things," Morriss-Olson says. "And that’s not always easy."
Getting into an innovation mindset means you have to be bold, brave and willing to suspend your beliefs about the way things are supposed to work. That means the status quo must go.
To overcome traditional mindsets, Morriss-Olson believes higher education leaders must be endlessly curious, courageous and entrepreneurial. “Many of us at Bay Path are very entrepreneurial. We read a lot. Very few good ideas come from just sitting in my office—they come from either reading or talking with others. I tell this to everyone: The best thing you can do is get out of your office and ask a lot of questions.”
Open yourself up and change will come. "If you nurture a sense of curiosity and look at all your experiences and encounters with other people, there is no end to disruptive ideas,” she says.
Take Loyola’s Arrupe College, which was a bold initiative born out of a popular question circling around election time: Why aren’t kids going to college for free? Completely funded by Loyola University, Arrupe was created for less fortunate students who could not afford a Loyola education.
“We wanted to provide Arrupe College for those students who are going to be leaders and do something great," Taylor says. "Education should not just be for the kids who can afford it. It’s a real commitment and passion for making higher education affordable.”
And the payoff has been incredible, as Arrupe College has paid for itself tenfold. Taylor says the first graduating class is now either moving into the workforce or continuing education at Loyola. We now know it because we can see it. But, because of its disruptive nature, we may not have known it was coming.
Higher education’s ongoing conversation about disruptive innovation is gaining steam. And changes in enrollment practices also have momentum. However, nothing monumental will bloom without first a shift in thinking. Leaders like Morriss-Olson and Taylor are proving that to create change, you must be willing to break out of your comfort zone and try new things for the sake of the industry.