A Pivot to Meet the Changing Higher Education Landscape Head On


The changing landscape of higher education presents challenges and opportunities for many of us working in the sector. I have a proposal

First, while enrollments are growing, completion rates are dropping because institutions are serving a very different type of student. For example, more that 47 percent of higher education students in the U.S. are over the age of 25, and likely either financially independent, working full time (attending part time), single parents, or some combination of all of these things. What was the “non-traditional” student is becoming the new “typical college student” and they are seeking career advancement through online courses, alternative credentials, and competency-based programs…not necessarily the traditional “degree” as we have come to know it.

Second, the public and government officials continue to question the value of higher education, and reduce funding. The deficit is passed on to students through tuition increases, leading to more concerns over student ROI.

Third, meanwhile, colleges and universities struggle to develop a culture that is willing to change, innovate, and think differently about the higher education business model.

I believe these challenges present an opportunity for the advancement profession—experts in higher education communications, marketing, public and media relations, fundraising, alumni relations—to transform itself to advance and support education in this changing higher education environment.

For example, we need to think differently about who “alumni” are, and be ready to engage them throughout a lifetime of learning experiences. Student pathways through institutions will increasingly look more like a tangled web of on-ramps and off-ramps, in and out of institutions, rather than a straight highway.

How do we continue to articulate higher education’s value proposition to alumni so they stay engaged with our institutions?

Meanwhile, institutions struggle to articulate their value proposition to the public and to their legislative base as well. Because of the increased pressures on time and resources, few have researched the value they bring to their local economies or are able to cite data to demonstrate their contributions. They don’t have the time to educate government officials on how it works and the value it brings to society.

How can we blame the public for devaluing higher education when we have not done a good job of communicating that value?

At the same time, efforts to change within institutions are often hindered by the lack of a focused internal communications plan or an understanding of how best to help the right-hand know what the left hand is doing, disseminate information about successes and failures, or even clearly articulate the vision for moving forward.

How can we build a culture of higher education innovation without better internal communication strategies?

The changing higher education environment presents a great opportunity for advancement leaders to pivot in order to more strongly support their institutions through this period. This pivot to a new role places the advancement leader at the center of supporting academic transformation; someone who is integrated into all aspects of the institution and who leads the way in fostering and communicating innovation and value.

This “next wave” advancement professional brings a new set of skills and knowledge and expertise to the innovation table, contributing to conversations about student support services, open educational resources, alternative credentialing, etc.

  • They are building a stronger “academic” component to alumni relations, to keep alumni engaged throughout their lifetime, especially as they come in and out of our institutions. They are helping institutions conduct economic impact studies so that they can do a better job at articulating and promoting their value and contributions.
  • They are working more closely with their institutional government relations colleagues to articulate the value-add of higher education to legislators whose heads are often filled with fake news and distorted facts and figures. They are working more closely with the federal government to articulate that value proposition as well.
  • They are helping institutions develop internal communications strategies to support academic innovation leadership and vision.

Many advancement leaders are already seated squarely at the center of these conversations and discussions about how institutions are transforming themselves to address today’s and tomorrow’s challenges. They are keenly aware of the challenges facing higher education and are identifying resources and opportunities across the world to increase their knowledge and expertise in order to contribute in a greater way to student success. I believe that if more of these colleagues take up the charge, the profession can have an exponentially greater impact on helping institutions succeed in their transformation.