The novel coronavirus has impacted higher education more than any other event in modern history, putting the future of many institutions in doubt. The entire industry has been forced to restructure, seemingly overnight.
Given the urgency to react, colleges and universities should be applauded for their adaptability, innovation and tireless response efforts. That said, many of the existential challenges now facing higher education are not new, and the pandemic has forced institutions to finally reckon with the fundamental issue of the true value of higher education from a student’s perspective. With the advantage of many lessons learned during the pandemic, it is now time to have conversations about how our institutions not only survive but also thrive in the years to come.
Enrollment, which is vital to success, features new dynamics. Colleges and universities must understand and deliver on students’ evolving expectations. Quick pivots to online and hybrid learning have been necessary adaptations, but we detect that many institutions have struggled to respond to changes in overall customer expectations. As a result, those institutions have been working harder than ever to deliver high-touch educational services but experiencing persistent lack of public trust, questions of relevance and complaints about value and rising costs.
The path forward lies in gaining a better, data-based perspective on customer expectations.
Future students will want touch-of-a-button convenience and affordability and will weigh options within and beyond academe, such as Google Career Certificates. Additionally, students will be more financially and behaviorally risk-averse, socially conscious and activism inclined. They will inquire about institutional investments in safety, well-being and inclusion. They will demand accountability when harm occurs. They will take their tuition dollars elsewhere if a college or university doesn’t meet their expectations.
While COVID-19 has elevated the focus on public health, higher education institutions should not regard the current priorities as merely short term or pandemic related. Future students will expect meaningful institutional efforts to prevent and address sexual violence, hazing, racist incidents and the like. This generation of customers supports brands that are investing in social justice and wellness, and it shuns brands that do not. Colleges and universities that make permanent, visible and meaningful commitments to supporting those core generational values will thrive going forward.
Consider this from MNI Targeted Media: “This generation makes sophisticated choices about identity, purpose and values. They are a generation driven by values, with 68 percent identifying that doing their part to make the world a better place is important to them and this directly impacts their buying behavior. Over 50 percent state that knowing a brand is socially conscious influences purchase decisions.”
If colleges and universities want to thrive — or even survive — in a post-pandemic future, they must adopt a new mind-set to address student expectations and redefine the inherent value of higher education. For example, students’ participation in movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too illustrates how they value equity, inclusion and safety. Social consciousness impacts student expectations. Students will ask their institutions to provide them with the resources they need to create the communities they desire to live and learn in.
Institutions must invest in missions that resonate with student expectations about social justice issues. Many students want to become conscientious global citizens and be prepared for successful and meaningful lives and careers. Expect students to demand a learning environment that removes the barriers of preventable harms and creates an inclusive climate that enables them to fully succeed in their academic and extracurricular pursuits.
Participation in prevention programs has been shown to increase students’ sense of belonging, feelings of being valued, intention to persist and overall satisfaction with their experience on campus. If provided with that opportunity and environment, they will enroll, graduate, give back and thrive — lifeblood metrics for colleges and universities.
Leaders will need to invest more human and financial resources into preventative measures that normalize conversations about consent, teach students how to interrupt an act of discrimination and minimize the “line out the door” at campus counseling centers. Currently in the United States, institutions that lead in offering these kind of measures invest, on average, the equivalent of one full-time person dedicated to prevention per every 4,979 students, while the average institution dedicates just one full-time person per 9,191 students. Such institutions were also found to spend, on average, three times more per student on prevention efforts than peer institutions — $14.44 compared to $4.78. The precedents they’ve set can serve as a road map for other colleges and universities ensuring inclusion, safety and well-being efforts meet student expectations and achieve their transformational potential.
To support the students of the future and stay competitive, colleges and universities should consider adopting the following principles in addition to committing resources to wellness and prevention efforts. Students will demand more than words; they seek authenticity and transparency and want to see how campuses are committed to action. A strictly utilitarian approach will backfire. Our efforts must be visibly and deeply normative.
Evolve to a preventative, not reactive, mind-set. Preventable harms and high-risk behaviors derail students’ lives, their persistence and their academic success, as well as institutional brands. Implementing prevention measures does not imply financial commitments beyond the reach of typical colleges and universities; indeed, overreliance on therapeutic and reactive interventions is precisely why so many higher education budgets are under strain. The science around effective public health initiatives is robust, and new data suggests that modest improvements in campus prevention strategies yield material gains in graduation rates. While programming and policies are vital components of a comprehensive strategy, proactive leadership visibility and meaningful investments are most strongly connected to institutional outcomes like retention.
Stuck in the mind-set of an unsustainable past, campuses spend far too much energy and money reacting to incidents concerning sexual misconduct, substance misuse and discrimination and far too little preventing them. Higher education leaders must flip the focus of campus management efforts to wellness and prevention. Living in constant crisis and relying on lawyers to manage institutions out of conflict are reflections of mismanaged culture that persistently fails to seize educational opportunities and deflect responsibility to the point of catastrophe.
Institutions should begin by asking someone to serve with or on their Board of Trustees who focuses specifically on institutional ethics and alignment to help ensure that the institution and its staff, faculty and students are properly focused on core values. If ethics, values, safety and wellness are top priorities for customers of higher education, these should be management priorities, as well, and be institutionalized in strategic board governance. For example, boards routinely should develop specific plans to invest in particular prevention efforts, adopt detailed budget lines to support those prevention efforts and perhaps, most important, direct fundraising efforts toward attracting specific public health support.
Embrace the role of leaders as stewards. College presidents should be centered on community stewardship. When senior leaders speak publicly about issues such as sexual assault on campus, for instance, it demonstrates awareness and leadership by example and affirms the institution’s commitment to creating a safer campus environment.
However, research shows that nearly half of college and university presidents communicated publicly about sexual assault just once or not at all during the 2017-18 school year. Silence, or slow and cautious community engagement, is a relic. With the increase of student and community expectations, activism, and scrutiny surrounding issues like sexual assault, alcohol and substance misuse, racial injustice, and mental health, presidents must be proactive, nimble, vocal and visible. Just as the CEOs who make up the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of today’s corporations to include stakeholder impact alongside shareholder profits, the role of college presidents should be centered on the well-being of their community. This kind of leadership is integral to the broader success of prevention strategies.
Embrace the role of students as change makers. Only 3 percent of college students said they are most likely to talk to a counselor if they were experiencing mental health challenges, while 45 percent would most likely turn to a friend for help and support. Institutions must empower students with the tools to know how to insert themselves safely and successfully into situations concerning inclusion, wellness and safety so they can support peers while not putting themselves or others at risk.
Over the past several years, one of the largest driving factors in prevention efforts has been an increase in student activism. Institutions must take the time to engage student activists as allies, creating opportunities to channel their passion and commitment to drive positive changes to campus culture. That entails building connections with student leaders, showing up at their events, arming them with insights and training, building bridges to other institutional initiatives, showing gratitude, and providing ongoing support.
Think of safety, wellness and inclusion from a curricular perspective. Prevention is a process and an institutionwide commitment that must be woven into all facets of the student experience — not just during orientation. Colleges and universities need to think curricularly about how they structure wellness and inclusion initiatives to ensure students have the knowledge and skills to be successful in their lives on campus and beyond.
Campuses have engaged in extensive efforts to level up their online learning tools in the wake of COVID-19. Institutions similarly should commit to providing quality virtual or in-person wellness and inclusion initiatives to align with the expectations of today’s socially conscious students. Recently, nearly 600 colleges and universities were recognized with the Campus Prevention Network Seal of Prevention for their exemplary use of technology to strengthen and scale their prevention efforts, based on criteria such as theory and evidence, data collection, and sociocultural relevance. As students are raising the bar, leading institutions are rising to the challenge.
Inspiring Future Generations
Customer attitudes and expectations have shifted; inclusion, safety and wellness are student priorities and may eclipse formerly predictive metrics such as ranking, location and athletic programs. Successful institutions of the future will adapt to and understand these new college customer dynamics.
The current COVID challenges are shining a bright spotlight of opportunity for higher education. The challenges have been more than a catalyst for change and can serve to strengthen campuses by illustrating the need for expanded wellness and safety initiatives.
Ultimately, the pandemic may spare higher education decades of futility in following business strategies that do not meet customer expectations. This is an existential and transformational moment for higher education. But it will not be a crisis for those institutions that are committed to the constructive use of customer data — and are willing to shift management efforts to a social justice, prevention and wellness focus.