by Susan Whealler Johnston, Ph.D.

Posted on August 14, 2019

President to President was launched 14 years ago. Many of its current readers and authors were not yet presidents then, although many may have had that as a professional goal. First called Presidential Perspectives, the series was introduced before MOOCs, before Gen Z students started enrolling in college, and before the Great Recession. The series was introduced when the U.S. was in the early days of war with Iraq, and when Facebook was still in its infancy as “Thefacebook.” Classrooms hadn’t yet “flipped” and neither had the ratio between state funding for higher education and student funding in the form of tuition.

For higher education, 2005 was the year U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings launched the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, stating that “It is time to examine how we can get the most out of our national investment of higher education. We have a responsibility to make sure our higher education system continues to meet our nation’s needs for an educated and competitive workforce in the 21st century.”1 In many ways, the Spellings Commission, as it came to be known, was less about examining higher education and more about reforming it. It was the first big national effort to define needed changes for the 21st century. The key areas of focus for the Commission—access; affordability, especially for non-traditional students; standards of instructional quality; and institutional accountability to constituencies—established the “next big things” for higher education, to borrow from the title of the 2019 President to President series. 

For instance, “A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education,” the report from the Spellings Commission, pointed out the changing nature of college-going students. No longer predominately 18- to 22-year-olds enrolled full-time at four-year institutions, the student population was enrolled at 2-year community colleges (40 percent), attending part-time (40 percent), and older than 24 (33 percent).2 The Commission’s report anticipated today’s public debate about the value of higher education by pointing out the conflict between the need for higher education in a knowledge economy and the troublesome reality that students weren’t graduating with the skills they needed to succeed in the workforce. The report highlighted the achievement gap for students from lower income families and from racial minorities, a problem that continues to bedevil us today. On several points the observations of the report were eerily prescient, including the warnings that public concern about affordability and the lack of transparency in assessing institutional performance could diminish confidence in higher education. Finally, the Commission’s report expressed dismay over higher education’s lack of innovation to improve learning, enhance workforce preparation, and increase efficiency and productivity for improving student success and cost control. At the time of its release, the report was met largely with skepticism and defensiveness from the higher education community. And yet more than a decade later, conversations about higher education still focus on many of the “big things” identified in the Spellings report. 

Innovation is no small topic for higher education today. Of course, colleges and universities have always innovated—with form, with curriculum, with mission—but today’s environment demands new thinking about students, about learning, and about business models as well. Innovation hubs have become de rigeur, and some institutions are experimenting with skunkworks projects to determine if allowing them freedom from standard organizational structure encourages greater innovation. Environmental sustainability is a major area of innovation, helping institutions achieve a range of goals, from improving efficiencies and reducing costs to supporting social justice and positioning themselves in the market and the community. 

Questions abound about innovation, however. How much is too much innovation for an institution? Is there an innovation sweet spot in terms of the amount of campus activity? Does failure always accompany attempts at innovation? If so, what can an institution do if it doesn’t have the time or resources for failure? What is the president’s role in setting the conditions that encourage innovation? How does an institution pay for innovation? How does a president determine an institution’s risk tolerance in terms of finances as well as change management? Despite these questions, one thing is certain: innovation is demanded from higher education today. As was expressed in the report of the Spellings’ Commission, innovation is expected to address student retention and success, student learning needs, efficiency and effectiveness of strategic priorities, business model problems, market positioning, and other important issues for colleges and universities. 

Another big idea in higher education is big data, which is making its power felt. The use of big data, often in the form of predictive analytics, is contributing to student success and institutional transformation. Employed typically by larger universities but increasingly becoming a mainstream component of decision making, big data is helping institutional leaders understand how to address learning, advising, and retention problems successfully. It is also contributing to practical problem solving in areas such as space utilization and sustainability. This work is organizing and harnessing data already available on campuses, and presidents who understand its power are creating data-informed cultures that move smoothly and purposefully from data to knowledge to decisions. 

Big data can be part of the digital transformation of institutions, a transformation that has the power to change higher education permanently and in a variety of ways. As is the case in business, digital transformation in higher education is driven by customer demand (that is, student demand) and access to changing technology. The digital transformation of an institution can work the kinks out of registration and bill paying processes. It can nudge students to complete paperwork for financial aid or graduation. It can result in personalized learning for students and greater academic success. For many presidents, this last area holds the greatest promise, and it harkens back to the urgings of the Spellings report that higher education find ways to improve students’ learning and reduce the achievement gaps among races and economic groups. 

Whether the Spellings Commission started the national conversation about education for jobs or just anticipated it, the topic continues to gain significance. Parents, students, policy makers, and employers all want to know what institutions are doing to enhance the ability of college graduates to perform well in the world of work. Increasingly, institutions promote their career centers, internships, hands-on education, and other linkages between the educational experience and graduates’ success in their chosen careers. Even liberal arts colleges, often holding strongly to a belief in education for life, not just careers, are devoting resources to underscore and enhance the employability of their graduates. 

To ensure that they are responding to the needs of employers, institutions are forming advisory councils of key employers to inform curricular development. Alumni are invited to campus as “executives in residence” to serve as role models for undergraduates interested in particular majors. Faculty are re-designing courses and advising strategies to help students see the connections between professions and areas of study. Indeed, success at job placement has become a major marketing theme for institutions, one to which parents and students alike respond favorably. The president is often the driver of this change that can reverberate throughout the campus in ways both practical—where can we relocate the career center to make it more accessible to students?—and cultural—what are the implications of these changes to how we work together? 

Among the many “next big things” for higher education, partnerships and collaborations hold great promise for accomplishing key objectives and addressing a host of institutional needs. They also create challenges that need to be managed adroitly. While partnerships between institutions are not new—think about the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts, for instance, or the founding of Hobart and William Smith Colleges—the intentionality and creativity with which they are pursued today reflects the desire to increase efficiency and market share, to leverage different strengths, to amplify mission, and to share risk, among other benefits of collaboration. 

In the context of higher education, collaboration can be seen as a continuum, reflecting degrees of formality of agreements and degrees of complexity of work. At one end, institutions might partner to co-sponsor visit days for prospective students. At the other end, institutions might discuss merging. In the middle could be joint purchasing, joint academic programs, and shared faculty and staff. For presidents, while collaboration can help address thorny issues, it can raise them as well. Carefully defined and shared expectations going into a collaboration are key to smoothing out the path forward. 

As the presidents who have written these essays in this 14th collection of President to President demonstrate, the next big things in higher education are sometimes the result of changing demographics or technology or legislation. Sometimes they were hinted at years ago, and a backward look can bring them into sharper focus. Either way, we can all be assured that there will be “next big things” that demand our attention, assessment, and action.


2, xi