Does your campus have a ‘student experience’ problem?

Negotiating the policies, process, and services of a college campus can be difficult for even the most tenured staff as organizational structures shift, roles and departments evolve, and priorities change.  Yet there’s an important, yet often overlooked component of these changes: the student experience.

We often talk about student experience as an intangible summary feeling from students by engaging the university– the spirit and connection to the community, the opportunities for students to grow through high impact practices, and the function of specific campus departments to focus on ‘creating a positive environment’ for students.  But consider this– Have you ever been on the phone with your cable provider contesting a charge on a recent bill? That becomes part of your customer experience.  The student experience is one, unifying view of campus ushered through hundreds of small interactions with phone calls, buildings, systems, departments, administrators across the campus.  Student experience is all of these– manifested through a set of interactions with staff, with policies, and with the campus infrastructure as a whole that all contribute to a larger student journey.

Have you ever called a high traffic department to explore what experiencing life from the student’s point of view might look like? Better still, have you spoken with students about the greatest pain points that they experience in engaging with the university?

I’m not suggesting that a campus be overhauled to be solely focused on the path of least resistance for students as its’ only ‘user’– it’s obvious that some experiences by their very function might not be intended to “optimize” the student’s interaction with them, and the stakeholders of a University are widely varied the complexity of which makes the concept of addressing the student experience difficult and complex. What I am saying, however, is that every area of the university should be aware of the variety of stakeholders they interact with, including students, and address the nuances within their needs in a way that acknowledges where unintended and unnecessary barriers or pain points exist and strives to remove them.

What’s more, is that doesn’t mean a new system, policy, or cost is the answer– it might be a thoughtful review and redesign of a form, or reformatting the response when contacting into your department. It’s simply about understanding and considering the student experience, their journey, in their interaction with the university, getting underneath the pain points that exist, and thinking creatively about how to solve the identified challenges.

Don’t underestimate the impact that you have– we’re all “experience” designers. Each encounter with a student is an opportunity to observe and react.  The skill sets that make strong education administrators: engagement with students through empathy, a growth mindset, counseling and listening skills, asking for formal and informal feedback, an investment in helping students succeed; these are the raw materials of human-centered design in higher education (along with a set of tools informed by design thinking or service design; follow my colleague Alex who digs into this topic often). Orienting the campus to the concepts of human-centered design, and rigorously reviewing the campus through the lens of your student makes a difference. Especially as that student is changing.

I’ll go so far that in the current landscape of higher education, those with the most deliberate focus on the holistic student experience will see more students graduate, and those who fail to adapt will struggle. Think student experience is independent of outcomes?

In Tressie McMillan’s Lower Ed, she describes ways for-profit university practices are oriented around making the process easy for their target (historically under-represented, low-income) students to enroll and carry large amounts of loans, pointing out the moral and social implications of huge amounts of stacked debt. While demonstrably predatory and negative, they’ve optimized their lens and approach to the student enrollment experience to their benefit.

For-profits enroll a huge number of students because of the way they have considered, tailored, and adapted their message and processes to adapt their message and process for their target student and make things as easy as possible for them to enroll. This isn’t a blanket call for these kinds of practices to be adopted outside of the for-profit world, but rather an example of the impact that purposeful design has on outcomes.

In a recent NPR interview, McMillan was asked about the emergent trend of inexpensive online education, which illuminated an important observation:

“There’s almost nothing we could do to traditional higher ed to make it more accessible [for working adults] that wouldn’t make it better for traditional students as well. So I worry we are adopting the practices [of for profits] without really changing how we do business.

This is the imperative in the years ahead as student demographics continue to shift, and “non-traditional” students increasingly become the largest percentage of college students attending universities– adapting to this new archetype and persona of student, and adapting the student experience not only on campus, but wherever your students interact with the university.

What does your student experience look like today?

How might you design your campus’ experience for the students of tomorrow?

Building Education’s Future

First, a little about me.  This isn’t a story about me, it’s about something much bigger- but I think setting the stage for where a community grew out from might just make it more real.

When I moved to DC in 2013 to join EAB, I was excited to contribute to a growing movement focused on student success, enabling advising at institutions like MTSU with predictive data and organizing institutional efforts around the use of data and technology to help students succeed. With this broadening perspective around the forces at work within higher education around enrollment, alternative pathways, and evolving relationship we have with learning in the context of work, I began to watch and explore the emerging trends.

Doing so, I decided to pursue a next step leading the DC Campus of The Iron Yard, a coding bootcamp, to see one expression of these trends first-hand. Now, a month into my work at the Education Design Lab, the macro-view across pathways had me thinking about how valuable it is to step into that view and perspective of education to ask fundamental questions, and reframe our thinking about the goals and values of education.

Enter Grant. Grant is a friend and former colleague from EAB. Every time he and I get together, there’s an energy that’s created around the momentum and promise that education has today, talking about:

  • the way that technology influences it’s direction and evolution,
  • the way that new delivery models are changing the way that people fundamentally approach learning and ongoing development;
  • the way that technology is fundamentally changing the economy and labor market, forcing us to reevaluate the skills people need to thrive in the 21st century, forcing education to adapt.

There are so many forces moving at such an incredible rate- there’s a lot to keep tabs on, get excited about (and adapt to) if you’re making a career out of the education space. He and I can hardly keep up with one another.

And since Grant and I have enjoyed these conversations, we wondered if there might be other people who might be interested in joining in as well. So we launched Education Experience Design DC to fill in a hole for discussions somewhere at the intersection of edtech, education policy, education administration, design thinking, user experience, and service design.

In short, we wanted to figured out how we can bring forward more discussions around the way we design policies, ecosystems, and technologies around the student, and what that shift might mean for the future of the future design, features, and function of education?

Further, what if we had a space to bring together people who were deliberately thinking about this leading edge of education design and innovation, and are building practices into their work? Grant and I decided that was a place that we wanted to be…and that it didn’t already exist. So we set it up. As our meetup espouses:

We’re bringing together education innovators working in every segment of education: educators, policy makers, administrators, design, and edtech pros for conversation, skill building, and sharing best practices around preparing students for success in the future of education and beyond. Expect a little bit of show + tell, a little bit of book club, and great connections.

With nearly a hundred members coming together in just a few days, with the vision, now comes the execution; and I’m hoping that it might inspire and provoke those who see themselves invested in being part of this movement to stand up and raise their hand in one way or another. If that’s you, Grant and I have a few favors to ask (after you go and join the Meetup group, that is).

  • We need a space (ideally, free) to bring together this bunch of education innovators.
  • We want to build the network of folks involved, and find presenters and facilitators who are interested in provoking a conversation, leading a workshop, or presenting their vision for the future of education.
  • We’d love to find creative ways to document the conversations that take place to share them beyond the limitations of space and time at our events.
  • We’d love a sponsor to help keep the lights on to list our Meetup page, to support our speaker’s (in-kind buys of books, gear, or the like), supplies, and to help feed the (hopeful) masses as people join us on the journey.  We’ll likely ask for a couple of bucks to hold your seat as a show of good faith and a commitment to the community, but unfortunately it will take more than that to feed the crowd.

We know they’re big asks, but to chase after work that can bring such an important group together to have big discussions around the future of education, Grant and I are willing to step up and be the advocates for that space.

So, with that:

Have a space you’re willing to offer up? Know a presenter who would be compelling in front of this group of education innovators? Think your company might be willing to pitch in and sponsor an event or a series? Want to give your time and talents?

Send Grant or I a message, and let’s get started!

Designing education toward the future of work

Pressed on the question, I’ve never been sure what my journey in higher education would look like. When I was entering grad school I described it as working directly with students, at EAB it was about influencing higher education from the private sector through technology, and when I joined The Iron Yard I was most excited about the breadth of influence and the exploration of a new education model.  

Regardless of where I was working, one thing always eventually became clear: my interest in the field of higher education expanded beyond any one application. What’s more, my strengths in defining and executing strategy over operational goals consistently influence my energy and engagement.  That said, each step was important. Each step continued to light a pathway that would have otherwise been foreign and unknown, unlocked new ways to approach my career, my work, and my goals, and my perspective.  

Thankfully (and painstakingly), I’ve since discovered that my work will always land somewhere in the intersection of education, technology, student success, and leadership. They summarize the themes, goals, and driving forces behind every move I’ve made so far…with the right reserved to change my mind as I see fit (realistic, right?).

With that, the next path in that journey has presented itself. This month I’m joining the Education Design Lab team to work with traditional and non-traditional higher education institutions, entrepreneurs in edtech, nonprofits serving the space, and foundations attempting to scale impact to create human-centered solutions using design thinking (which I’ve mentioned a little about, as have others; wink wink nudge nudge Dustin Ramsdell, and I’ll be sharing lots more on in the weeks and months ahead) to design education for the future of work. The work they’re doing is just impressive. I’ve watched their work from afar, and when paths cross fortuitously (a story for another time), it’s hard to ignore.

So presented with the opportunity to serve as a designer, facilitator, trainer, and strategic advisor, it’s humbling to consider the ways in which my role might help to encourage and guide changes to assist students successfully through their educational pursuits, and be prepared for their careers and life afterwards.

My work will start by exploring alternate conceptions of the bootcamp space, engaging change management for the implementations of edtechs, and beyond– I’m so excited to get started!

The first 60 days: A retrospective

I’ve officially completed my first two months at The Iron Yard. I’ve moved the campus to a location across the hall from our permanent space, navigated the halfway point through graduation of my first student cohort, built connections with our existing and growing advisory board of local tech companies, and continued to develop our strategy for engaging our next cohort of students starting this October.

I’ve connected with tech influencers and reporters in DC, developed the foundation for additional partnerships for the DC Campus, and assisted with the expansion of the DC operations and team.  I’ve attended meetups, met with representatives across higher education, non-profits, k-12 education, local and national government, business developers, recruiters, developers, and even started writing a little code myself.

crashcourse_brianfleduc_codingI’ve navigated everything from difficult student conversations, regulatory visits, and challenges with furniture deliveries.This role feels like the synthesis of the broad range of my experiences, requiring operational acumen, relationship management, community engagement, student support, marketing and branding.

And despite being challenging and frustrating (as any fire hose of new information and experiences can be) at times,it’s been a blast.

I look forward to this week, and to “Demo Day“– the “reveal” of our student’s work to the DC technology community to an audience of more than 50- one that serves as the physical representation of the network, community, and connections that I’ve been so lucky to build through meetups, coffee, emails, and social media over the last two months.

What’s more, I’m excited for the work ahead at The Iron Yard, and the dedication and commitment to increasing diversity in technology that’s been shared and supported by the highest ranks of our government.  A bright path is ahead!

My Next Step

IMG_0747It’s hard to believe that over 2 and a half years ago I packed up my life in Georgia and made my way to DC- it feels like it’s been home for so much longer than that. Even moreso, I’m thankful to have spent that time working for a firm doing some of the most innovative work in higher education research and technology.  I’ve learned an incredible amount during my time at EAB, and had the opportunity to work with so many amazing teammates both here and across dozens of Universities. I presented and sat across the table from Board of Trustee members, Presidents, and Provosts, Deans, Faculty, Academic Advisors, Tutors, and my student affairs counterparts at large, flagship state universities and small private institutions alike.

The experience was a lesson in life outside of higher ed while getting the crash course in what makes an academic leader tick.  I’m so thankful for the relationships, skills, and opportunities that resulted; a polish of presentation, relationship and project management, case study design, data analysis, and so many others- it afforded me chances to maintain my professional networks in ACPA and NASPA, and expand into terrain as foreign as improv with courses by The Second City.  I faced some of my greatest professional hurdles as I adapted to an entirely new type of organizational culture and became acquainted with a host of new skill sets. I watched as Universities I worked with closely were highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, and Inside Higher Ed, and had the opportunity to present in front of the most senior ranks of leadership at The Advisory Board Company including its’ CEO.

That said, when opportunities knock that are impossible to ignore, I answer.  So a jump is in the works– next week I’ll be starting as the Campus Director at the DC Campus of The Iron Yard, an international code academy providing 12-week immersive boot camps to folks interested in learning front-end or back-end development. I’ll be the voice of TIY in DC, responsible for the entire student lifecycle (from recruitment to job placement in tech firms across the DMV area), operations of the campus, and support of the instructor and operations teams- a natural synthesis across my residence life, student services, advising, and student success experiences alongside my exposure to tech through EAB.

It’s an opportunity to work with non-traditional career changers as an advisor, career coach, and cheerleader, while broadening and honing skill sets to carry me forward.

As I’ve mentioned before, I suspect that higher education and the private sector are likely to discover points of intersection by way of enrollment and partnership, and I look forward to building my skill set and background with the ability to influence and shape that future!

The New World of Higher Education Administrators (that don’t work at your University)

Since my transition from a “traditional pathway” in higher education administration working for a University, I’ve become more and more sensitive to the various ways that future higher education leaders are building and complimenting their higher education experiences with valuable skill sets in other industries while maintaining their connection to serving higher education.

It seems, at least in part, this is the result of “The Outsourced College” which Dave Jarrat of InsideTrack notes, is the result of “[universities]…going through a process of discovery of determining what is their core competency — what do they want to own — and what services are available that they can leverage.”

Since leaving my work as  an administrator on a college campus nearly 3 years ago, I’ve spoken to dozens of young pros and graduate students and read several stories of folks who are interested in a change of pace, exploring alternative pathways to specific skill sets, or anticipating the changes across the industry, and I wonder what the long-term impacts of this evolution might be.  When they leave, where do they go, and will they come back? And if they don’t what are the implications of this for the field as a whole?

While the Bureau Labor Statistics projects “faster than average growth” in Postsecondary Education Administrator jobs across the next 8 years, as this reflects a median salary of 88K, I suspect that the type of role that sits in this category is likely representative of senior administration rather than the field at large.  In fact, Master’s degrees across a variety of Education, Teaching, and Curriculum disciplines were rated by PayScale as among the “worst” degrees in 2016 given their long-term growth, median salary, and job satisfaction and stress.

Maybe better than observing that pros are leaving or exploring when they leave, is asking questions around why they’re leaving. Many (state) Universities establish long-term benefits related to tenure in Teacher Retirement Systems, as well as tuition reimbursements, but fall short when it comes to the incremental pay, incentives, and title increases that categorize growth and engagement– the ladder for growth and engagement at the University isn’t clear, and isn’t aligned with evaluation metrics or incentives.

Furthermore, it’s all too often that colleagues joke with me about their limited job growth because of department leaders who have held their seat for a significant portion of their career.  It leaves little room for a fresh, young, idealistic, energetic employee interested in confronting systemic problems or complex challenges at the University.  It creates tension around forcing the new kids on the block to either “find their counterparts” and advocate for grassroots change to make their own way or “wait their turn.”  The result? Young, fresh, enthusiastic pros honing their skills at one University to lead at another while incrementally climb the ladder while skipping across states and functional areas.

But before we entertain the critiques on millenials as “job hoppers,” let’s take a look at the data aside from some exceptionally good summative points; namely that  “we should be looking at our business practices and our human capital strategies. If we’re seeing turnover rise in roles that are traditionally held by people who are 20-34, it’s not them. It’s us,” a review of BLS data shows that “job hopping” is no more prevalent in practical terms today than it was for either Gen X or Boomers, and it raises some tough questions:

  • How does higher education adjust incentives to align with known practices to increase employee retention? Is this an acknowledged risk, problem or priority?
  • How do hiring practices within higher education react to pauses or punctuated experience in traditional higher education roles? What is the hiring process reaction to “outsiders?”
  • What does higher education risk or sacrifice by undervaluing experiences tangentially related to the  industry?

In many fields, the type of job retention stats outlined above might be easily overlooked, noting that middle management is remaining in positions once they’ve settle into their career and a company that they’ll spend a significant portion of their career in, and retire (those same folks that entry level professional look at occupying positions they long to occupy) from; but there’s a nuance that may be easily overlooked in higher ed.  Those same entry-level professionals churning based on their lack of growth, opportunity, or new challenges are the same pros who are on the front-lines working with students who senior administrators largely depend on to support and ensure a students’ success.

A students’ dissatisfaction reflects a bad conversation with an academic advisor, or a organization advisor that exits mid-semester– and the moral imperative and emotional connection that we invest in watching students succeed ultimately won’t keep staff who yearn to achieve in seat for very long (without the right tools for engagement).

While I work as a higher education consultant supporting student success through the strategy and implementation of a technology, I still consider myself a higher education administrator at heart, and I haven’t seen my last day working directly for a University. But before it will reenter my realm of consideration, a cultural shift will have emerged that reflects the need to approach problems in innovative ways, take risks, fail smart, and adapt to the workforce and cultural needs that it supports.

And it’s clear that I’m not alone.  I’ve seen an incredible number of members of the student affairs community online engaging in this discussion, exploring opportunities, and taking the leap from traditional work in student affairs to engaging their skills gained in education administration in new ways.  What’s more is they are met with an expansive, and growing market of opportunities.  Young  startups companies who have a product but need a terrain expert with a strong network.  And technology companies are already more heavily recruiting professionals with liberal arts, humanities, and other ‘non-technical’ backgrounds because of their ability to “connect with end users and figure out what they want.”  If you’re curious, EdSurge has created a guide outlining research and resources to make the leap.

Taken in sum with the evolving trends of the “outsourcing” within higher education, the result is a more competitive job market for the attentions and talents of student affairs pros to engage their skills in a different way within higher education, and an  industry that may increasingly require the ability to engage meaningfully with other sectors that support what represent core student affairs functions today as Dave outlined above.

So with the question below at-hand; what changes do you think need to be made to engage this evolving climate?

The Number One Challenge Students and Organizational Advisors are Facing, and Other Insights

As you might have seen, I’ve been investigating the concept of the Advisor Role in Organizational Development and Growth through a surveys on Facebook and Twitter to better understand the depth of understanding that advisors have around organizational challenges, as well as their preparedness and approaches to assist student organizations to overcome the challenges that they are experiencing.  I’m  still unpacking the results as a whole, but there are a few insights that I thought might be interesting, and would generate some meaningful fodder along the way.

Before I start, what I didn’t mention is that I’ve also been pursuing student reactions around these same questions (both via survey and more qualitatively through one-on-one interviews), and a few interesting things are bubbling to the surface.

Most Organization Advisors Surveyed have between 4-6 and 10+ years experience

There were two larger groups that emerged from the survey respondents– professionals with between 4-6 years experience, and 10+ years experience, with a significant majority (95%) classifying themselves as Student Affairs Administrators (n=20).

Advisors and Students Agree Around Primary Organizational Challenge
Of the challenges shared in the qualitative responses from Advisors, I coded 6 primary categories of organizational challenges that I then shared across several different Facebook groups (full of Student Organization Advisors, and students, respectively).  Combining these responses, there were two organizational challenges that far outweighed others in frequency, with nearly one-third of Organization Advisors, and nearly half of student leaders, identifying Member Retention being the primary organizational challenge that their organization is facing.
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Advisor Survey Results (n=123)
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Student Survey Results (n=42)







Advisors Feel Confident they Understand Student Organization Challenges, Less feel Comfortable Facing Them

While 70% of advisors “Strongly Agree” that they understand the problems facing their organization, the majority of advisors felt less comfortable in their ability to assist students in facing those challenges, and about half of advisors said they have a defined plan in place to  confront challenges facing their organizations (n=23).


Moreover, when asked how they confront the challenges that their organizations are facing, the  answers varied widely, and rarely incorporated specific frameworks.  With that said, the most common approaches involved students in “brainstorming” solutions.

These insights represent just the beginning of my exploration of the topic (both in research, and in synthesis).  I have a framework and a theory in mind that I believe can serve as the starting point to effectively equip student organization advisors, and students, to confront the challenges that they’ve identified in their organizations.


The Role of an Advisor in Organizational Growth and Development

I’ve had a lot of nudges thinking back to my work directly with students over the last week or so (including Stanford’s work using Design Thinking to completely reimagine the future of higher education and Christina Wellhouser’s post on Leaving Higher Ed), and I think about how different my work and its style looks now compared to the way it did as a a student affairs professional.  I realize that I now approach at my work from an entirely different place (partially given the scale and scope of the initiatives we’re focused on), having stepped into a consultative role with President’s and Provosts – but all it largely starts with identifying, agreeing upon, and understanding an agreed problem that we’re trying to solve.

There are a lot of different ways to approach getting to an initial problem and root cause, so I’m not going to focus on the philosophical approach that we take in the process of solving a problem- yet.

But given my background in student activities and leadership development, I couldn’t help but be drawn into focus on my current approach to problem solving compared to my approach when I was directly advising students.  Given the difference in audience between role, the style that is used to solve problems is likely to adapt, but the approach may have some consistency regardless of the context– and that’s what I’m curious about across advisors on your campus.

Often referred to as the place that we “get students involved,” there are an incredible number of opportunities to engage students in learning and skill development outside of the classroom, often focused around critical thinking and problem solving.  I’ve long thought of student involvement as a “leadership lab,” but continue to believe that there is still work to be done— and I’m interested in learning more about the landscape with all of you, and sharing my hypotheses, lessons, and prototypes along the way.

So, if you’re willing, tell me more about your approach to advising student organizations to facilitate their development, and share the link to the form below with other student organization advisors on your campus (find some scripting to copy/paste into an email below)- this is just the beginning




A colleague of mine is hoping to learn more about how we understand, engage, and initiate organizational growth and development for student’s in organizations that we advise.  Click here to take the 10 question survey (only takes about 7 minutes), and you can read more background around him and his work here.


What Your Next Transcript Might Look Like (and who is working on it)

I’ve already used this space to provide some context for the disruption that’s coming from recent developments in federal financial aid, code academies and the possible disruptions that (could) take place. Others outline the broader skills/bootcamps/credentialing landscape more succinctly, so I won’t focus time in this post on that topic– in summary, because it’s no longer a matter of if, but when these initiatives will begin to really take root; and we’re getting close. Why? Because Foundations, Universities, Think Tanks, and Startups are already sowing ground on the topic.

While the early conceptions of College Credit Recommendation Service facilitated by ACE (established in 1974) have aimed to “connect workplace learning with colleges and universities by helping students gain access to academic credit for formal training taken outside traditional degree programs,” a new  era of assessing, capturing, and translating learning seems to be  underway.

The Lumina Foundation (a University Innovation Alliance (UIA) Partner) have provided grant funding to American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (in the ballpark of ~$1.4M for this particular project, although  it feels like a few hundred million have been spread across the various projects I’ll reference in this post) in supporting a number of innovative Universities specifically on the topic of an alternative transcript (to include both “curricular and co-curricular” student learning outcomes). More broadly, Lumina has a defined strategic priority of grantees focused on “Alternative Credentialing”  that has (at least some) roots back to work in 2008 around Degree Qualifications Profiling, developing out a “set of reference points for what students should know and be able to do upon completion of associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees – in any field of study” (DQP).

Along with involvement in the UIA and alongside the Lumina Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (among a number of others) are working with EDUCAUSE to partner around exploring a set of Next Generation Learning Challenges along 2- and 4-year institutions to explore innovative competency-based learning models.

In short– once we understand and agree upon how we assess, we connect the dots around what data we collect, how it’s captured, and the way it’s displayed.

And some are actually already exploring.  IPASS (Integrated Planning and Advising for Student Success) Grants have networks and connections across nearly all of these other groups, reflecting the effect that downwind, the technologies that track and measure progress, and the systems and infrastructure that support learning process that are skill and competency based, will require a different-in-kind approach.

Degreed is working on “Jailbreaking the Degree,” capturing learning across any number of points of interaction– MOOCs, online coursework, Podcasts, and Boot Campus (as a few) noting “there is no single path to expertise.” As an enterprise and “lifelong  learner” solution, it will force the hand of others to take action to continue to remain relevant.

And you might be thinking ‘yes, lot’s of people are talking,’ and ‘what does this have to do with my transcript?’ I’m confident that with Foundations planting seeds, Universities engaging, and ACE continuing to integrate the topic into conversations with Senior Academic Leaders (as recently as last month), we’re only getting started.  Industry continues to reflect that students aren’t entering the job market with the skills needed to be successful, and code academies (among numerous others), are trying to supplement the gaps to ensure that employees have both the opportunities and the preparation to explore new terrains as they appear.

While many Universities have taken a dive head first with establishing badges or other micro-credentials, others are betting on a human-centric design approach, and (alongside partners like Lumina and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), are engaging Design Thinking to explore the  problem, understand the challenges, and prototype solutions in a thoughtful, concerted way.  Very, very cool- higher education taking it’s own reflection, research, and innovative, iterative processing and trying new things- noting just how difficult it may feel.  Kathleen deLaski described it perfectly, noting that many university leaders were frustrated with “how to build the new plane while flying the old one,” but seeing several university leaders I work with in my higher education consulting practice pictured taking part in these activities further solidified my promise in our progress.

So while your transcript today reflects courses you checked off to earn a degree and the relative performance assessment given subjectively by your professor, someday in the (not so) distant future, it may be a living, breathing reflection of the knowledge, skills, and experienced gained throughout your experience along the way (globally across the institution), and assist in connecting the dots to engage a new industry or career (as a t-shaped professional, or otherwise).

The Arms Race in Technology Education: Smart HigherEd Partnerships and the Code Academy

Through my work in student success at a higher education research, technology, and consulting firm, I see and feel the pulse of higher education in the practice and influence on their policies, programs, and purse-strings every day. Universities are feeling declining enrollments,  increasingly more diverse student populations, unsustainable financial aid practices, and the value of college being brought into question through massive student loan debt, all of which have placed a premium and focus on quality education at scale while maintaining university enrollment by retaining students.  With my work in the growing technology arm of the firm, I find myself following closely the trends at the intersection of education and technology.

I would go so far as to say that innovations in technology (specifically the delivery of education in tech) will only place more pressure on universities to evolve, noting that economic trends and industry demands are likely to continue to create exert pressure on traditional higher education models.  In fact, in October the Department of Education announced a pilot partnership with “non-traditional providers” of post-secondary education, stating:

As part of ED’s experimental sites authority under HEA, EQUIP will accelerate and evaluate innovation through partnerships between colleges and universities and non-traditional providers of education, such as intensive “boot camps” building skills in particular fields, specific programs awarding certificates aligned to employer needs, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Eligible programs will lead to a degree or certificate, build students’ transferable academic credits, and provide students with the ever-changing skills they need for today’s economy. The experimental sites authority allows the Secretary to waive certain provisions regarding federal financial aid in order to improve the results achieved with federal student aid dollars. (Source: DOE Blog, Homeroom)

While in many ways this feels like the most divisive approach to supporting alternate forms of education, it also serves as a signal of things to come– federal pressure on higher education to consider more innovative, collaborative approaches that are skills-based, and economically driven.

In fact, some universities are already ahead of this curve, with SNHU Sandbox Collaborative positioning  central questions of their work on partnerships and “immersive learning,”: 

  • How can we better partner with government, business and industry to find solutions to the country’s most pressing challenges in higher education?
  • How do we participate in building the next generation of performance-based assessments and immersive learning environments? (Source: NextGen Learning)

In fact, SNHU has already begun taking steps in the direction of formalizing these types of partnerships.

Others, like General Assembly, are subtly taking note.  What’s more, visionaries in higher education like Arizona State University are formalizing tech-based partnerships like the Global Freshman Academy with edX, “a first-of-its-kind program that offers a unique entry point to an undergraduate degree” (Source:  And Apollo Education Group, the holding company of the University of Phoenix, is betting on Greenville, SC based code academy, The Iron Yard.

As private/public partnerships continue to become more commonplace, might there be a day when the code academy/highered partnership reflects the holistic education that has reinforced the value of the liberal arts?  With web and software developers, system analysts, and administrators occupying 4 of the top 10 most in-demand jobs of 2016 and growth projections from the Bureau of Labor statistics bullishly projecting demand for software developers ranging from 28% to 32% (depending on the type of software development), it’s a smart bet that we’d see partnerships grow, especially as recently noted by Forbes, liberal arts degrees are counted among “Tech’s Hottest Ticket.”  In a space where curriculum and job placement rates are the often touted differentiator, this point can’t be understated.

That said, in many ways, this isn’t a completely new idea– community partnerships have been a growing part of a universities local economic development and community engagement strategy.  My fear, however, is the saturation in the market as both higher education and tech begin to independently throw resources into the space.  With tech incubators, accelerators, code academies (or a hybrid), alongside co-working spaces and the culmination of all of the above, the start-up conception of this model is becoming more formalized across major markets.

However, as more and more universities launch “innovation centers” like the one at Michigan State University, I’m concerned higher educations’ investment in infrastructure over true innovation in the forward-thinking models in this space will be a missed bet.  As a result, the gray area in between ensures that the fast-paced innovation found in tech startups, and the proven student development and support models of higher education are overlooked in the process, hurting the fruits of both industries attempts to replicate and produce of successful characteristics of their counterpart.

One thing’s for sure- the innovative university, and the smart code academy will begin to think more and more strategically about formal partnerships with one another.  At least with so many code academies in the arms race for scale and entry into new markets throughout the United States, that’s my big prediction in higher ed across 2016.

What do you think?

UPDATE: 6/29/2016: Clinton introduces her plan for tech and higher ed: “The plan proposes $10 billion in federal funding (a significant amount in tight budget times, no matter who wins the election) for students to enroll in vetted boot camps, coding academies, massive open online courses and other programs run by alternative education providers, as well as providing unspecified rewards for colleges that accept those programs as credit toward graduation,” says Inside Higher Ed