"Is College Worth It?" It's the headline that keeps popping up everywhere in higher education and national headlines. That's because more than half of adults don't think the economic benefits of a college degree outweigh the cost. With enrollment declining, and growing pressure to demonstrate return on investment, more institutions are rising to the challenge, making serious efforts to measure and explain their value.
Next year and beyond, tech capabilities on campus will have a big role to play in determining ROI for students, as well as aiding colleges and universities in their institutional effectiveness endeavors. By leveraging new digital technologies and data-driven analytics, colleges are slowly but surely equipping themselves with the data and metrics they need to prove their value to stakeholders. Or, at minimum, they have begun looking into the tools and processes they will need moving forward to remain competitive and financially sustainable.
These tools and processes include digital technology adoption to enhance and improve: affordability and access; student success outcomes; digital credentials (CLR); upgrades in finance and operations; and more. The critical components that contribute to overall institutional effectiveness are also part of the larger digital transformation (Dx) taking place on college campuses.
Educause defines Dx as, "a series of deep and coordinated culture, workforce, and technology shifts that enable new educational and operating models and transform an institution's operations, strategic directions, and value proposition …. Keeping up with Dx helps higher education institutions operate effectively, stay competitive in an increasingly digital world, and prepare learners for the digital workplace."
Amid all the chaos and change the pandemic caused for higher ed, it ended up being a significant catalyst for innovation, ushering in renewed interest in Dx. The first wave of Dx focused on digitizing key student facing processes. COVID and emergency remote teaching forced major changes in higher ed's systems and processes, bringing modernization to decades old practices.
The second wave of Dx involves key administrative processes focused on institutional success (not just digitizing old analog processes). Alignment with institutional success, now and in the future, means leading with a digital-first campus.
Heading into 2023, here are five Dx trends administrators should have on their radar:
1) Data Analytics: institutional performance and competitive advantage
Data analytics serve as the foundation for many improvement initiatives. Those initiatives need stable, reliable, and accessible data across the institution. This requires investment. Settling on a patchwork of systems and metrics is becoming a liability for institutions, especially taking into consideration the growing complexity around higher ed's business issues and the growing expectation from key stakeholders to support decisions with data.
2) Online Learning: affordability, access and skills-based learning
College students increasingly expect their schools to offer some online and/or hybrid learning courses, in addition to having access to online counseling and other social activities. With the popularity of more affordable and less time-intensive microcredentials available online, four-year institutions will have to consider a mixed offering that also demonstrates value to employers for skills-based learning. Over 90% of HR professionals value alternative credentials that teach job-related skills, as more employers are stripping away the college degree requirement for job applicants.
3) Comprehensive Learner Record (CLR): modernizing credentials
In line with the above, institutions are transitioning to digitized and expanded transcripts to better demonstrate the ROI of degrees. The next stage is going beyond the traditional course and grade transcript to provide a more useful form of digital credentials that centers around skills-based learning and achievements. Forward-looking institutions are experimenting with comprehensive learner records to highlight the breadth and depth of a student's experience in curricular and cocurricular activities.
4) Assessment Automation: improving student learning outcomes
More rigorous approaches to assessment are needed for compliance, but can also be used more strategically for continuous improvement. Automation of outcomes assessment collection shortens cycles between assessment and improvement. For example, instead of pulling data once per year or once per term, it allows for real-time access so faculty and administrators can react more quickly and more frequently to make improvements in the classroom and intervene before students experience more severe complications. It's a win-win for students and staff accountability and operations.
5) Financial Intelligence: innovation upgrades are needed in the finance department too
Delivering reliable, relevant financial data that decisions can be made from is the CFO's obligation to the board and other key stakeholders. Accreditors are also watching more closely, making accreditation standards for financial accountability more stringent. Having automated financial data readily available and tools in place for planning across the department contributes to the overall financial sustainability of the institution. Therefore, CFOs and business officers must have access to the appropriate digital tools and processes that show evidence of their sustainable budgeting and ROI practices.
Many colleges and universities are well on their way to embracing and implementing digital tools and processes that signify the second wave of Dx. The days when keeping pace with tech was "nice to have" have officially ended. Today's higher ed leaders understand that keeping pace with technology is a matter of staying in business. They also understand that custom higher ed tech capabilities offer the fastest, most reliable way to make campuswide improvements, give students and parents what they're asking for, and show their worth.
While campuses will still go at their own pace (as they should), and budgets will vary greatly (as they do), much of the pre-pandemic resistance to change is lifting quickly. Understanding what's available now, and what's around the corner in terms of Dx is important - even if implementation is a long way out. Keeping pace with Dx innovations, and developing a short list of high-impact areas of improvement on your campus, is a great step in the right direction.
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