Higher ed institutions must make hard decisions about their physical and digital infrastructure to survive, navigate and thrive in this hybrid frontier.

From Pathify Magazine

Right now, higher education finds itself in a unique position, with public scrutiny and economic headwinds combining to create unique challenges. Only half the respondents to a recent New America survey feel it’s possible to find high-quality and affordable higher education. This in the wake of decades of society emphasizing college as the pathway to a brighter future.

On the economic side, the trend of college closures continues. Though not at the same rate as the height of 2016, The Hechinger Report recently stated 35 colleges closed in 2021 and 48 closed in 2022. They also stated the potential for more closures remains likely with the impending enrollment cliff on the horizon. You’re also seeing some institutions, such as the University of Akron in Ohio, make difficult budget decisions. In the last several years, Akron cut 80 degree programs, reduced their athletics teams and laid off hundreds of faculty and staff

This trend of cutbacks is a sign of the times. Shippensburg University President Charles Patterson noted this recently in a popular Vox article, “deconstruction” will become the watchword as higher ed determines how to reconfigure for the future. This may seem dramatic, but for many institutions — budget dilemmas remain serious. Given the negative nature of “deconstruction,” we’ll be more optimistic by calling efforts here “right-sizing.” 

This term means adjusting an institution’s physical spaces and digital investments to its goals. It also means adapting to the reality of its scale and student population. For some colleges and universities, this may mean reconfiguring spaces on campus or even forgoing them. For others, it will mean streamlining digital infrastructure to better serve stakeholders.

Getting Creative with Physical Spaces

For a notable example of rethinking physical campuses, we go back to University of Akron. They recently made a large-scale investment in their esports program (competitive video gaming). Akron renovated existing space to reflect its commitment to its gaming community. 

Students now enjoy a specific area to congregate and build community with their fellow gamers. Before this, students had no physical space to forge new bonds with other students based on their shared interest in video games. 

University of Akron now maintains the largest physical arena space of any university in the world as well as one of the best programs in the country. While this took resources to grow and faced scrutiny, this gave Akron an asset to help it remain relevant and sustainable into the future. 

Institutions should consider making creative investments. For instance, many students use their own mobile devices or laptops to access class materials. Consider renovating computer lab spaces as esports arenas or virtual reality labs. It’s already primed for this use case while potentially creating a much more relevant asset. Also, look for opportunities to rethink older and smaller residence hall spaces. For example, adapt dormitories into staff and faculty offices or meeting spaces for students to replicate a coworking environment, all of which are often in high demand. At the University of Delaware, they remade an old dorm into a student wellness center, expanding the capacity of this often overwhelmed resource.

There is a lot of opportunity for creativity here; especially looking at spaces on campus and setting them up to become more modular and flexible. A lounge space in your student center might transform from a casual sitting room to an open event space for students to use — or even wire it for a large conference room. A classroom could be used for small in-person group discussions or broadcast worldwide for hybrid education experiences. Take a critical lens to your physical assets and start exploring what students want. Then you’ll be able to adapt underutilized places into modern amenities.

Creating Efficiencies Through Digital Ecosystems

From a digital perspective, there are a variety of tools to optimize the limited bandwidth of professionals on campus. A prominent option is utilizing a chatbot, such as Ivy.ai or Ocelot, to automate low level inquiries from students and community members. This eases the massive influx of emails, phone calls and voicemails frontline service workers on campus deal with. Staff embed these chatbots into web pages and make it accessible via text messaging. For the times when a question can’t be answered by the automated assistant, it escalates the issue to the appropriate staff member to respond.

Another way to right-size from a digital perspective is to leverage a portal. This centralizes information rather than forcing students to constantly bounce between different content, departments and applications. Unwieldy websites for universities and colleges typically bury massive amounts of information and end up as a dumping ground for hundreds (or thousands) of links. Empowering students to be more self-sufficient to find answers will delight them, allowing the student to ask more nuanced questions, better pointing them toward goals. 

One final example would be to unify student support efforts through one tool. Traditionally called “Customer Relationship Management” platforms, CRM platforms provide advisors and staff a single place to track all the activities for a particular student. These tools also easily connect with other platforms, including the LMS and SIS. Unfortunately, some campuses end up running redundant CRM platforms across various departments. It is crucial for students as well as for advisors and staff to centralize an institution-wide CRM to share across campus. Having this be a tool that is more accessible allows everyone to work smarter and better together.

A major point with these digital investments is efficiency. They empower students to not wait or rely on staff and faculty for support. They get just-in-time resolution at any time of day. They also allow staff and faculty to focus on where to spend their time and expertise, such as planning for the future and addressing complex issues. Any combination of these strategies will help institutions manage their bandwidth effectively.

Emergence of “Digital-First” Thinking

What you’re seeing emerging in higher education now is what we’ll call a “digital-first” mindset as institutions create new strategies. More students study online while institutions with limited resources struggle to find additional funds supportive of hybrid learning. So how will smart digital investments create modern, efficient and delightful student experiences? We will examine the digital-first university in future blog content as higher ed continues to navigate the hybrid frontier. 

Right-sizing will look different for every institution. The correct approach will depend on their unique context, history, values and resources. Even so, the question at hand now isn’t if colleges will right-size themselves — but how and when. The broader competitive environment for higher ed right now demands improvement. How will your school become more lean and effective for social mobility?

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