Removing the Barriers to Innovation in Higher Ed Management

2020-09-23T18:01:36+00:00October 04, 2017|

Back in 2015, Moody’s Investors Service predicted that closures of small, private colleges would triple through 2017 and, if anything, the industry’s financial challenges have worsened since. Reported Inside Higher Ed in July 2017, the industry is experiencing its fourth consecutive year of higher education school closures.

With multiple forces of change in play — such as the decreasing population of high school students, greater competition in the form of online education, the emergence of free tuition plans, tumultuous politics and more — how do you take an institution with a proud, multi-decade history and give it the nimble legs it needs to survive in this climate?

Manage Change, Mitigate Risk

In our talks with college presidents across the nation, we are hearing that these leaders are looking for ways to adapt, but are unsure how to begin. They want to be mindful of risk, yet also engage faculty and stakeholders who often have competing goals.

What I would like to suggest today is that opportunities to improve efficiencies and competitiveness are present throughout all parts of a college. Even small improvements can have a large impact. Change can be managed and risk mitigated. I’ll share some barriers that keep colleges from embracing change and then I’ll tell you about an approach to innovation that’s been around for a while called design thinking. We’ve seen a couple of colleges apply this philosophy with success. I’ll give you one example from a partner college and another from one of our in-house teams that uses design thinking to achieve objectives for colleges.

A Fresh Approach that Creates Value

Few would argue that when industries go through disruption, innovation is needed. But knowing how and what to innovate can be elusive. In order to get started, let’s untangle what innovation really is. defines innovation as follows:

“The process of translating an idea or invention into a good or service that creates value for which customers will pay. To be called an innovation, an idea must be replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need.”

I’d break that down further and simply say that innovation is a fresh approach that creates value.


One of the main barriers to innovation in higher ed is when organizational leaders try to do too much, too soon. There is no need to boil the ocean.

Instead, start with one discrete piece of the problem you are trying to solve. It could be tied to marketing, admissions, programming or technology. Given that prospective students have so many options today, we recommend you prioritize a goal of offering the most positive student experience you can in all of those areas.

Another barrier to innovation is when leaders skip ahead to implementation prior to running tests on what solutions might work. Testing ideas is a critical part of generating practical, sustainable solutions, but it’s not something that most people practice. In many ways, we’ve been trained to value backward-looking data without tying it to emerging data on how people are changing.

Many of us have also been trained to avoid failure, but the nature of testing requires that we expect and embrace it. Innovative breakthroughs are often discovered in a lab environment once you’re allowed to break things, miss the mark and embrace outcomes we’ve been trained to shun. Indeed, by testing, you protect the systems you are relying on until you are fully prepared to implement a new approach. This minimizes risk and makes the transition to new solutions easier for all involved.

It is critical to recognize that learning from the failure of prototype testing offers invaluable insights. Testing ideas is also a good way to learn quickly.

Other barriers can result from engaging a problem at a distance that is too far from your end users. It can be tempting to gather your department heads and brainstorm. But instead, we recommend engaging the people on the frontlines of your organization: admissions, marketing, technology and students. Ask them about their pain points.

Many leaders are tempted to address a problem by conducting a survey; but again, we encourage you to get closer to your students’ experience. The philosophy of design thinking encourages a more hands-on approach. The Interaction Design Foundation characterizes it as solving problems by “observing, engaging and empathizing with people to understand their experiences and motivations as well as immersing yourself in the physical environment to have a deeper personal understanding of the issues involved.”

Immersing yourself or assigning a team of subject matter experts to immerse themselves in the user’s experience brings clarity. There’s less chance of information getting lost in translation through reports or survey results. Immersion also tends to bring forth the subtle, specific details that either encourage or impede the user, allowing you to identify what could be minor but high-impact adjustments. This approach also allows subject matter experts to get involved sooner and bypasses the need for stakeholders to lobby for outcomes that may or may not help other groups or the overall system. (Yet, stakeholder considerations are still integrated through the “empathy” step of design thinking.)

Move from Tolerate to Accelerate

Sometimes the most useful innovations are those that solve problems we have tolerated to the point that we have learned to ignore them. For such problems, a fresh approach can be quite valuable, as you will see in our upcoming example from the University of North Alabama.

But first, I’ll give you a few more benefits of design thinking. One is that it gets you out of discussion and into action — and not just any action, but meaningful action. Another is that you can apply it in short sprints, thus minimizing the risk of taking on too many unknowns at once.

While we don’t always call it design thinking, Collegis Education often practices this philosophy. Next are a couple of examples of how this has played out with our partner colleges.

Successes: University of North Alabama

The University of North Alabama (UNA) has adopted an attitude of innovation that we applaud. They review their enrollment process, from inquiry to start, on a quarterly basis. Every task and activity is gone over in detail. Along the way, each part is examined to determine whether:

  • The student experience is the best it can be.
  • UNA’s resources are being properly focused on enrolling/talking to students, instead of being consumed with processing work (otherwise known as busy work).
  • Technology could assist in taking over this busy work so that more staff time may be spent working directly with students.

Over time, UNA has achieved the following:

  • For students who have submitted a complete application, UNA can now move from inquiry to acceptance within 24 hours – in contrast with the previous standard of 4-6 weeks.
  • 40 additional hours per year for staff to interact with students — all gained simply by eliminating the need for staff to key in phone numbers.

Believe it or not, once UNA began tracking small tasks, they realized that the act of dialing the phone to call prospective students had been adding up to 40 hours per year of staff time — before the person even began speaking. How could this be? Well, when you consider that the staff person has to look up the phone number, pause to memorize it as they transfer it into the phone, and perhaps redial if they happen to miskey a number, then suddenly it’s clear how the act of dialing a phone can become time-consuming.

Dialing a phone seems small and inconsequential. Yet, once the automated system was in place, staff needed only to click the phone number displayed on their computer screen and the connection would be made. In the time that was previously taken to dial, the staff member can now use that time to scan through the prospective student’s file or review their inquiry in order to be more prepared for the conversation.

This is important because prospective students are looking for personal attention. Also, data has shown that enrollment improves when admissions teams can respond quickly to inquiries. The best results occur when an admissions team is able to respond within 24 hours.

What We’ve Learned

At Collegis Education, we apply the elements of design thinking internally as well. Understanding that our partners want and need to see fast results, we decided to create a special mix of talent that would be dedicated solely to the onboarding of a new partner. We call this the Ramp Team. In order to make the most of every moment, the Ramp Team is allowed to work exclusively on the new partner’s goals, applying all of their best insights on college marketing, digital tools, media buying, design, user experience and more to create the basics needed to launch a student recruitment campaign.

One of our key learnings from this experience is that the Ramp Team works because it is made up of people who have skills to contribute (rather than only end-users or stakeholders). This is different from allowing stakeholders to take the lead. Of course, we still work to understand how stakeholders are impacted and they certainly get a chance to react to our tests. But it is when we unleash the expertise of a diverse team of subject matter experts that we break through and discover solutions.

At first, the Ramp Team was created to challenge ourselves to see just how quickly we could activate a campaign. But now, we use this approach for all of our new partners.

As we look at higher education as a whole, there is no lack of tools and technology that seem modern and helpful. But what these need is a force to unite them in order to make them valuable to both students and your college. Rather than search for tools, we’d encourage you to ask, “How can we add value to the student and staff experience here? How can we make each operational task we ask of them simple, intuitive and pleasurable?”

User-Friendly Systems Clear the Way for Student Success

The value for both the college and the student is that when systems are easy to use, students are free to focus on selecting their college, getting enrolled and learning.

Consider: How easy is it to find your college online: Is your college showing up at the top of online search results? Regarding programming and course content, are you offering options that are meaningful to employers and students? Is there a wait-listed course that could be offered online?

Rather than lead with tools, identify bottlenecks and busy work that could be eliminated through fresh approaches. Seek the data that can determine if your hunches are correct. As you begin to identify solutions, test them first. Revise as needed, then test again.

Innovation isn’t a project or an initiative. It is a culture that needs to be nurtured and developed. Through design thinking philosophies that include empathy for the end user, testing, learning from failure and regular review, your teams will become better equipped to home in on the areas that can make a difference.

About the Author
James Cowie
President and Chief Executive Officer, Collegis Education, as well as Trustee Emeritus of Colby College and Life Trustee of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Education: Colby College and Stanford University