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2020 Higher Ed Challenges Include Student Success, Financial Health

Educause and its membership have identified four challenges that higher education will face in the coming year:

  • Student success;
  • Financial health;
  • Reputation and relevance; and
  • External competition.

The issues surfaced in connection with survey and interview work done by Educause researchers as part of its annual effort to identify the top IT issues colleges and universities will face in the coming year.

The organization, which serves IT leaders in higher ed, began its work by interviewing 20 presidents, provosts and other non-IT senior-level leaders from the institutions of members on the 2019-2020 Educause IT Issues Panel. Those individuals identified 16 challenges, grouped into the four areas listed above. Then members of the Top 10 IT Issues panel were asked to consider how IT is addressing each challenge. Their notions, along with the previous year's IT issues list, made up a "slate of issues" from which people in the Educause community voted for their top issues. The final list of 10 was shared at last year's annual conference.

Educause elaborated on the challenges as follows:

  • Student success specifically encompassed persistence, retention and completion, as well as student engagement and overall outcomes.
  • Financial health was tied to shrinking enrollment, rising costs, a lack of traditional forms of funding and "natural disasters," which are "negatively impacting the higher education experience."
  • Reputation and relevance: In a "turbulent" political climate, the concept of higher ed is being targeted for affordability; and the relevance of its academic programs and services is being questioned.
  • External competition: Colleges and universities are facing an onslaught of alternative credentialing, various forms of employer-based learning and competition from schools in other parts of the world, wooing international students to their campuses.

"For higher education to meet these challenges, nothing less than transformative change will do," the organization stated in its latest Educause Review, which examines the top IT issues in detail. According to the Review, digital transformation (Dx) "is the mechanism for such change," defined by the report 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."

"The journey will be long and unpredictable, the report asserted. "It begins with shoring up existing foundations via simplification and sustainability. It picks up speed with innovation. The integrative CIO will help ensure a smooth ride to the right destination."

The idea of the "integrative CIO" is that the roles of the top IT leaders need to be repositioned or reinforced "as an integral strategic partner of institutional leadership" in supporting the school's mission.

According to Susan Grajek, vice president for Educause's Communities and Research division, 13 percent of colleges and universities are engaging in digital transformation today; a third (32 percent) are developing a Dx strategy and another 38 percent of institutions are "exploring" Dx. That leaves 16 percent of colleges and universities "investing no time in Dx," she noted.

As an example of how CIOs are becoming strategic leaders for their schools, Grajek offered this: For information security strategy, identified as the No. 1 IT issue for the year, the integrative CIO might consider more flexible options for obtaining the skilled cybersecurity experts their institutions need, including hiring contractors or identifying people with skills in change management and people management and then training them in cybersecurity to help them acquire the technical skills needed for the job. The integrative CIO might also recognize that artificial intelligence can provide "more effective network analysis and threat-hunting capabilities," she wrote.

"The road to digital transformation is sure to be uncomfortable and unpredictable. But unlike most other industries, higher education has an inherent advantage: it is highly collaborative," Grajek observed. "If you don't want to venture on the road to digital transformation by yourself, you can join a caravan of like-minded peers at institutions supported by systems, consortia, and/or professional associations like Educause."

The latest Educause Review, which provides coverage of all the issues and challenges, along with additional resources, is openly available on the organization's website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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