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After the year that just ended, I think the predictions market is dead for now. I certainly won’t be making any for 2021.

Last January, I focused this newsletter’s first edition of the new year on three things to watch for in 2020 and beyond. Along the same vein, today’s newsletter will look at three things I’m thinking about this year as I begin work on several new projects.

? Link up on LinkedIn: In an effort to tell stories through a different medium, I’ll be more active on LinkedIn Live this year. While you may already follow my personal page there, consider following this new professional page I created on LinkedIn to keep up with the latest in higher ed.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

1. The Student Experience

Over the summer, I hosted a small virtual gathering of enrollment chiefs at several colleges and universities. There was lots of talk about strategies to retain students during the pandemic, especially if they were learning remotely.

“Our student success efforts have been on auto-pilot,” one vice president said.

Why it matters: Since the Great Recession, the pressure has been on colleges and universities for improved retention, higher graduation rates, and more engaged students.

  • Over the last decade, colleges have invested heavily in academic advising to keep students on track, and more recently in mental health and wellbeing, understanding that students weren’t making it to graduation for more just than academic reasons.
  • Colleges also tried to prove their return on investment and value of their degrees through the outcomes of their graduates, specifically jobs and earnings (an issue I addressed in the last editon of this newsletter).
  • Author and investor Ryan Craig, along with many others, have argued that colleges need to do even more by adding skills training to their traditional curriculum (learning how to use Salesforce, for instance).

But, but, but: Such a narrow measure of ROI — the job after graduation — ignores the value of what happens in the intervening years when a student enrolls in college and before graduation.

  • Yes, campuses have focused on “services” to students, but they really haven’t connected them together and concentrated on the overall student experience.
  • While colleges may have succeeded in improving student advising, for instance, or career services, they haven’t reduced the friction between those offices, so that students feel less frustration going from the registrar to financial aid to their academic adviser.

What’s happening: This “student experience” — which includes every interaction a student has with an institution from the classroom to career services — is critical to shaping a college’s brand and overall performance.

  • Perhaps even more important, these experiences are linked to academic success and even graduates’ well-being.
  • Gallup research of college graduates has found a connection between what students do in college and how they fare later in life.

What’s next: The Chief Student Experience Officer.

  • Over the last year, I’ve seen a few colleges hire for such roles, taking a page from the corporate world and Chief Experience Officers.
  • Now while some might see yet more administrative bloat in such titles, in many ways these individuals bring a data-driven approach to recruitment, admissions, enrollment, advising, online learning — basically every interaction a student has on campus. And if they succeed in increasing retention and student satisfaction, they probably end up paying for themselves.
A classroom in the Learning Innovation Center at Oregon State University

2. The New Value Equation

If the first decade of this century in higher ed was about “student amenities” — the suite-style residence halls, sushi in the dining hall, the climbing wall — and the second decade about student services — advising and career services — what will the third decade focus on?

If you asked me a year ago, I might have said continued improvement of student services or increased attention to skills training and micro-credentials or lifelong learning.

  • While all three are still important, the pandemic has put pressure on the value of the classroom experience, too.

What’s happening: I’m hearing it from parents of undergraduates all the time — that their kids are home learning online and for the first time they see what they’re paying for. And many parents, as we know, aren’t happy.

  • While some colleges have discounted their remote semesters, it’s by a tiny amount, maybe 5% or 10%.
  • Institutional investment in classrooms over the last decade has largely focused on the “plumbing” — software and infrastructure to encourage more active learning (getting rid of formal lecture halls with inflexible seating, for example).
  • Some colleges have also focused on teaching and learning centers to improve how professors approach their courses, which paid off during the pandemic for faculty members who didn’t simply present a lecture on Zoom.

What’s next: The classroom as an integrated learning experience — between face-to-face and online delivery and between instructor-led learning, peer learning, and personalized learning.

  • Like the student experience, academic leaders are asking how their departments can improve the classroom experience for students to encourage more active, independent, and hands-on learning.
  • There’s been lots of experimentation with teaching during the pandemic, so expect some of it to stick and put pressure on deans and faculty members to think differently about the classroom when we return to some sort of normalcy.

3. Navigating Ambiguity

Over the break, I read “The Plague Year,” an epic piece by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker about how the mistakes piled up in dealing with the coronavirus.

There was one passage that struck me, an extended quote from Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security advisor who just resigned this week:

Pottinger’s White House experience has made him acutely aware of what he calls “the fading art of leadership.” It’s not a failure of one party or another; it’s more of a generational decline of good judgment. “The élites think it’s all about expertise,” he said. It’s important to have experts, but they aren’t always right: they can be “hampered by their own orthodoxies, their own egos, their own narrow approach to the world.” Pottinger went on, “You need broad-minded leaders who know how to hold people accountable, who know how to delegate, who know a good chain of command, and know how to make hard judgments.”

Why it matters: Pottinger’s point about “broad-minded leaders” reminded me of an argument in David Epstein’s bestselling book, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. In the book, he takes aim at how colleges have designed majors to focus students on narrow fields without developing competencies to apply learning across disciplines.

  • Before the pandemic, in my talks to college leaders I was encouraging them to help students better navigate the ambiguity of the century ahead — one where automation and artificial intelligence might not only eat entire jobs but take over the routine tasks of most jobs.
  • The skills needed to navigate ambiguity are those broad set of competencies we think students get in college, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and communication.
  • But in our focus on the ROI of a degree and getting undergraduates into the job market, I fear we’re missing the forest by putting so much emphasis on the trees — that is, specific majors and their skills.

Bottom line: In the aftermath of the Great Recession, majors that students and their parents perceived led to jobs — mostly business and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) won out. The humanities, even at selective universities and liberal-arts colleges, lost and witnessed big declines in enrollments.

  • My hope (but not my expectation) is that our interest in helping students navigate a very different world after this pandemic will renew our faith in majors that help them think, synthesize, write, and develop a growth mindset for what’s next. And, yes, we also need to give them specific job skills.


What’s Next for Enrollment
An informative data visualization from McKinsey about trends in demographics, how they might impact enrollment, and where the opportunities are for colleges. (

FAFSA’s Expected Family Contribution Is Going Away. Good Riddance.
The dollar figure that the federal financial aid form spits out has long left families confused and despondent. And then there are those great expectations. (

How the Pandemic Is Imperiling a Working-Class College
As a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I visited Indiana University of Pennsylvania three times for stories over the years. So this piece about its financial problems, and those of regional public universities in many states, is an interesting read about how the issues showing up now were planted years ago. (

College Admissions and Testing During the Pandemic
As we get to the home stretch of the college application season, I joined the PBS NewsHour to talk about how the pandemic is upending admissions for the Class of 2021. (

Until next time, Cheers — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...