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  • Dr. Mary Darden

Seven Essential Words/Concepts for Higher Education Success Now and for the Future

By Dr. Mary Landon Darden, Futurist, Founder and President of HEI, and Author of Entrepreneuring the Future of Higher Education: Radical Transformation in Times of Profound Change

March 15, 2021

With the hope of the demise of Covid-19 and the promise of significant additional federal funding breathing new life into struggling colleges and universities, who will be ready to capitalize on these emerging opportunities for higher education? Here are seven essential word-concepts that can help to shape institutional preparation for success today and in the days ahead.


More than ever, higher education must be about building strong interpersonal bridges, trust, support, and by immediately implementing effective and supportive communications. These relationships need to be both internal (with prospective students, students, and colleagues) and external (with business, industry, government, communities and citizens). We simply can no longer wait for students to apply and come through our doors. We must increase our ability and dedicate the time and necessary effort to build these bridges. In a time of decreasing enrollment and traditional forms of financial support, our futures depend upon it. A good bridge-building resource is a book by my friend Elon University President Emeritus Leo Lambert along with Peter Felten Relationship-Rich University: How Connections Drive Success in College.


The past is a distant country. Teaching the materials, courses, programs we have taught, or using admissions procedures that we have used for decades are no longer be enough to either help us survive or evolve into what we need to be for our students or society. We must now ask ourselves the hard questions: Is what I am teaching relevant to today’s – and tomorrow’s – society and job market? How do we need to change our recruiting and admissions processes to be successful with today’s prospective student market?


It used to take most prospective college students many months and sometimes years to order take standardized tests, study catalogues, write essays, mail off applications and then wait for many months to hear whether or not they were accepted to a college. Today’s students – once they have decided to apply for college – will decide where to apply within days, will apply any time night or day, and will often pursue enrollment at the first college that connects with them personally (which is, with the more proactive schools, frequently within seconds or minutes of the first student outreach). The college that waits a day or two to respond to an inquiry has very likely lost that student. Higher education has traditionally moved slowly. Those who continue to do so will likely not survive the race.


The traditional model of higher education – primarily fall and spring 14-week semesters meeting classes 8-5 p.m. Monday through Friday is no longer the effective model. Our current market of prospective students (about 85 percent of that market) are non-traditions (older than the 18-22 traditional market, often with families and fulltime jobs). In non-Covid recent years, the vast majority of adults in America work – most fulltime. And 87 percent of those employees work on weekdays ). It is long overdue for higher education to build a schedule that fits the real lives of its students, not just the convenience of the faculty.


If we expect society to ever become a place that fully embraces and practices true and complete equity, we must first commit to do so ourselves. Shockingly, we still commonly see racism, sexism, and more within and throughout the academy. Discrimination continues to be frequently practiced at all levels of the academy. It is essential for higher education institutions to make diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) part of their core missions and proactively and assertively move forward with a commitment to achieve it absolutely.


Because our world has changed so radically and rapidly with the onset of high-tech and more, and because higher education has dragged its feet in keeping up with this high-speed global transformation, most colleges and universities have a huge amount of ground to cover, which will not be accomplished by mere curriculum tweaks and budget cuts. It is impossible to “cut” your way to success in today’s market. Transformation is widely and desperately needed to address these changes.


As I so often say, higher education needs to become “less Ivory Tower” and “more Silicon Valley.” Traditional methods of operating the academy – developing programs and curriculum to teach to the students, developing revenue streams – are too limited to meet current and future needs. We must use creativity, innovation, boldness, outreach, research, training, and collaboration to re-envision and “entrepreneur” our institutions in order to transform them into the effective and up-to-date change-agent that we are meant to be. And the world needs us to be.

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