From clusters of college closures and dramatic budgetary cuts to technological advances and data security breaches, changes in higher education have institutions contemplating strategies that will enable them to thrive in the future. But how do colleges and universities determine which strategies to focus on first, or most?

When navigating the industry’s tectonic shifts, institutions can find a North Star in their students. Increased diversity in student bodies—whether that means ethnicity, gender, beliefs, age, economic status or culture—the way they learn and the way they want to learn are the best indicators of the way forward.

Reports by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show constant increase in racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in higher education. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education more than doubled from the 1990-1991 school year to the 2014-2015 school year. Additionally, colleges and universities must continuously increase access for students with disabilities.

The most successful institutions will be the ones that are in tune with their students’ diverse, evolving needs, and digitally transform operations to easily pivot in response to change in policy or demand.

North Star Tip 1: Go Beyond Traditional Learning Environments for Today’s Students

Every year, more students enroll in colleges and universities expecting student services will be as easy as using Amazon or iTunes. At most institutions, however, students are required to fill out rounds of paperwork, visit various departments or schools, and wait for the many back-office processes to be completed to do something as simple as adding or dropping classes.

(Next page: More future-looking tips for institutions focused on students)

Learning organizations that offer classes online, such as Khan Academy, and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are disrupting traditional institutions, in part because they give students control of when, where and how they receive education. In addition, these organizations and courses more easily scale with growth than traditional lectures or labs.

Increasing access to ongoing, on-demand training and certification is key for current and future student bodies, which look very different than they have in years past. According to the NCES, nontraditional students—that is, students who may be parents, over the age of 22 and/or financially independent—now make up about 75 percent of the undergraduate population. These students are less likely to live on campus and more likely to have full-time jobs, making their lifestyles less conducive to the traditional college or university schedule.

Some institutions have implemented hybrid learning environments that employ both online and offline instruction, or advanced teleconferencing and distance learning platforms that use streaming video and discussion boards. Others have obtained campus-wide licenses for instructional technology, as University of Southern California did with, a website that offers training videos on web programs and computing.

A 2011 Pew Research Center study found that half of college presidents surveyed believed that most students at their schools will be enrolled in at least some online classes within the next 10 years.

North Star Tip 2: Use Digital Records for Student Success

Along with adjusting courses to fit students’ lifestyles, leaders in higher education now must consider how they are preparing their diverse student bodies for the knowledge-based economy. Graduates enter a marketplace that demands more than a piece of paper showing they completed college.

Rather, postsecondary credentials now can include collections of documents, awards, work samples and other evidence of learning.

Providing these credentials require recordkeeping that follows students throughout their educational careers. Those educational journeys may not be a straight line—some students will transfer from other schools, switch majors, take years off or return for additional training or certificates. Many will be enrolled in online courses that don’t require them to step foot on campus.

Keeping records on various computer drives in different schools, or physical file cabinets is inefficient for reviewing a student’s performance holistically; colleges and universities must have a centralized, digital document management system that integrates across applications so faculty, administration and students have more control of and access to information.

As part of its efforts to build a sustainable digital ecosystem, Texas A&M University System now offers its Laserfiche enterprise content management software as a shared service so that its many colleges and departments can more effectively collaborate, share documents and leverage system-wide solutions. The university system can even share documents externally via public web portals without compromising data security.

The impact of a robust and efficient digital records program extends beyond information access, however. With increasingly diverse student demographics, student records are critical components to track student activity and performance, increase visibility and communication about the student, and personalize data-informed advising.

Easily accessible, up-to-date student records position faculty and advisors to monitor and reward success, use predictive analytics to flag at-risk students and deploy custom initiatives or interventions, identify students’ paths to achievement and increase retention.

The Future is Now

Higher education can no longer be tailored to the “traditional” student experience or narrow demographics.

While future-proofed institutions may continue to look like traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, their technology infrastructure will be fluid and responsive, meeting the evolving needs of tech-savvy students and employees. In order to thrive, institutions must take a closer look at their unique student bodies, and promote inclusion, equity, and a more personalized learning experience than ever before.

About the Author:

Linda Ding is the director of strategic marketing for Laserfiche. She speaks frequently on issues surrounding deployment of institution-wide IT initiatives, information governance and integration strategies. She was an executive panelist at the Wilbur K. Woo Greater China Business Conference at UCLA and has presented at the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) Annual Meeting, EDUCAUSE, the Harvard IT Summit and the Laserfiche Institute Conference in Los Angeles. She holds B.A. degrees in Economics and Cognitive Science from UC Berkeley and an M.A. degree in Program Evaluation from Claremont Graduate University.