Two groups tug of war over sharks down below, illustrating higher-ed management challenges.

6 higher-ed management challenges facing leaders today

Higher-ed management challenges can be daunting--here's how leaders are juggling the demands of today's institutions

The global pandemic has complicated higher-ed institutional management. Faculty move between synchronous and asynchronous learning, struggling to accommodate students in different time zones, students who may have increased work or family obligations during the pandemic, or students who may have limited device access and limited or spotty internet access at home.

2. Understanding adult learners. Adults are quickly taking over a larger and larger part of the student population at colleges and universities–and understanding adult learners is key to institutional success. The idea of the “traditional student” who graduates high school and enrolls in a university, graduating in four years, is transforming. The majority of today’s learners are adult learners–those juggling school with work or family responsibilities, or those seeking new skills or a complete career change. Many institutions are focusing on adult learner programs to help boost their growth and revenue as enrollment projections decline.

But that’s easier said than done–the adult learner market isn’t as straightforward, leading institutions to work hard to better understand adult learners, their mindsets, and their unique needs. A report examines how adult learners are changing the higher-ed marketplace. Key to institutional success is understanding adult learners and their needs, including their need for a clear return on education and higher expectations for brand interactions.

3. Closing the achievement gap, especially for low-income students. Nearly every state has put renewed emphasis on ensuring that more adults get a college degree, with Indiana as a shining example. According to a report from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, the achievement gap between low-income and other student populations in the Hoosier State has narrowed by more than half and is projected to close completely by 2025. Much of the credit for this turnaround is due to Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program.

The program is a need-based, state-aid initiative that pays up to four years of undergraduate tuition at any participating public college or university or a comparable amount for a private college. To qualify, high school students must meet 12 requirements, including attaining a GPA of at least 2.5, refraining from illegal drug use, and earning a Core 40 diploma.

4. Targeting gaps in college readiness. A competency-based series of courses aims to tackle the growing college readiness gap and prepare students for success in and after college. WGU Academy, a new independent operating unit from Western Governors University, is intended to help solve the widening college readiness gap. Courses and programs in WGU Academy will give aspiring students an affordable, low-risk pathway that readies them for college success either at WGU or at other institutions.

The characteristics of today’s college students have changed, and the means of serving them must change with them. Nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in college, but 26 percent drop out in their first year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

5. Acknowledging and remedying gender biases and gender gaps in higher-ed IT leadership. During a 2018 EDUCAUSE session, four female higher-ed IT leaders offered advice for their colleagues aspiring to leadership roles in IT. The session addressed issues such as conscious and unconscious gender bias, how to identify role models and mentors, and how to build the skills necessary to lead an IT team.

The topic was especially powerful in this time of heightened tensions around gender bias and sexual harassment in the IT field, and the conversation was especially timely given the atmosphere of outspoken protest against gender inequality. Tech giant Google has faced huge internal backlash and an international employee walkout over the way it has handled–or hasn’t handled–accusations of sexual harassment against male executives.

6. Ensuring community colleges meet students’ diverse and changing needs. Post-traditional students are much different from the student population most community colleges were designed to serve, but these institutions must meet this student group’s unique needs in order to stay relevant among declining enrollments.

This set of learners is more likely to attend community colleges than four-year schools, and it’s up to community colleges to demonstrate their relevance and ability to help students gain academic experiences that will fulfill career goals, according to a whitepaper from EAB. By responding to student motivations and challenges, community colleges can prove to these post-traditional learners that they can balance classes with their personal and professional responsibilities.

Laura Ascione