How my university is disrupting higher education

Disruption in higher education needs to happen everywhere, from admissions processes to business practices to the way we teach and assess

If higher education is a ship, it has struck an iceberg. It’s taking on water rapidly, and while the situation is urgent, many people on board simply refuse to acknowledge what’s happening.

The lifeboats in this metaphor? Disruption.

That may sound a little dramatic, but it’s undeniable that many colleges and universities are stuck in 20th-century—or even 19th- century—models of higher education. In our 21st-century world, that’s no longer acceptable. Institutions are floundering, and if they don’t start to catch up, they are going to sink.

The need for disruption

Disruption in higher education needs to happen everywhere, from admissions processes to business practices and from the way we teach to the way we determine student outcomes.

At Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri, we’re examining every aspect of what’s “traditional” in higher education, right down to the core of the culture. Higher education should be fueled by the desire to deliver opportunities and build meaningful career prospects for a wide range of students. It should not be driven by a sense of elitism—by outdated notions of who deserves to participate, whether it’s who gets to attend or who’s in the room to make decisions about the future.

(Next page: See how Maryville is changing the way it delivers instruction, upgrades the student experience, and more)

We don’t define ourselves by the number of students who aren’t admitted—a time-worn bragging point among elite institutions. Maryville defines itself by the number of students we do admit, and, most important, how many we help learn, succeed, and secure the future they want for themselves.

To serve today’s students, we must prioritize their needs in real, tangible ways.

How to disrupt

1. Change the way you deliver instruction.
First and foremost, students need more effective ways to learn. It’s clear to anyone paying attention that personalized learning is what they want and soon will expect. Everyone learns differently. Higher education can no longer rely on “warehouse learning,” cramming hundreds of students in a room, employing only one teaching style and expecting it to work for everyone.

More students thrive in problem-solving environments in which they can learn and operate according to their own individual style. Online instruction augments classroom learning and offers vast new opportunities to deliver personalized learning.

Maryville recently tripled the number of online bachelor’s degree programs at Maryville Online. In November, we announced 10 new online BA and BS programs, available this fall, designed to meet the needs of working adults looking to move into growing careers. These include degrees in cybersecurity, data science, communication, criminal justice, forensic psychology, healthcare, financial services, management information systems, and marketing. As we strive to increase access to higher learning and to better serve students on their terms, further expansion is imminent.

2. Focus on post-graduation.
Students need an education grounded in the real work they’ll be doing after graduation. As an industry, we need to do a better job of listening to the people and companies who will employ our students, whose success depends on our ability to shut our mouths and open our ears. When we engage corporations more deeply, partnerships can be about more than fundraising and naming rights. They lead to more tailored, targeted programs that address the most high-priority needs for employers—and jobs for our students.

Take Maryville’s five-year old Rawlings Sport Business Management degree program. Rawlings is a St. Louis-based sports equipment manufacturer with close ties to U.S. professional teams and athletes. Its executives have worked hand in hand with faculty to deliver a foundational curriculum of accounting, economics, finance, and communications, all tailored to the unique dynamics of today’s sports industry. The partnership provides for a joint design of the curriculum and internships that connect students with real-world problem solving in the classroom. It also leads to employment opportunities with Rawlings and its many connections, including the St. Louis Cardinals, the St. Louis Blues, the Houston Rockets, and the Missouri Valley Conference.

3. Upgrade the entire student experience.
It’s not about fancy buildings or amenities—it’s about providing better customer service. Attending college is one of the most significant financial investment most students will ever make, and yet companies that sell them a pack of gum are often more helpful and responsive to their needs.

We need to respect students for the customers they are.

To be clear, in the classroom, the customer is not always right. Investment in an education should not influence grades and academic outcomes. However, the classroom should be the primary place where students feel challenged and stretched, as they engage with the hard work of learning and building their skills. Everything outside of the classroom should be as easy as possible. From scheduling classes and requesting transcripts to changing a meal plan or paying a parking ticket, campus operations should be smooth and hassle-free.

At Maryville, one step we’ve taken is to implement a customer relationship management system evaluating the service we provide across prospective and student-facing operations. We track students’ interactions with different administrative departments and receive specific feedback about their experience, giving us a better feel for how well we’re meeting their needs and where we need to improve our service. It’s substantive assessment in real time, which leads to immediate problem solving. Our approach shows students that we care about their experience here and gives us important insights into how we can do better for them in the future.

It’s time to let go of the status quo and stand ready to upend tradition. To embrace change. To disrupt.

Anything less will leave our institutions and the students we serve unequipped for the future that lies ahead.

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