A look inside the complexities of higher education
Kristina ‘KP’ Powers has spent her career in higher education. As president of the Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education, she works to understand how these complex ecosystems work, the people in them, and how to improve them.
She is particularly passionate about working with higher education leaders who also share her enthusiasm for expanding knowledge to learners who have had disproportionate access to college. Because of her forward-thinking, KP has been invited to serve on the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative, the NC-SARA Data Advisory Committee, the Journal of Postsecondary Student Success editorial board, the SUNY Brockport Dean’s Advisory Council, and as a national IPEDS trainer. Her books, “Organization and Administration in Higher Education,” “Data Strategy in Colleges and Universities,” and “Cultivating a Data Culture in Higher Education” are published by Routledge.
We sat down with KP to get her inside view of the complex higher education ecosystem.
There seems to be a bit of an attitude shift with regard to education. How do you think secondary education must transform itself to meet the needs of workers?
The days of one degree and done are long gone. We’ve known for at least a decade that workers will need additional training / education in the form of courses, advanced degrees, certificates, workshops, etc. throughout their career—not just immediately after high school. Further, many people love learning (myself included). So, developing a system that supports learning throughout one’s life and career is critical. This means forming relationships with learners immediately upon enrollment so that they not only have a support system to complete their goals, but also consider the institution for additional career learning.
How has strategic planning and budgeting within the organization and administration of higher education institutions changed through the pandemic?
From a comfortable cadence to warp speed. The length of time between each strategic planning and budgeting cycle has been getting shorter and shorter over the last couple of decades. For example, a strategic plan used to be done every 10 years. Then they moved to every five years. And now a new strategic-planning committee is launched shortly after a new president begins—as no one wants to follow someone else’s compass. During the pandemic, institutions were making simultaneous and multiple strategic plans and budget scenarios because just as one scenario began to solidify, unexpected events made the plan irrelevant and obsolete.
Can you speak to proven strategies for today’s change-oriented leaders?
The word “change” has gotten a bad name. It sounds as if one was doing something wrong before and the only way to be “right” is to stop doing previous activities to head in a completely different direction. I don’t think that’s true. Rather, I think about transformational leadership. Transforming focuses on the process of changing—which allows for respecting the hard work and advancements that others have contributed while still improving and progressing to the next chapter.
What are some of the intricacies of the institutional structure, its functional activities, and contingency planning?
Colleges and universities are complex ecosystems. One adjustment in one location has an impact in other areas—often unintended, but still impactful, nonetheless. Many people think that smaller institutions have fewer complexities. This is not true; they are different complexities, not fewer. As a result, the senior leadership team at every institution is constantly trying to maintain the ecosystem balance while advancing the mission—a difficult duality.
What advice do you have for higher education administrators to lead their institutions to excellence?
Achieve extraordinary results with a focus on a few areas. Once upon a time, the trend in higher education was to offer as many majors as possible. The theory was that prospective students would see their major on the list and feel as if the institution was a good fit for them. It turns out that it is very, very expensive to manage a large number of majors/departments. We are seeing this trend outside of higher education as well, with organizations focusing on their niche. True, there are some extremely large companies that are trying to develop multiple niches, but they are more of the exception rather than the rule.