Points of View

Points of View

Three Distinct Perspectives on Higher Ed’s Future

The landscape of higher education is evolving rapidly, influenced by technological advancements, changing student needs, and global educational trends. To understand these changes and anticipate what lies ahead, we turned to three experts from the world of higher education: Don Buffum, a consultant after 43 years in public procurement; Lenora Sevillian, Director of Procurement at Nova Southeastern University, NAEP Board member, and leading thought-leader; and Joe Sallustio, Chief Experience Officer at Lindenwood, best-selling author and founder of the EdUP podcast. Each of these individuals offer both unique and knowledgeable perspectives. We asked them to share some thoughts on the evolving dynamics affecting higher education on campus and the value proposition overall.

Don Buffum

What do you believe are the most pressing challenges and opportunities that higher ed leaders must prepare for in the next decade?

I see a multitude of challenges, but really, it all comes back to money. You can’t run any organization without money and a university is no different. To bring in money, you must have students; and there are a number of challenges to getting and keeping students. 

The number of students choosing to go to college continues to decrease, and 2025 brings a reduction of students graduating from high school due to a decrease in births during the recession. The cost of tuition continues to rise and universities must either accept they will have fewer enrollments or they must give more scholarships, thus not bringing in as much money per student.  

Students have more options now; they can take online courses, they can go to trade schools, they can get tech certificates that allow them to enter the workforce at reasonably high salaries without the four-year investment in college.

“My opinion is that a truly adaptable person with a hunger for lifelong learning is of great value in the workforce.”

– Don Buffum, Consultant

Besides not having enough money coming in, the universities have more and more expenses. All of the residence halls built over the past 20 years now need maintenance and refreshing. 

While most universities shifted to more online classes during the Covid years, that equipment was purchased with one-time money. As we move further away from those free dollars, all of that equipment will need to be refreshed.

Considering those pressures, what ideas should schools be exploring?

The question is related to how we acquire and maintain students in order to meet revenue goals. Schools may need to consider model changes that include  marketing short-term educational opportunities that quickly prepare kids for the workforce and help keep people current throughout their careers.

We should focus on altering the value proposition to provide students different skills. In the past, a kid could go to school for four years and get the education needed to start a job and then, through on-the-job training, stay within that company or profession for an entire career. Times have changed and universities will need to teach students how to adapt and consistently improve their skills and knowledge. My opinion is that a truly adaptable person with a hunger for lifelong learning is of great value in the workforce.

How is the process of running a campus changing in response to the current trends you mention?

Mental health is a huge concern. Universities will need to provide robust mental health services for the students as well as the faculty and staff. Clearly, the pandemic impacted every grade level. As a result, I think universities will see a new norm as the next wave of students, who missed a significant step in the educational process, continue to come into the system. 

Faculty must be adaptable because the teaching methods and curriculum taught in the past may not work for the next generation of students. The ones that missed junior high school will have different needs and perspectives than those that missed first through third grade.

Artificial Intelligence is a major issue and we must determine how to manage it. Schools will be researching how to take advantage of it, while maintaining integrity. Again, adaptability will be critical to embrace changes immediately rather than taking years to change a curriculum.

Lenora Sevillian

How can higher education institutions innovate to maintain the relevance and rigor of their programs?

I believe the most pressing challenges and opportunities for higher education are as follows: the rising cost of education, and the changing demographics of the student population, which impacts the demand for a traditional college education. On the other hand, we have a tremendous opportunity to further integrate technology to improve the teaching and learning experience for students. 

At NSU, we have had an increase in enrollment for two consecutive years. We have focused on diversifying the student population, increasing international student enrollment, and offering more online or hybrid options. I think looking at competency-based models instead of traditional credit-based models would enable the mastery of subject matter and increase our collective relevance. 

I see great opportunity to offer programs that have a pathway to micro-credentialing, so the student is certified and can move into the workforce more immediately. It is a wonderful time to provide opportunities for students to apply what they learn and employ experiential learning environments.

“In the business of education, we must prioritize the needs of the students, ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities to help students reach their full potential.”

– Lenora Sevillian, Director of Procurement, Nova Southeastern University

What advice would you give to your peers on navigating the complexities of student needs, technological integration, and the job market of the future?

It is important to meet the current needs of the market and the changing workforce demands. A great place to start may be partnering with industry experts to develop curriculum. We could provide more internships and apprenticeships. And we must find creative ways to help fund education by offering more financial aid and scholarships.

In the business of education, we must prioritize the needs of the students, ensuring equitable access to resources and opportunities to help students reach their full potential.

How do you envision the transformation of higher education institutions, particularly regarding technology’s role?

More personalized learning is needed. We can implement adaptive learning platforms to tailor instruction for the individual student. At NSU, we are utilizing virtual reality and augmented reality in many of our disciplines. Continuing to invest in infrastructure to enhance accessibility for all students is the foundation that allows us to adapt. In turn, we must continue to invest in professional development so faculty and staff have a high level of digital literacy.

Joe Sallustio

How are you planning to adjust your institution’s academic programs and support services to meet the needs of a more diverse student body?

At Lindenwood University, we are committed to serving the New Majority. These are students, adult students, students of color, military students, and first-generation students. This is the foundation of our strategic plan and all decisions are made with a students-first operating framework.

We believe that serving the New Majority is accomplished by focusing on value, relevance, flexibility, and cost. Today, students are much more aware of debt and return on investment while maintaining the expectation that an institution “meets them where they are.” Lindenwood is experimenting with subscription-based programs, non-standard term/non-term programs, and credit-bearing certificates to cater to students knowing that their perception of the value of a college degree varies. Regarding student support, our goal is to ensure we extend mental health services and writing/math support.  

With online learning becoming more prevalent, what measures is Lindenwood taking to ensure that the quality of education remains high and engaging?

I find that one of the biggest misconceptions of higher education is that online learning is of a lesser quality than residential learning. There is a big difference between an on-ground course being smashed into an online learning environment (due to an international pandemic) and an intentionally designed online course built to produce great outcomes via online teaching and learning.  Online courses with incredible instructional design are seeing the infusion of Artificial Intelligence, AR/VR technologies, innovative group work, and networking (like we do in the real world)!

“If we continue to learn throughout our lifetimes, higher education delivered faster—with the same or increasing quality—is the ultimate commodity!”

– Joe Sallustio, Chief Experience Officer, Lindenwood University

Lindenwood is launching five subscription-based bachelor’s degrees in February of 2024. Subscription programs have a cost model that is easy to understand, and students can take extra time to progress if life gets in the way. Lindenwood Global, our online extension model, also serves as an experimentation hub and innovation lab for delivery models outside of the traditional agrarian calendar.  We are also looking into how Artificial Intelligence can help supercharge our operations in enrollment management, advising, and other university areas.  We have launched a new minor/certificate in Artificial Intelligence!

How is your institution aligning its curriculum with the skills and competencies that employers are looking for in graduates?

We are committed to ensuring our curriculum helps prepare students for the workforce. We focus on development of the Power Skills (aka soft skills, but they are not soft, are they?). Critical thinking, problem-solving, ethics, communication, sales, and leadership are some of the skills employers require, and students need, to survive in a world increasingly dominated by technology. There is no substitute for humans and the role we play in the future of work. We are updating programs, and building new programs, that clearly communicate the skills earned by the students who successfully complete. Students, who are increasingly financially savvy, need to know exactly what skills they will be able to stack on their resumé. My final thought is that speed is critical. Think about other products we interact with and how speed plays a part in our use or expectation of that company or product. We expect our package to be delivered same or next day. We skip the introduction on our favorite TV show because we want to get to the content faster. We buy the fast pass at Disney because we don’t want to wait in line. If we continue to learn throughout our lifetimes, higher education delivered faster—with the same or increasing quality—is the ultimate commodity!