Where to Turn at the Crossroads of Higher Ed? Radical Cooperation!

In a sector riddled with no shortage of challenges—from rising tuition costs and growing student debt levels to shortfalls in student access to programs—there’s no question we’re at a crossroads today in higher education. While shifts in the education sector arc over extended periods of time, election years are particularly significant based on the elected administration’s initiatives and perspectives on higher ed.

Without a crystal ball to tell us what legislative interests will be at play in the coming year, I believe we can be certain of a few things. There will be continued scrutiny of for-profit colleges, and we will continue to see pressure on all institutions to demonstrate value, promote access, and deliver favorable student outcomes. While for-profit colleges will continue to experience declining enrollment, it is highly likely that a significant proportion of non-profit institutions will also experience serious financial struggles by over-leveraging themselves and becoming overly reliant on discounting.

Coming to the crossroads doesn’t have to be a perilous affair, however. On the contrary—it’s not only possible to find our way out of today’s challenges—but to thrive in the process. The best approach to achieve this – bar none – is radical cooperation. By making a fundamental shift from the perspective of academic competition to one of academic collaboration, while focusing squarely on improving student outcomes, not only can you demonstrate value, but also surpass student retention and institutional growth averages industry-wide.

Consider the universe of “competitors” in the higher ed landscape. Moving beyond the elite, we’re left with the lion’s share of nearly 4,000 colleges and universities—each competing directly against one another. This competition largely happens without clear academic distinction. Each school builds new programs, facilities, and even debt to keep lock-step pace with each other’s movements—not necessarily advancing their own distinct academic missions in the process. By contrast, everyone wins when these institutions make a fundamental shift to radical cooperation with one another to advance their own unique students’ needs.

Just a few examples of radical cooperation’s power lie in our own programs, and within our own community of colleges. As opposed to focusing on what other institutions are doing in order to keep pace—our schools focus on advancing their own direct engagement with adult learners in collaborative learning models that also serve their local community. This high level of engagement is not only distinctive within each institution—but also ensures student academic, life, and professional success in a way that only this type of learning experience can.

While collaboration at this level has led to strong student retention at each of our colleges relative to sector standards, we were confident that leveraging radical cooperation across our non-profit system would further help to grow our retention rates. This belief, and our commitment to improving student outcomes led us to bring together 18 leaders from all five of our colleges to collaboratively devise new retention strategies leveraging best practices from each institution that could be applied to each of our schools, system-wide. We expect to see even better retention outcomes from these radical cooperation initiatives.

In the coming years, those that succeed in the higher ed landscape will be the forward-looking leaders with an ongoing commitment to making collaboration and radical cooperation central to their institutions’ operations.