Blog post by Eileen Rudden, Partner at LearnLaunch

Four higher ed experts talked trends to an audience of 80 at Education First (EF) in Cambridge at the LearnLaunch “Trends in Higher Ed” event on Wednesday, September 16th.

The headlines:

  • Downward pressures on increasing tuition are strong,  both because of student concern over college and post-graduate degree costs,  but also because of new alternatives.
  • This is causing colleges to focus on creating new revenue sources, or lowering their own costs.


The panel participants urged entrepreneurs to focus on the following key drivers:IMG_0295

Tom O’Donnell, Director of the Innovation Hub at UMass Lowell, noted that his institution is serving first generation students working part-time or full-time. They are looking for ROI on their educational investment. State funds have been going down, so universities need to be more entrepreneurial in identifying new sources of funds. He discussed the challenges of creating experiential learning opportunities for students and asked entrepreneurs to help with better software support for managing hosts of partners and internships.

Candy Brush, Vice Provost of Babson, talked of pressures in the market for MBAs that are leading institutions to create new one-year programs. Babson is also looking to create new certificate programs to meet particular market needs, such as follow-on education for liberal arts graduates. Certificate programs can fill unused seats.  More than 50% of Babson’s students now come from outside the US, exemplifying another trend:  US institutions are recruiting international students.

Nick Ducoff, VP New Ventures of Northeastern University Global Network, laid out how universities can create new revenue by using existing assets. For example, Northeastern is creating a new Analytics Bootcamp, which will make a master’s degree an in-demand area more accessible by shortening the time frame to a degree. Northeastern has also been able to lower its cost of generating student leads by 90% by using existing educational text assets in “content marketing.”

Adam Newman of Tyton Partners cautioned that many in higher ed can’t absorb the new supply of innovations. “Entrepreneurs work at light speed, much faster than universities can absorb the innovations.” Faculty may not be equipped to change their pedagogy and absorb change, and there is no formal professional development on teaching in higher ed.

According to Tom O’Donnell of UMass Lowell, as there is a shift to more experiential learning, universities need to leverage people outside the classroom: their alumni, mentors, partners, companies and employers.  It is very difficult to recruit, engage and manage them. Teaching entrepreneurship through project-based learning is very customized, and colleges are looking at how to deploy customization and personalization in a way that scales. IMG_0298

During a lively question period led by panel moderator Mark Miller, Managing Partner of Good Harbor Partners and Partner at LearnLaunch, the panelists also offered their thoughts on how to sell to universities. “Just because you convince one faculty member to use your product doesn’t mean it can spread,” said Tom O’Donnell.  “Engage with lead users who understand the institution and who can help propel your solution forward”.

Candy Brush recommended that entrepreneurs volunteer, go to events and get to know people at the institution. “Sponsor an event; speak at a student event.” Relationship selling is still the norm in the university.

Adam Newman commented that the verdict is still out on whether tech solutions will improve academic performance.  He recommended that higher ed tech solutions offer productivity improvement by lowering cost increasing yield.

With the trend toward, and concern about post-collegiate employment rising, the audience was interested in the role of career services offices and solutions. The panel agreed that successful colleges are leveraging their alumni first in the career area. Nick Ducoff of Northeastern cautioned: “Autonomy is where the money comes in. There is no revenue in alumni or career services; they are funded by a “tax” on the college revenue centers.” So, unless career services are driving revenue or results for the college, they may not thrive.

Will there be a sea change or a phase shift in higher ed? Is the price too high? The panel thought not, even though they believed there will be consolidation among private colleges. They cited the troubles at Sweet Briar and Thunderbird. Marketing expenses for universities are rising, economic substitutes from online education (MOOCs) are emerging, and boot camps are entering the market.  Candy Brush said the pressure was particularly high on post-graduate degree programs.