Applying entrepreneurial principles to higher education IT strategy.
GUEST COLUMN | by Mark Armstrong
We’ve been hearing pronouncements about the disruption of higher education for a decade now. While many institutions struggle to change core tenets of their operating models to sustain or improve their financial positions, they must also cater to expectations of a broader wave of learners. Yet reflexively labeling everything “disruption” oversimplifies the circumstances and expectation for a tidy outcome or single path to the next thing. It promotes lazy thinking, leading to paralysis or a “replace everything” approach. Technology investments must bridge consumer-driven models, limited budgets and impatience with—yes—disruptive administrative systems projects.
The Most Innovative Period Since World War II
The challenge for higher education institutions is to first convert pressure to a creative tension that can reimagine practices to meet expectations for modern constituents. This is arguably the most innovative period for the Higher Education sector since WWII because it includes transformation of the predominant business models, aka digital transformation. Thriving in times of change like this requires an entrepreneurial perspective.
“The entrepreneur is able to recognize the commercial potential of the invention and organize the capital, talent, and other resources that turn an invention into a commercially viable innovation.” 
Traditionally, entrepreneurship was taught but rarely applied to the campus itself. That changed with the rise of the for-profit and continuing education sectors, who pioneered operating models now being adopted across nearly all sectors of higher education. Entrepreneurs are typically associated with start-ups, but this ethos applies to established entities needing to open or create a new market, enter an underserved market and compete in an established market.
Entrepreneurial-Drive Higher Ed Market
Institutions who adapt to the new reality of zero-sum competition, return-on-investment (ROI) based budgeting, even M&A stratagems will compete and thrive in an increasingly entrepreneurial-driven higher education market. They need technology partners and products fit for the same purpose.
Community colleges, for example, have been driven by economic, political and consumer pressure since their inception to deliver a basic and cost-effective postsecondary education. Incredibly relevant in today’s market, modern consumers also expect their education provider to manage and analyze their learning process toward a successful outcome, not simply convey information. Institutions providing relevant programs with a clear student ROI can build market share even with limited budgets.
Ivy Tech Community College took an entrepreneurial path to opening a new welding lab using seed funding from Toyota Industrial Equipment Manufacturing, the fourth-largest manufacturing employer in the U.S. The intent is to meet underserved demand, based on U.S. Department of Labor reports that more than 200,000 welders are expected to retire within the next ten years.
Learners, Workers, and Future Growth
Fortunately, general demand to create and sustain an educated workforce will grow for the foreseeable future. Today’s learners want timely access to obtain skills, from specialized credentials to executive training. They want their previous experience and competencies recognized. They will not tolerate administrative friction, whether seeking general assistance or transferring specific credits between institutions.
Yet the growing sense, justified or not, that higher education is not fulfilling expectations for the associated cost—echoed by employers—is eroding public support. Funding reductions that may threaten the long-term viability of institutions must be converted to a mandate to pursue new opportunities. Entrepreneurial strategies will not just sustain but transform higher education in the 21st century. Technology-driven demand for IT worker training is rapidly expanding into any sector where the skilled workforce cannot be outsourced.
The one area commercial, federal and public sector organizations can outsource is skills training, contracting with external institutions to meet their needs. Organizing operations, programs and resources to maximize ROI is the appropriate response to the “do more with less” mandate for an increasing percentage of Higher Education enterprises.
Those Who Build a Foundation
Institutions that build a foundation for the new delivery models of academic and workforce education will thrive in the new ecosystem. Cloud products and services drive down the capital-intensive aspects of technology acquisition and refresh cycles, making it easier to stay competitive.
Entrepreneurial institutions can effectively compete for modern learners, provided they adopt platforms that can deliver the imperatives of today, including affordable, cost-effective deployment and operating costs and timely access to in-demand skills training and career data, as well as relevant programs for their target markets, e.g. 2-year degree, adult learner, corporate training, etc. A consumer oriented user experience and flexible structures that can serve a variety of education models are also essential for success.
Mark Armstrong is Chief Strategy Officer for Campus Management, a leading provider of cloud-based SIS, CRM, and ERP solutions and services for higher education. Previously, he served as VP Higher Education Product Development for Oracle for more than 10 years. Connect with Mark through LinkedIn.