What Students Really Want: Getting the Job Done in Higher Education

Peter Stokes

Disruptive Innovators are Shifting Student Demand

Higher education leaders are no longer observing the effects of a rapidly changing economy from the sidelines. Like leaders in many industries, they now face new competition that threatens their respective institution’s reputation and market share in ways that were previously considered inconceivable, and clearly call for action.

Disruptive innovation, a term coined by Innosight founder and The Innovator’s Dilemma author, Clayton Christensen, refers to the process by which mature organizations are displaced by lower-priced competitors catering to new, price-sensitive sets of consumers. In the context of higher education, these competitors may come in the form of massive open online courses, boot camps or competency-based education programs, among others.

Institutions must not only contend with established competitors but also with disruptive innovators catering to an increasingly consumer-driven market.

In the disruptive innovation model, these competitors are initially viewed as bottom-feeders that pose no threat to the elite establishment. Yet these organizations possess a consumer-driven mindset and an ability to operate more nimbly than their traditional counterparts, stimulating interest among a group of students that may not have previously been active in the market. Thus, these competitors quickly rise up-market to erode market share from — or even unseat — the incumbents.

This presents leaders with a dilemma: Do they double down on investments in their current strategy, or do they explore new niche opportunities? The best path forward hinges on having a shared vision of whom the institution wishes to serve, and it may ultimately involve an alteration from the audiences it serves today.

New Student Expectations, Outdated Operating Models

While a university must meet the expectations of many constituents — its board, the community, employers, faculty, etc. — it is the success of the student population that wields the greatest influence over the long-term success of the institution. Leaders often agree that students are at the center of the education ecosystem, however, this ecosystem has remained largely unchanged for decades, designed for a different kind of student and a different kind of economy.

Rising generations are meaningfully different from previous ones. Their frequent use of technology and distinct values influence their expectations of education providers. These students are calling for highly personalized experiences, delivered on their terms and in ways that can help them remain relevant in an ever-changing job market. They are not necessarily wedded to the idea that a bachelor’s or graduate degree will deliver this longevity. Consequently, they are seeking creative alternatives, such as professional boot camps and certificate and badging programs.

Still, many institutions remain entrenched in outdated processes and practices, beholden to rigid governance structures that render change untenable. There is a growing disconnect between what today’s students want and what traditional institutions currently deliver. Colleges and universities must undertake some form of transformational change in serving its student population if they are to thrive in the long run.

Understanding the Jobs to Be Done

In a consumer-driven economy, even colleges can be aided by business-minded thinking. Progressive leaders approach the education market like their corporate peers, by challenging the status quo and assessing every aspect of the journey from the student’s perspective, from applicant to alumnus.

These leaders think more critically and holistically about their academic portfolios and best-fit students, triangulating towards niche opportunities that will give both the institution and its students a competitive edge. They first seek to understand the jobs to be done — that is, the tasks that the student “hires” the education provider to perform. In higher education, the institution’s job to be done is to help students earn their degrees. While this seems self-evident, the implications run deep.

The jobs-to-be-done approach guides leaders in examining key — and sometimes overlooked — contributing factors that influence a student’s success at the institution, including:

  • The functional, emotional and social dimensions
  • The student's definition of quality
  • The experiences required to support the journey

Understanding the jobs to be done provides critical context for interpreting institutional data and uncovering insights that will reshape the strategic vision. It provides the necessary structure for comparing the jobs for which various stakeholder groups hire the institution today against the trends that will most impact these stakeholders in the future.

An Example: Thinking Outside the Degree

Take, for example, a small, private, Northeastern Catholic college that faced heavy regional competition. The leadership had long recognized that their core audience was not the highly selective student who applied to top-tier metropolitan competitors, but rather a highly motivated one with average scores who is interested in a high-touch, mid-sized residential college.

Further analysis uncovered another layer to the new student profile: rising generations and working professionals were increasingly enrolling in certificate and boot camp programs to more cost-effectively acquire the skills and knowledge they needed to quickly enter the job market. Research suggested that these career-oriented students were highly interested in an experiential learning curriculum, service learning opportunities and being part of a close-knit community on campus, but not necessarily for four years.

Looking at the future through the lens of the jobs-to-be-done presented the institution with a way of conceptualizing a new revenue stream serving a different kind of student to complement enrollment in its degree programs. It also helped the college reimagine the student experience from the perspective of this new audience and identify where the institution needed to align resources and curriculum. As a result of investing the time to understand the key drivers of student success and the qualities these students sought in an institution, the college is now better positioned to work across its silos to transform the student experience across the enterprise and achieve its goal of doubling enrollments within 10 years.

Delivering a Student-Centric Experience

The next five years will bring exponential change to higher education. Institutions must not only contend with established competitors but also with disruptive innovators catering to an increasingly consumer-driven market. Thus, leaders are seeking to define who their stakeholders are today — and how this should evolve in the future — to ensure that their institutions thrive in the long-term. They are digging deeper into the needs of their constituents, identifying the “jobs to be done” and building data-driven business cases that will help break down silos and deliver what students really seek in order to enrich their lives and advance their careers.

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What Students Really Want: Getting the Job Done in Higher Education

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