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The Higher Education Strategic Imperative:

Leveraging Agility, Resilience, and Creativity (ARC) to Remain Relevant

by Michael Edmondson, Ph.D.

January 2020


“If you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less.”

Eric Ken Shinseki, retired United States Army general




Higher education faces an extraordinary number of issues including decreased state aid, admissions scandals, underpaid adjuncts, abysmal graduation rates, inflated grades, astronomical student debt, restrictions on free speech, and indifferent faculty. For those fortunate enough to graduate, they often find themselves unemployed or underemployed or dealing with the harsh realization that college failed to provide them with the technical and practical skills employers demand. Contemporary observations declaring institutions broken, irrelevant, obsolete, or slow remain commonplace. In addition to these issues, demographic shifts further compound the plight for colleges and universities.


Enrollment projections for undergraduate and graduate populations remain bleak. Between 1990 and 2011 undergraduate enrollment skyrocketed from 12 million to 18.1 million, according to the Digest of Education Statistics published by the National Center for Education Statistics. From 2011 to 2019 enrollments plummeted to 16.8 million; a loss of over 1.2 million students. By 2028 undergraduate enrollment is expected to increase to 17.2 million; a far cry from the heyday of over 18 million. Between 1990 and 2019 graduate enrollment increased from 1.8 million to 3 million. With projections of 3.1 million in 2028 graduate enrollment is expected to remain flat for the next decade.


Recent strategies to address institutional problems include retaining current students, recruiting international students, merging with another institution, building upscale student housing, implementing, budget cuts, reducing the number of liberal arts departments, adding degree or certificate programs, resetting tuition, moving classes online, and creating public-private partnerships. At the macro level it would appear that these strategies have failed. More than 100 for-profit and career colleges closed between the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years while 20 nonprofit colleges shuttered during that period, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2018 Moody’s Investor Services reported college closures across the nation had reached 11 per year between 2015 and 2017. That was more than double the average during the previous decade. “More are likely to go under and Moody’s projects the pace of closings will soon reach 15 per year.”  


At the micro level, some of the aforementioned strategies succeeded. Illustrations of recent mergers that worked include Boston University’s 2017 acquisition of Wheelock College; Clarkson University’s 2016 merger with Union Graduate College; and the consolidations between the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia that reduced the number of state institutions from 35 in 2011 to 26 in 2019. Another example of a successful strategy comes from Purdue University that reduced its in-state student population by 4,300 while adding 5,300 out-of-state and foreign students, who pay triple the tuition. Of course, how one defines ‘strategies that have worked’ depends upon the narrator. A president overseeing the merger who gets to keep her job could agree the strategy worked while a tenured-faculty member who was let go due to financial exigency might disagree.


The dynamics involved with addressing the problems of any one institution in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous global marketplace demand a new way of thinking about strategic planning. But thinking differently, and moving away from the usual way of recruiting, managing, and teaching is a formidable challenge since “people often refuse to relinquish their deep-seated beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence to contradict those beliefs.” Since institutions  must strategize for challenges beyond the horizon while driving current business it’s no surprise Deloitte found presidents ranked strategist,  communicator, and storyteller as the top three skills needed for the role. Unfortunately, “many administrators lack the managerial and political skills required to create effective institutions.”


In his December 31, 2019 Wall Street Journal editorial "Will the '20s Roar Again?" Daniel Henninger wrote “we are overdue today for another wave of creative thought.” This is true of higher education as well as almost every other sector of our society. To that end, here is a creative approach to help administrators address the duality of balancing short- and long-term business pressures while developing the necessary skills today’s period of seismic disruption demands: they should leverage their institution’s agility, resilience, and creativity (ARC) to remain relevant. This higher education strategic imperative consists of four core values and 12 principles. Core values are fundamental beliefs that describe a culture (cerebral) whereas principles are more prescriptive in nature and guide the institution forward (physical).


Core Values:


  • Reflection over reaction

    • Instead of reacting to current problems by doing more of the same, institutions need to invest in “deep, sustained, and prolonged ” required to identify its nuanced practices.

  • Nuanced practices over best practices

    • Since “relying solely on best practices is no longer a viable strategy” institutions should identify, implement, and assess nuanced practices unique to its mission.

  • Mission over goals

    • An institution’s mission allows for a greater degree of differentiation as opposed to the prevailing goals of most colleges and universities.

  • Strategic imperatives over strategic plans

    • Since “few strategic have a real impact on the trajectory of the college or university,” institutions should focus on implementing tactics critical to the institutions short-term success, also known as strategic imperatives.




1. Offer micro to macro learning opportunities.

In its report On-Ramps to Good Jobs: Fueling Innovation for the Learning Ecosystem of the Future, the Strada Institute for the Future of Work noted “There are 32 million American workers who have less than an associate's degree and are not earning a living wage. Building a learning ecosystem that connects these individuals to the training required for them to acquire good jobs and careers is the fundamental challenge our country faces as we prepare for the future of work.” Additionally the report Educational Credentials Come of Age, published by the Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy concluded “Skills-based or competency-based hiring appears to be gaining significant interest and momentum, with a majority of HR leaders reporting either having a formal effort to de-emphasize degrees and prioritize skills underway (23%) or actively exploring and considering this direction (39%). To address these needs a college or university can transform itself from an institution offering undergraduate and/or graduate degrees to one offering micro to macro learning opportunities. This approach, often referred to as a strength based roadmap could include any or all of the following: just in time learning and training, undergraduate MicroCredentials, undergraduate certificate, undergraduate degree, graduate MicroCredential, Post-Bac Certificate and Graduate Degree.


2.  Support alumni through lifelong learning opportunities.

According to a December 2018 report entitled Educational Credentials Come of Age, published by the Northeastern University’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy “64 percent of respondents said the need for "continuous lifelong learning" in the future will drive demand for higher levels of education and more credentials.” A Gallup report noted 59% of Millennials rated “opportunities to learn and grow” are extremely important to them in a job; while 44% of Gen Xers and 41% of Baby Boomers surveyed agree with them. Additionally, 64%of employers believe “the need for continuous lifelong learning will demand higher levels of education and more credentials” “We can’t possibly prepare people for all of the jobs that are ahead,” While some institutions have started to support alumni, most should consider creating specific lifelong learning opportunities as their graduates navigate their 21st century careers. As one observer noted “we need to create the scaffolding to launch an ecosystem where people are constantly being educated and retooled to stay relevant in their jobs.”


3. Create a positive sum game in town-gown relationships.

Higher education institutions and their towns have had a storied past. In the pursuit of separate goals, many institutions and towns have “stepped on each other’s toes,” and as a result, “need to become better dance partners.” Also known as town-gown relationships, how an institution interacts with its town, and vice versa, can have a significant impact on the future of each entity. While it is true that many colleges and universities have a task force, board, or committee focused on town-gown relationships, “few community members actually play roles in leading or shaping those projects,.”  The 2019 report “Field Guide for Urban University-Community Partnerships,” published by the University of Virginia’s Thriving Cities Lab concluded: “It takes more than rhetorical commitments, no matter how well-intended or passionately made” to create a positive sum game in town-gown relationships.

For the Millennials (born 1980-1994) and Generation Z (born 1995-2012) the transformation from digital literacy to digital fluency has become paramount. This is especially true for Generation Z who are “the truest digital natives with a fluency for any device” and “absorb information at a startling pace.” Digital literacy focuses on the development of basic digital skills and competencies and was important ten years ago but that was then and this is now. As noted in the 2019 Horizon Report on Higher Education “Digital fluency is the ability to leverage digital tools and platforms to communicate critically, design creatively, make informed decisions, and solve wicked problems while anticipating new ones.” In other words “digital literacy is an understanding of how to use the tools; digital fluency is the ability to create something new with those tools.” To remain relevant higher education institutions should leverage their creativity and offer programs that help students develop the digital literacy skills so they can “solve ubiquitous problems related to whatever their future careers might be.”  

5. Emphasize soft-skill development.

The Society for Human Resource Management's report 2019 State of the Workplace Exploring the Impact of the Skills Gap and Employment-Based Immigration noted  The top three missing set of soft skills are 1)problem solving, critical thinking, innovation, and creativity; 2)ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; and 3)communication. The report also concluded “Nearly four in 10 corporations and almost half of academic institutions said new hires lack the soft skills they need to perform at a high level.” According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, emotional intelligence will be one of the top 10 job skills in 2020. Social scientists and psychologists are increasingly acknowledging that EQ (emotional intelligence) is just as if not more important than IQ (intelligence quotient, a measure of cognitive intelligence) as far as success in business and life is concerned. To remain relevant higher education institutions should consider emphasizing soft-skill development in all curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities.

6. Prepare students for their future; not our past.

Today’s students will have jobs that do not yet exist, using technology not yet invented, to solve a problem not yet identified. Thomas Frey has predicted that nearly 2 billion jobs that exist today will disappear by 2030; Cathy Davidson suggested 65% of current grade school students will enter careers that do not currently exist; and Thomas Friedman observed “anything mentally or physically routine or predictable can be achieved with an algorithm.” With such uncertainty in their future, it’s no surprise that only 41 percent of U.S. college students feel "very" or "extremely" prepared for their future careers, according to the fifth annual McGraw-Hill Future Workforce Survey. The hiring and development of employees who are agile, nimble, and resilient has now become a priority for organizations looking to keep up with an ever-evolving world of work.  As Hawley Kane wrote in "Agility: the Missing Link in Employee Development "Agile. Nimble. Resilient. If organizations want to keep up with an ever-evolving world of work, these are the types of people they need to hire, retain, and, most importantly, develop.”

7. Establish and maintain relationships with employers.

For an institution to remain relevant, it must recognize that it has room for improvement when it comes to preparing students for their uncertain future. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for students. While 96% of chief academic officers of colleges and universities believe that their institutions are very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the workforce, only 11% of business leaders strongly agree. There is a big gap between student and employer perception of preparedness, especially when it comes to professionalism and work ethic. Most notably, 77 percent of students felt confident about their professionalism and work ethic. Conversely, the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) Job Outlook Study recently surveyed employers and found only 43 percent felt recent college graduates were proficient in these areas. The Society for Human Resource Management's report 2019 State of the Workplace Exploring the Impact of the Skills Gap and Employment-Based Immigration noted "To address the skills shortage, the United States needs a world-class, highly skilled workforce. This will require training workers, collaborating with educational institutions to improve graduate employability, and competing globally for top talent." The 2018 report Building Tomorrow’s Talent: Collaboration Can Close Emerging Skills Gap concluded “business and academia are not collaborating as actively and effectively as they could be in preparing students for employment and reskilling individuals already in the workforce.”  The report also noted ““It’s really important for companies to tell academia what they are looking for.”


8. Provide reality based career advice.

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, only 27% of college graduates work in a field related to their major. My book Major in Happiness: Debunking the College Major Fallacies provides reality based career advice and argues that since the majority of graduates’ outcomes are dispersed widely among many different careers students should major in what makes them happy. In Falling Short?: College Learning and Career Success the American Association of Colleges and Universities noted: “Nearly all employers (91 percent) agree that for career success, “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” In short, “education isn’t as deterministic of our work as we might believe.” But too few colleges and institutions ever discuss these reality based career facts. In a world where two-thirds of chief executive officers believe that agility is the new currency of business otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant, it behooves higher education institutions to provide reality based career advice to prospective students, those currently enrolled, as well as graduates.


9. Prioritize retention, program completion, and graduation rates.

Professor Emeritus Vincent Tinto wrote “retention programs have done little to change the essential character of college, little to alter the prevailing character of student educational experience, and therefore little to address the deeper roots of student attrition.” Former President Carl J. Strikwerda went even further and stated “the biggest challenge that America faces in higher education is graduating more of our students; the failure to have more students graduate is a human and financial tragedy.” Between 2010 and 2017, the overall 6-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students increased just two percentage points and went from 58% to 60%. And for all of the work it has done to reduce the number of dropouts, the higher education industry has so far barely moved the needle. Twenty-six percent of freshmen each year fail to return as sophomores, just 2 percentage points better than in 2009, with almost no improvement in the last few years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.  To remain relevant in today’s hyper-competitive global economy, higher education institutions should consider prioritizing retention, program completion, and graduation rates.

10. Foster an environment of change.

If an institution is serious about leveraging its ARC, subscribing to the four core values, and implementing one or more of these principles, it will need to foster an environment of change. “But change will take time and will be bitterly resisted by campus interest groups, especially the faculty of traditional schools and perhaps others, including influential alumni.” Fostering an environment of change, however, can serve as a catalyst for those colleges and universities that would rather “act in anticipation rather than waiting for the change to define” them.  As Richard Vedder wrote in the white paper Twelve Inconvenient Truths about American Higher Education  


“If one looks at American universities a century ago, they were small (10,000 or fewer students each) and served a single digit percentage of the population. Federal research grants did not exist, nor was tenure an established institution. It was a radically different environment from what exists in higher education today. So it will be in the future. The more things change, the more they remain the same. One thing is for sure: One way or another, American universities are going to change, and a lot, in the next generation.”


11. Provide professional development for administration, faculty, and staff.

One of the great ironies in higher education is that the industry teaches others more than it provides learning opportunities for its own faculty and staff.  David D. Perlmutter noted “one of the great paradoxes of higher-education leadership is that most of us who find ourselves in administrative positions have not studied the kind of work we end up doing on a day-to-day basis.”  For example, higher education administration manage budgets, communicate with external stakeholders, and create strategic plans with little or no formal education on how those tasks should be accomplished. Additionally, most department chairs have had no formal leadership or management training. Unfortunately, even when chairs received training “two-thirds reported it did not adequately prepare them for the job.”


12. Strive to offer a transformative experience as opposed to a transactional one.

President Elaine P. Maimon wrote “higher-education transformation, which is essential if colleges and universities are to survive in the 21st century, relies on transformative presidential leadership.” Unfortunately, in its pursuit to stay afloat, many institutions have become transactional in nature and lost any sight of what it means to offer transformative learning experiences. Maimon noted “Higher education must go beyond the dissemination of information to evaluation, connection, and application.” To remain relevant institutions would serve themselves well by recalling the words of the 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who published Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship in 1796 and wrote “If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better. If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.” Such an approach resembles a finding from the 2014 Great Jobs/Great Lives report that discovered “graduates who felt supported during college (that professors cared, professors made them excited about learning, and had a mentor) are nearly three times as likely to be thriving as those who did not feel supported.” Treating people what they are capable of becoming, supporting them, and serving as a mentor as three of the many characteristics of a transformative experience.




In a November 1, 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education article "The Enrollment Crash Goes Deeper Than Demographics," Nathan Grawe wrote “Savvy institutions should be working hard to get fit for the road ahead and act decisively to control the many things that are within their power.” One way to be savvy is to leverage an institution’s agility, resilience, and creativity. Implementing the ARC strategic imperative could help institutions “attend to unchanging fundamentals critical to institutional sustainability” while answering the question “are we content to usher in our own obsolescence?” The core values and principles outlined here could also help institutions differentiate themselves as colleges and universities look to understand the needs and interests of a new generation of students and remain relevant in the 21st century.








Disclaimer: This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is distributed with the understanding that neither the publisher nor author are engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.

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