An often unspoken truth in higher education is that collaboration among leaders is difficult. Not only are administrators battling competing priorities and a long list of daily to-do’s — all against the backdrop of ongoing uncertainty — opportunities to connect with one another in a meaningful way are often limited.
Yet, meaningful collaboration is precisely what higher education needs right now. College and university administrators are facing an array of wicked problems exacerbated by stalling enrollments, rapidly changing industry skills, new technologies, and the student mental health crisis. The surest path to creative and innovative solutions to these challenges? Collaborative problem-solving and strong partnerships between higher education leaders.
The Importance of Collaboration
In part, the value of collaboration is that aggregating group-level decisions is better than individual decisions. Collaboration addresses two common sources of error in data-driven decision-making: bias and random error. In the book Noise, author Daniel Kahneman describes these two concepts as:
- Bias: The way inferences are consistently off the mark because of some systematic leaning in the way the data is being collected, interpreted, or applied.
- Random error: The amount of random spread of data points because of the large variance in information. This is typically what people experience with issues that they are the least clear about.
Convening a diverse set of voices can offset these errors. Even if leaders experience similar challenges in different contexts, their unique perspectives can shine a light on each other's biases and enable them to overcome more emotional interpretations of data.
The Benefit of Collaborating In Person
The benefits of collaboration are multiplied when it happens in person, primarily because there is a better opportunity for slack. Higher education leaders are often working in environments of scarcity, caused by emails, board meetings, fundraising updates, and other day-to-day functions piled on the plates of administrators. These mundane tasks block truly creative solutions.
Slack creates a vital buffer between decision-makers and the regular stream of ongoing and competing demands, enabling leaders to fully focus on creative problem solving. In a room with peers, that slack enables the sharing of ideas, which leads to pattern detection; in other words, those beautiful moments of connecting the dots between two seemingly disparate ideas. This synergy is when real breakthroughs happen.
But these synergistic dot-connecting moments rarely happen on their own. As much as different institutions may have in common, few have the time, resources, or established framework to connect with each other. Instead, institutions need a guide on the journey — an intermediary to determine how to structure collaboration, organize ideation, and bring together diverse institutions in pursuit of shared solutions to common problems.
Real World Collaboration: College Innovation Network
The combination of collaboration and data-informed decision-making was on display as WGU Labs hosted 10 institutions from the College Innovation Network (CIN) at Loyola University New Orleans in June 2023. Administrators from four-year institutions, community colleges, nonprofit institutions, and fully online colleges gathered to think critically about how to combat growing uncertainty about the value of a college degree.
Our team at WGU Labs led attendees through design-thinking exercises to help uncover critical barriers and identify potential solutions. Some of the insights that surfaced include:
- Declining student enrollment continues to be a crucial challenge for higher ed institutions.
- Students are uncertain about the value of a college degree. Institutions need alternative streams to recruit and attract new students, such as dual enrollment options and increases in online offerings.
- There is a sustained and increasing demand for hybrid and online course options post-pandemic.
- There is a vast underutilization of support services by students, primarily because learners aren’t sure how to identify or navigate essential resources.
In a time when there are few opportunities for administrators to connect and make sense of mounting uncertainty, CIN’s event demonstrated the importance of face-to-face collaboration — a sentiment that was shared widely by attendees
Luckily, collaborations will continue beyond the convening. CIN members will participate in virtual Partnership in Practice meetings, join pilot initiatives designed by WGU Labs, and contribute to a white paper authored by Labs. In doing so, these leaders will collaboratively navigate some of higher education’s wicked problems and help improve the student learning experience.