The next two decades will usher in a new era of college accountability, fueled by powerful new data systems intersecting with urgent calls for greater public responsiveness. Student voice will hold more power to make or break institutional success.
As colleges and companies deploy data-driven technologies to learn – and predict – more about their students, the public will inevitably gain significantly greater insight into how institutions serve their students. The currency in university prestige will ultimately shift from subjective reputation to objective results. That transition will trigger a race for relevance, as universities work to demonstrate their value to students, who will remain the primary stakeholder and financier of U.S. higher education.
The push toward greater transparency will help shift the incentives that drive institutional decision-making from chasing opaque rankings systems to improving student-level success rates. Amid that change, universities will need to adapt to myriad other disruptive political, economic, social, and environmental events. That evolution will require a level of institutional agility uncommon in traditional U.S. higher education. Some institutions will fail, leading to more shutdowns and consolidation. But the institutions that will survive, and especially those that will thrive, share one common practice. They listen to students. More than that, they empower students as institutional stakeholders.
A strong student voice will enable innovation and adaptation in an instable regulatory and financial environment. This shift will require perseverant culture change paired with intentional policy change over time. Institutions that want to thrive in 2040 will need to take action today. Rhetorical calls for student-centric policy will need to turn into tangibly student-centric institutions. It is a matter of institutional survival.
High profile leadership failures have revealed the fault lines within universities and demonstrate the urgent need for greater student voice. Many in higher education are still reeling from the 2015 system and campus resignations at Mizzou while more recent leadership crises at Michigan State University, University of Southern California, and University of Maryland have prompted structural reforms. While the media narrative in those cases highlighted the role of student protest in presidential turnover, the scandals in each case reflected a failure to value student voice in the first place.
Protest and activism have been tools used by students over time to advance change, predominantly around social issues, when formal means for change are unresponsive or unwelcoming to student voice. It is hard to imagine a future without a healthy amount of activism to push issues along. However, it is not the only means for student voice. Institutions will need to increasingly support and rely on elected student leadership and other formal channels to be as representative and informed as possible. It is the only streamlined way to infuse student input throughout a rapidly changing higher education landscape.
A student-centric future
Research at National Campus Leadership Council¹ suggests stronger student voice is linked to better student outcomes. It makes intuitive sense: institutions that engage student input throughout decision-making processes are more likely to develop policies that accurately identify and effectively eliminate barriers to student success.
“By fostering a strong, independent, and representative student voice, university leaders will be sure that they are hearing about real issues and concerns before they turn into crises and grab headlines”
Over the course of five decades, the Ohio State University (OSU) community has cultivated what we have researched to be one of the healthiest student-centric cultures in the country. It is not a mistake. In the heat of the violent Vietnam era campus protests, OSU leadership made a decision to start bringing students to the table rather than shut them out, as many of their counterparts did at the time. That intentional engagement now permeates across OSU’s vast, decentralized institution. They have the policy to match the culture. Today, students hold voting seats on OSU’s governing board and wield significant authority and influence in the university-wide senate. In fact, student input has been so valuable that the University Senate recently added two more voting student seats to their powerful fiscal committee. OSU’s emergence as a student-centric institution has paralleled its growing preeminence in American higher education.
Of course, there is room for growth, even at some of the country’s most student-centric institutions. Strong student voice is not an absolute antidote to campus unrest. Successful universities in 2040 will consider student voice to be more than an infrequent flashpoint of tensions between students and administrators; student voice will be an institutional value that drives ongoing expression of student needs and concerns.
Evolving with education delivery systems
The need to understand and mitigate barriers to student success will be universal in a diverse ecosystem of education providers. The continual proliferation of competency-based credentials (i.e., certificates, badges, etc.) and online education will pose a challenge to operationalizing effective student voice. Two big name online colleges are integrating traditional student leadership into governance. Pennsylvania State University World Campus, which launched in 1998, recently established a student government, and the Colorado State University Global campus has a student representative to its Board of Governors.
Traditional student governments may not be practical in every academic setting, particularly among short-term degree programs and online education. Nonetheless, existing and emerging players in this space will need to ride the new wave of transparency. To survive and thrive through inevitably seismic shifts in the industry, they will need to have ongoing, honest discussions with students about the challenges and opportunities facing their institution. In 2040, “student-centered” will be more than a marketing slogan; it will be a governing principle that permeates the culture at the world’s most successful postsecondary institutions.
1 Upcoming research published by NCLC https://www.campusleaders.org
Andy is executive director of National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC), which he co-founded to cultivate, strengthen, and advance student leadership in higher education. Since its 2012 launch, NCLC has conducted training, policy education, and research to empower more than 2,500 student body presidents at more than 500 campuses nationwide. Andy is a leading advocate for student voice in public policy, helping major stakeholders in the public and private sectors engage campuses on key issues. He helped the Obama White House launch several policy initiatives, including introducing President Obama when the President took action to support student loan borrowers and speaking at the It’s On Us campaign launch. He has previously led the DC Student Alliance and served as president of the American University Student Government. Andy grew up in Colorado and earned his B.A. in political science and Masters in public administration at American University.