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Business Officer Magazine

What's Ahead? You Decide

Take a proactive stance in shaping your institution’s tomorrows by engaging in structured futures thinking today.

By Karla Hignite

Attendees of the Campus of the Future conference in Hawaii this past July—hosted by NACUBO, APPA, and SCUP—did just that. They joined colleagues from their respective institution types (research, comprehensive and doctoral, small, and community colleges) to identify driving forces likely to shape the future of U.S. colleges and universities. The participants then developed scenarios depicting what they believe is most likely to occur during the next five to seven years. (See sidebars, “Conference Results” and “Institution Scenarios.”)

The act of futuring encompasses a variety of ways to apply foresight and creativity to a situation that is likely to take place in the short, intermediate, or long-term future, explains Steele. “A key aim of any futuring activity is to address in imaginative and logical ways the possible reality constructions that may act as a magnet for action.” The goal is to then take a proactive stance toward the future—to become change capable rather than change averse.

Shaping Tomorrow

“We all will end up somewhere in the future, even if we don’t think about it intentionally,” says Steele. “If our perception about a particular future is positive, we can take steps to ensure that we are prepared. If the perceived future is undesirable, that likewise can engage us to think and act to bring about a different reality.”

Consider that the world has so far avoided a head-to-head nuclear exchange, says Steele. He believes that may stem in part from scenarios developed in the 1960s by Herman Kahn, a military strategist, futurist, and founder of the Hudson Institute. Kahn’s scenarios depicted how horrific the future would be in the aftermath of a nuclear war, and consensus emerged from society at large around the fact that the world should not allow this to happen, says Steele.

A more recent example Steele points to is Al Gore’s lecture series and the related book and movie of the same title, An Inconvenient Truth. “Whatever you may think about the reality or politics of global climate change, this paints one scenario with the potential to impact societal behavior and strategy going forward,” says Steele.

That same shaping of behavior and strategy can happen for institutions, organizations, and communities willing to reflect seriously on potential realities. No matter the challenge, an important starting point for any futuring activity is to recognize that organizations have their own inertia, cultures, and histories. When it comes to the future, it is far too easy to simply continue with a same-as-last-year approach—perhaps with a little extra stretch or growth, says Steele. Preferred futures require anticipatory thinking and action.

Conference Results

In total, 1,004 attendees of the Campus of the Future conference participated in the scenario-building exercise. Representation included approximately 30 percent from research institutions, 28 percent from comprehensive and doctoral institutions, 27 percent from small institutions, and 15 percent from community colleges. The exercise guided participants in identifying key drivers of change, developing scenarios based on the intersection of two prominent drivers, and selecting which of the four resulting scenarios they believed most likely to occur during the next five to seven years. Several sub-themes of note emerged from the scenarios developed: the likelihood of future mergers or consolidations among institutions, a need for institutional branding, and survival going to those institutions that are most technologically fit.

“Not knowing how this might play out with such a large group, we were pleased that there did emerge some consensus in terms of major drivers of change identified,” says Susan Jurow, NACUBO senior vice president of professional development and communications. Jurow was likewise pleased that participants expressed strong interest in applying a similar scenario-building technique on their campuses—something they can do with the assistance of conference materials that will be available mid-November from Business Officer Online. (See sidebar, “Get Futures Resources Online.”)

Themes. As a whole, participants selected rising student expectations as the top driving force of change. (When combined with the related driving force of rising consumer expectations, the general notion of “rising expectations” was a clear concern.) Across all types of institutions, driving forces consistently picked as top shapers of the future included increased competition, technological change, and population changes. In building their scenarios, many groups paired technological change and increased competition as the two key forces driving change in their institutions.

Nuance. Some groups reworded the driving forces articulated in the exercise in order to expand or clarify the focus of their scenarios. For instance, the “global” concept from global economy became global outreach, global resource demands, global access and competition for students and faculty, and globalization in general. Most groups that marked energy and environment as driving forces combined the two in their scenarios. Many groups that combined rising student expectations and rising consumer expectations expanded the category to more broadly include stakeholder expectations. In that way, they could include consumers, students, faculty, staff, parents, donors, and the community at large. Many also revised the wording from rising expectations to shifting or emerging expectations. Likewise, some specified enrollment challenges, not enrollment declines only. And finally, many expanded the concept of population changes to include concepts of changing demographics in general, such as an aging workforce (a separate category on the worksheet) and the diversity of students, faculty, and staff.

Off-the-list thinking. In building their scenarios, participants were encouraged to add to the list of driving forces provided on the worksheet. Here are some of the additional forces indicated by type of institution.

  • Research institutions: human capital development, knowledge decentralization, increasing obsolescence, academic capitalism, delivery mechanisms, public policy regarding scientific research, availability of qualified students and staff, economic development, and increased competition for faculty.
  • Comprehensive and doctoral institutions: diverse student needs, competition for talent, sustainability, increasing importance of experiential learning, local market environment and climate, productivity, market forces changing education delivery, and skills necessary to deliver education.
  • Small institutions: faculty and staff housing, external expectations, affordability, impact of governing boards/trustees on operations, delivery of education services, institutional inertia, and collaborative learning.
  • Community colleges: expectation of 24/7 access, sustainability, lack of preparation in K-12 students, institutional rigidity, developing more commitments from external stakeholders, market forces, delivery of learning, ever-changing community needs and demands, workforce development needs, program offerings, minority access, and facilities expansion.

From Scenario to Strategy

One tangible way for institutions to put a futuring activity to use is within a strategic planning context. “Fifteen years ago, if you were deciding as an institution how much to spend on IT infrastructure, your response would have been different based on whether you perceived technology as becoming ubiquitous or you imagined that paper and pen would still rule,” says Phyllis Grummon, SCUP’s director of planning and education. “The particular future you envisioned ultimately shaped how—and how quickly—your institution moved forward with everything from wiring residence halls to training faculty to teach online courses.” Building scenarios can also help leaders assess institutional strengths and how to maintain core competencies no matter what unfolds, says Grummon.

Leaders can help move discussion from scenarios to strategies and strengths by posing questions that reflect on how institutions should respond.

  • What does the future of higher education look like for our region, our type of institution, and for our individual institution?
  • Which scenario is most likely to occur?
  •  Which scenario is most desirable?
  • Is it to our advantage to create this future? Do we want to make any part of this scenario not happen?
  • What can we as an institution do to bring about this future?
  • What strategies will steer our institution successfully through this scenario?
  • What actions should we take now?
  • What contingencies must we prepare for?
  • How does this scenario tap into our core competencies and strengths? What weaknesses must we first address?

To be most effective, futuring activities such as scenario building must be integrated into long-term strategic planning and budgeting processes, believes Steele. “When scenarios are assessed, ranked, reflected on, and used to create actual goals, they provide a shared view about institutional priorities.” That itself presumes the need to revisit the future on an ongoing basis to update plans and budgets, says Steele. At his own institution, monitoring of future forces and impacts is accomplished through collaboration between AACC’s Institute for the Future and its institutional research office, but every institution can put in place an informal group of futures-focused faculty and staff, says Steele.

Building a Better Reality

One key question about futures-focused thinking is how far to expand the group of people to involve. Often, the wider you can cast your net, the better, believes Steele. “Where one individual or one department might not see a particular scenario, many will identify a trend. The idea-gathering process brings to light certain possibilities that none of us will typically see on our own.” While institutions benefit from internal scenario building, including your larger local community can also yield valuable outcomes, says Steele.

Get Futures Resources Online
Materials used for the Campus of the Future scenario-building exercise are available online. Go to  and read the online exclusive “How to Bring the Future Home;” and access two useful worksheets, one used for brainstorming the key drivers of change and the other for developing group scenarios. Additional resources highlight scenario-building exercises and other futures-focused methods and techniques.

In any futuring process, drivers and scenarios will emerge that seem obvious and are widely held in common. At the same time, other isolated or weak signals may also surface, says Steele. “These aren’t weak in the sense of being unimportant. It could be that they simply aren’t yet recognized by a majority.” Take, for instance, the growing use of electronic devices by K-12 students for everyday communication. Several years ago, that may not have made the radar for most of us, says Steele. Yet, the reality of those technology preferences is now spelling necessary change for how institutions of higher education must continue to adapt their approaches to teaching and customer service for the future.

For those new to futuring, looking too far ahead may seem overwhelming, says Steele. As an institution engages in ongoing futuring activities, it’s most helpful to look near and far—as far out as 25 years, suggests Steele. “Most institutions can’t act on what they may envision 25 years hence, because it’s too fuzzy.” Even so, entertaining that measure of uncertainty is quite valuable in setting a course even for the short term, argues Steele.

“Consider the possibility that artificial intelligence will replace your faculty,” says Steele. In a five- to seven-year time frame, that would seem laughable to most people. But when you try to imagine how education delivery might occur 20 years from now, there may be greater consensus about the likelihood that this could happen at least on some level. “Current planners may not focus on artificial intelligence today, but they need to have that idea out there so they continue thinking about it and adjusting for it for the long term,” says Steele.

Another example is to consider the possibility that additional physical infrastructure won’t be needed on many campuses because of an increased prevalence of online and distance learning. In an online world, what should a learning environment look like, and who will populate that learning environment? “We have to increasingly think in those terms with the infrastructure and budget decisions we make today,” says Steele.

Institution Scenarios

After selecting two driving forces, conference participants developed scenarios based on the intersection of those forces along a high-low axis and then identified the scenario they believed would be most likely to occur during the next five to seven years. What follows is a sampling of scenarios developed by institution type.

Research Institutions

  • Changing student expectations (high) and external mandates (high): External mandates hamstring universities and prevent them from meeting expectations of increasingly demanding students and the research choices of faculty. Result: Further proliferation of alternative types and locations of institutions or shrinkage of the role of American research universities as students and faculty seek more accommodating environments to achieve objectives. Student and faculty makeup will change as more go overseas, yielding more niche institutions at home.
  • Increased competition (high) and energy-environment (high): More international students stay in their home countries. International competition soars, with dramatic failures of some universities. Institutions will have to prioritize, focus on education, and outsource other functions. Competition for faculty becomes fierce. Some institutions share faculty, and close down some majors. Organizations combine for economies of scale. Universities are forced to move quickly toward sustainable, efficient buildings. More housing is needed, since fewer students want to commute.

Comprehensive/Doctoral Institutions

  • Increased competition (high) and technological change (low): Competition is fierce since institutions can’t succeed at utilizing technology. Some institutions soar, some flop. The gap widens. Some small private and state systems fold. Several regional systems grow to mega-size, including those of SUNY and California.
  • Population changes (high) and technological change (high): Immigration laws and patterns continue to introduce large numbers of new students from other cultures who may not speak English as a first language. Technological changes put pressures on institutions in terms of providing current infrastructure, equipment, and training for students. Student learning stratifies as brightest students keep up and less trained fall behind.

Small Institutions

  • Rising student expectations (high) and increased government regulation (high): The only institutions that can afford to meet both forces are the elite and very wealthy, creating a class-divided education system. Two types of institutions emerge: those providing student-centered education and those delivering training while meeting the administrative requirements of governmental regulations. For institutions forced to deal with administrative requirements (and where student expectations take a back seat), dollars are shifted from faculty and student services to administrative and regulatory-compliance staff. Institutions resemble the DMV.
  • Rising consumer expectations (high) and technological change (low): Small colleges will prosper because they are better able to deliver on expectations. Desires for human interaction, increased socialization, and citizenship responsibility to the world mean a focus on technology as a tool. Institutions can catch up with technology and focus resources on other things.

Community Colleges

  • Increased competition (high) and technological change (high): For survival mode, institutions must be nimble and early adopters, with large investments in technology. They’ll need to operate within a true business model, willing to invest in risk and create collaborative partnerships with private organizations to maintain cutting-edge technology.
  • Enrollment declines (high) and global economy (high): With declining enrollment, little opportunity exists to turn enrollment around within the local economy. Community colleges risk becoming irrelevant. Flexibility and agility are required to answer demand for skill-set enhancement. As enrollments decline, community colleges may explore international markets, which change and challenge their existing roles.

Proactive Posture

An academy without walls may seem a frightening prospect to many, but institution leaders don’t have to be frightened about the next era of higher education if they begin thinking about potential futures and the responses required to remain relevant, says Steele. For him, the best way to develop good strategies is to have many ideas.

Tapping the collective brainpower of all individuals within an organization or a community provides a powerful resource for shaping the future that you want, says Steele. “Good leadership demands futures thinking.”

KARLA HIGNITE, principal of KH Communication, Tacoma, Washington, is senior editor of Business Officer