Welcome to Chiberia and the joys of winter travel. The picture says it all. Delays, cancellations, and making new friends at the airport as you fight over any available power outlet. Fun times. Finally, once the pain of missed appointments and rearranged schedules has cleared, there is usually a time for reflection. It is during these moments that evaluate how we responded to the situation and the help we did or did not receive along the way.
Recently, I had several flights cancelled, due to winter storms Harper and Jayden who shall not remain nameless. The cancellations were for good reason. Today, is forecasted to be a high of -14 with wind chills anticipated at -50 degrees. Yes, those are the seldom seen negative signs. Cancelled flight can be incredibly disruptive; however, I was thankful in that moment for the patience and guidance of one airlines customer service representative and for an airlines that followed through. Life, like the weather, throws a lot of curve balls. It is unpredictable and frustrating, but with the right attitude and help, something good can always come out of it.
Students are thrown curve balls every day. It is a rare student these days who can complete high school, enroll directly into a 4-year university, graduate on-time, and be gainfully employed soon afterwards. If we’re honest, these types of students are becoming the “non-traditional” student. Fewer students are able to follow the traditional path to a 4-year degree. More and more students are looking for alternative delivery modalities, a curriculum designed to meet their educational needs, and gaining important life skills, not just for a specific job today, but for handling all life will throw their way in the future.
Over the years, airlines have had to learn and adapt to changing customers’ needs and to the economic environment. This is very similar to what higher education is faced with today. Therefore, if hindsight is 20/20, it makes sense to learn a few lessons from those who have been there before.
Fly the American Way. We thrive on immediate access to information and the “American” way means access to more information than ever before. When we can understand the full picture, we can make better decisions. This is why, I received no less than 2 phone calls from American Airlines when my flight was on time. The first call was to tell me my gate number and the second was to tell me to enjoy my on-time flight. It makes us feel good and empowered to have this information. Similarly, students need the same information. They need to know they are on track to graduate. They need to know how financial aid will impact future life decisions and how their degree will assist them in achieving their professional goals.
I also received no less than thirteen calls when my flight was being cancelled, rebooked, cancelled, and rebooked again. As much as students need to know when they are meeting their educational goals, they also need to know when they are not meeting them. Proactive monitoring of student progress and early intervention gives students the timely information they need to change their behaviors. The argument is often, we just do not have enough staff or we cannot hire more student services representatives due to budget constraints, but what I failed to mention is that in fifteen total phone calls, not once did I speak to a human. Automation is available and it works.
You Are Now Free to Move About the Country. We love the freedom that airlines provide us. We can make a reservation and fly anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes. We can even change our mind, but mostly, we have options. There seems to be a common theme cropping up among politicians and even those in higher education and that is, one successful solution equals a successful solution for all. This is just not true. As of 2017, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport has the highest percentage of on time flight departures at 86%. Sounds great. Based on these statistics, to avoid aggravation and ensure you are on time, everyone should either 1) fly out of Minneapolis or 2) all airports should exactly recreate the processes and procedures being followed. However, everyone knows that airports and airplanes are at the mercy of air traffic controllers and the weather. So what works in Minneapolis more than likely will not work everywhere. This is true for higher education as well.
The solutions that work in Florida and for their population may not work in Massachusetts whose population and number of private institutions provide little comparison to Florida. This is why higher education programs driven at the state level makes sense. States have the best pulse on who makes up their high school demographics, their current workforce population, and what their economy’s needs moving forward. This is why international students fly over in droves to earn an American college education and why some students apply to out-of-state institutions because they want choices and have the freedom to choose.
Is Ready When You Are. The most important lesson for higher education is to be ready, but being ready is not about a destination, it is a continuous process. Higher education needs to do a better job at keeping what works, but not to the exclusion of exploring alternatives. Airlines have had to change to keep up with various economic challenges. Airlines have needed to review their internal culture, business drivers, and strategic plans to ensure they continue to be sustainable. A part of being successful is assuring productivity, convenience, and comfort all while serving a growing population of people on-the-go.
While higher education is about educating students well, we also have to consider the needs of the students we serve. Students today face barriers to achieving their educational goals and while higher education cannot provide a solution for each one, there are policies we can change to make the process more efficient and accessible. Students needing remedial courses should be identified early on, students’ programs of study should be transparent, students should have consistent encouragement throughout their programs, and students deserve a quality education that does not just focus on job specific skills, but also on life skills. While institutions claim to do all these things, the problem seems to be a gap between what institutions think they provide and what students actually receive.
We are selling students short when we only focus on job or training knowledge. Employers continue to say it time and again, we need critical thinkers, problem solvers, and team members. We need to prepare the whole student for the future and not just produce the next employee. We need to be developing citizens who can contribute to a shifting global society to ensure our sustainability.
Higher education has come a long way, but we have so much further to go. We need to focus on what makes sense for the students we serve. We should be providing the opportunities and pathways students need to be successful.
What other lessons can higher ed learn from other everyday businesses?