Voices in Education

Leading Transformative Change in Higher Education
I was a newcomer to higher education when, in 2010, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed me to lead the community college system I had once attended. However, my combined experiences as a former student, corporate executive, and chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago quickly led me to an important conclusion: all of us in higher education must move faster to transform higher education or we run the risk of losing our status as the primary destination for students and families seeking to improve their lives.
According to a recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, there will be 165 million jobs in the economy by 2020, and 65 percent of those positions will need some form of postsecondary education[i]. A 2017 survey by Civis Analytics and Echelon Insights found more than four in ten Americans believe that college is “not a worthwhile investment” because of questions of cost and the value of the degree[ii].
To their credit, community colleges have exerted considerable effort on shifting the paradigm from a sole focus on access to emphasize both access and success. Many of the efforts that we undertook during my tenure as chancellor of City Colleges, such as creating pathways and embedding marketable skills into the curriculum, are now commonplace in institutions across the country. Community colleges are often rightly praised for their responsiveness to the needs of the communities they serve. But in the current environment, they and other higher education institutions need to be even more nimble and responsive, while maintaining a focus on quality.
Though it’s encouraging to see institutions implement initiatives that are more responsive to the needs of students, employers, and communities, their leaders must reconsider outmoded ways of thinking and acting, as utilizing old frameworks will only deliver limited impact. We must recognize that our current students continue to struggle with confusing systems and structures that make it difficult for them to navigate our institutions. Their lives depend on our ability to help them navigate the system and gain the relevant skills they need to improve their own futures.
In my book, (see Reinvention), I share specifics on the ways we attempted to transform City Colleges during my tenure as chancellor, including the creation of pathways, the restructuring of academic programs and support, and operational efficiencies through a multiyear process we called “Reinvention.” That experience uncovered principles that may help other leaders ensure that change efforts at their own institutions are not just a set of initiatives, but rather a systemic and systematic approach to change at the scale of our collective challenges. They include:
Insistence on full relevance. Community colleges need to redesign courses and pathways to ensure that they lead to credentials with value in the workforce, and  that focus also should extend to change efforts. Are all initiatives, committees, and other structures focused on improving institutional and student success?
Strategic use of data. Objective data can drive honest discussions that underscore the need for change, build support for innovation, and then monitor progress and help address the resistance that comes with challenging people to stretch beyond their comfort zones.
Personalized information and planning. If community colleges are going to provide on-ramps to higher education, self-improvement, and meaningful careers for every adult, they must align their systems and structures to provide each student with accurate information about both their programs of study and the careers and fields with which they are affiliated.
Best practice operations and training. In today’s constrained budgetary climate, fiscal discipline and operational efficiency are what make other innovations possible, whereas training that supports these changes should focus both on the rationale and the best practices to implement them.
Cultural shifts. Much is made of cultural transformation, which has many dimensions. For higher ed, I believe the three key levers to shift culture are accountability: structures and metrics to evaluate success and pace; transparency: clarity on the challenges faced and open discussion on solutions; and collaboration: encompassing both internal collaboration and external consultation to bring together the best of academia, the business community, and outside experts skilled in change management.
The education market is estimated at about $1.3 trillion, with $475 billion of that attributed to higher education. Yet I still worry that the sector does not recognize that our use of outdated delivery models makes us ripe for disruption from nontraditional players, much as Amazon has transformed the retail sector and Airbnb has changed the lodging industry (agree or disagree). The increased validity and penetration of online providers, for-profit institutions, and free online education are already a challenge. It’s better to disrupt ourselves than be disrupted, and if we don’t figure out how to move more quickly as a sector, someone else will—and our students will follow.

About the Author: Cheryl L. Hyman is the former chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago and a nationally recognized executive leader with a background in organizational transformation. Named one of the ten most innovative college leaders in America by Washington Monthly, she is the author of Reinvention: The Promise and Challenge of Transforming a Community College System.