I have been thinking a lot about higher education and its future recently now that we are looking more and more like we are slowly inching out of the COVID crisis. In the past year, the way and how we have delivered higher education has made many of us who think and work in this space to take stock as to what do we keep and what do we cast off in this post COVID world. And I have an idea. It is controversial so I apologize in advance if I ruffle your feathers. We focus on reimagining higher education as an essentially a learning park. Think of approaching higher education in the same way that Walt Disney World approaches tourism and we work to deliver a higher education experience that is both predictive and responsive to data in a way that is almost effortless. Stick with me here.
I am a huge fan of the Mouse House. One of the reasons I was drawn to Orlando for my career was an opportunity to live near Disney and no one does customer service like they do. And, before the tweet storm going after me that I dared call students, customers, know that I understand the difference. But I feel like the tactics we deploy can be similar. Before I make the leap to higher education here is how Disney works. Over time Disney collects literally millions of data points from their guests over time to help develop the exact right level of service, access, and return on investment. Every time I walk into a park, Disney knows generally how much I am going to spend on souvenirs and food, how many times I will stop by the restroom, and what rides I will most likely want to access. My Disney app then pushes ideas to me, and fast pass suggestions based on my profile. They can repeat the algorithm even for people on their first visit. Speaking of first visits, Disney has an entire program for people visiting their parks for the first time. Their idea is if they can make sure you understand the park you will enjoy it more and come back multiple times. So, they have endless wayfinding choices to suit your needs. And then the park itself. Regardless of what kind of experience you are looking for there is a path for you. As an adult now I tend to stay at Epcot and Animal Kingdom. There are better restaurants, the entertainment is more adult themed, and there is wine.
So, what does all of this have to do with higher education? I envision higher education creating similar experiences based on two algorithms; the first being what kind of student does the student want to be and what kind of experiences do they bring to the table. From there higher education can connect the dots and create a pathway that is efficient and meets student expectations. For example, most students enroll in college to improve their employment opportunities. We know this to be a fact. According to Lumina Foundation data 91% say that is their primary reason for coming to college. If we know that then we can use data to ensure that most of the student’s experience is focused on career building activities. Including suggesting majors which matches their interests and showcases what jobs they will be qualified for, co-curricular experiences that develop a student’s employability skills. And they earn their badges or certifications automatically as they go. We work with the students to understand how long they wish to stay in college. Is price the focus of that expectation or is it something else? As a Disney patron there is a price point for every customer. This includes more affordable housing, ticket prices that are pro-rated based on how when and how they want to access the park, and food and souvenir choices at every income level. We should be actively allowing students to choose the richness of their educational experience along these price and time structures.
Imagine a scenario where a student is presented with a planning document where they choose what their budget was, and we can show them what that means in terms of their educational choices including financing options. And as part of this planning, we begin with a peek at a career goal and their salary potential. And here is the key part of all of this. With few exceptions, all Disney employees are cross trained on helping guests navigate the parks and can use the student’s data to give informed advice along the way. So, if I am at the France pavilion at Epcot and I have lost my way to get to a dinner reservation in the Magic Kingdom anyone close to me can shift my reservations, find me a path to get to my destination, and advice for other options along the way. It becomes an experience that is individual and focused.
Finally, the educational spaces would be more conducive for student use. Places to study, to experience, to experiment, and to live would be harmoniously spaced in predictable traffic patterns. Look, I know we cannot be Disney. There is a clear difference between a private company and higher education, but we can learn from their best practices and make college more accessible and predictive. There is a lot that is going to change in the future for higher education and that should be a good thing. If we adapt as our students needs shift, then we become more responsive and that means more students graduate and they go on to great jobs.