By Dr. Marie Gould Harper and Dr. Katy Launius | 06/15/2021
Higher education is undergoing many changes, especially in the aftermath of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. In this episode, APU’s Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Dr. Katy Launius about the innovations disrupting higher education.
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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining our session. Today, I have Dr. Katy Launius, and the two of us are going to be talking about the topic of the role of a radical leader and professional disruptor in today’s market. Welcome, Dr. Launius. Thank you for coming today.
Dr. Katy Launius: Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Harper. I’m really excited to be with you today.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. And what I want to do is to just start with you just providing us some information about yourself, telling us what you want to enjoy, and then we can lead into the topic at hand.
Dr. Katy Launius: Absolutely. Well, I am a higher education professional. I’ve had about 15 years of experience working at a variety of institutions. And during that time, I’ve had a variety of opportunities to work on different initiatives to really help institutions better serve today’s students, be more equitable, justice minded organizations. And I think I’ve learned a lot of lessons along the way that to do that kind of challenging work of institutional transformation, it really requires a really relationally oriented approach. And I think part of the reason why I have a framework of being a disruptor is just understanding that in many ways our colleges and universities need to function a little bit differently to serve today’s students.
And I think that I’ve arrived at this very relational approach because I enjoy bringing coalitions together. So folks from different perspectives, different ideas really coming together around a shared understanding and a shared purpose to really create change and impact students and ensure that the experience that they have on campus not only prepares them for a life of meaning in terms of work, but also provides them with those critical experiences and important relationships that are going to be that support that they need to be successful in college and beyond.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. It seems like you’ve touched a number of diverse areas and that you have been an influence in all of them.
Dr. Katy Launius: Yeah, I’ve had opportunities to work at very different institutions. So small liberal arts colleges, regional comprehensive universities, but really my heart is in community colleges. And so even if we think about community colleges like the youngest of higher education institutions, less than 100 years old, even the students that community colleges were intended to serve 100 years ago, they’re so different today. Our students are more diverse, they are older, and even increasingly, our 18, 19-year-old students have adult-like responsibilities. That’s really because higher education has changed in ways that maybe weren’t as intended as others. So, the cost of education has gone up, which means that many of our students, most of our students have to balance work and school in order to afford to pursue their higher education. And so that creates challenges for them in terms of that traditional college experience that we often think of or even see in media and the movies.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. Now, I’m glad that you mentioned one of your favorite types of institutions, community colleges. I want to stick with that. How do you think the pandemic has affected the operations of community colleges, and what do you think are some of the future challenges?
Dr. Katy Launius: Well, of course we’ve really seen that community colleges have been hardest hit in terms of some of the enrollment declines that we’ve seen during the pandemic. So, I live in Texas and here in Texas, the community colleges on average have seen enrollment declines of more than 10%, which is much higher than the four-year institutions. And I think oftentimes when we’ve seen periods of great challenge and even economic upheaval in the U.S., we’re often used to seeing college enrollment increase. If we’re having an economic downturn, then folks need to go back to school, reskill, or transition to a new industry. And instead, the pandemic is just really challenging us in terms of seeing that economic challenge, but not seeing the enrollment tick up with it. So instead, we have folks who have really disappeared from our colleges, but they’ve also disappeared from the workforce. So, I think one of the challenges for community colleges is figuring out how to reengage students, how to get them back.
One of those really critical populations of students are the students that have some college but no degree. So, they have maybe started a credential, but for whatever reason during the pandemic, they had to step away because of childcare demands or because maybe they or a family member got sick and so now they’re in a caregiver role. Institutions are really challenged with figuring out how to bring those students back.
I think one of the things that has been great during the pandemic, but in terms of what is going to be an upcoming challenge is that community colleges really have been well supported with the economic recovery funds recently. So, they have been able to do really great things over the last two years, like maybe forgive tuition balances for students that had to step away to really encourage them to come back. But we’re facing the reality that many of these economic recovery funds are not continuing into these current years. And so, operations at community colleges are kind of facing a funding cliff of they’re going to lose some of the influx of federal funds that they’ve had recently. And so that’s going to maybe give them less creativity or less opportunity to be innovative and think about how they can provide new support services that students need to re-enroll and maintain their enrollment in community college.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. You touched on a number of things that I want to have some follow up questions on. First of all, you provide a profile of what the community college student has been in the past, given the pandemic and even what we’ve seen in the media with certain individuals challenging whether or not you need a college degree, and then all of the news regarding student loan debt, what have been some of the changes that community colleges have implemented to address some of the issues that I want to say our society, but definitely media have posed that were not issues in the past?
Dr. Katy Launius: So yes, that is a great question, and I think that it brings up an important point that higher education is having to respond not only to new needs from today’s students, but also from the public. So, we’re in an era where just Americans as a whole are questioning the value of higher education. And so, knowing that public institutions receive a lot of public funding, this means that colleges and universities also maybe have to consider their value proposition, not just to students, but to the broader public. And so, your point as well about the reality that many businesses are reconsidering what requirements are essential for workers? So, do they need that bachelor’s degree, or can they perhaps come in with a combination of training and other tangible experiences? And this is where I think that community colleges are actually best positioned to really respond in this moment. Because from their beginning, community colleges have had such a vast and broad mission that yes, they’re here to prepare students for those first two years of college and then be able to transfer to obtain their bachelor’s degrees.
But community colleges are also here to do workforce development, short-term credentials. And so, as we’re seeing the market and the economy and the job market really change and evolve, I actually think that community colleges are best positioned. Let me share one example of how. Community is in the name of community colleges, and I think one of my favorite things about having worked at community colleges that was so different from four-year institutions is that for many of our academic programs, we had community-based councils that actually were guiding the curriculum development. So, it was faculty sitting alongside Toyota to say, “Well, what do today’s auto mechanics need? What are the skills that they need?” They increasingly need to have electronics experience because we’ve all got a smartphone in our cars now. So, it’s not just changing the oil, it’s also, can you make the electronic?
And this is where, you know, I have a bachelor’s degree in religious studies so you’re going to see that I don’t know the technical skills, but I just thought that that was such an innovative way of actually sitting down alongside industry, alongside the community to say, “Well, what does a graduate really need to be successful when they walk out of the doors?” And so, I think that’s a great example of how community colleges are set up to respond well to the challenges that we’re facing today. But that doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable. Change is still hard, disruption is still hard, and that’s why you need relationships.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Exactly. And when I think of community colleges, especially the work that I’ve done with them, I’ve appreciated being able to go onto their campus, to allow them to tell their stories. I mean, that’s one of the favorite things that I’ve had in terms of my relationships with different members, whether it’s faculty, administrators or the students in that particular environment. With that said, like my preference for physically being on a community college campus, how does that particular environment integrate online services? For example, have students accepted being online students, or is there still a preference going to the campuses?
Dr. Katy Launius: That’s a great question, and I think that this is an area where community colleges also maybe face a little bit more nuanced challenge in this area than four-year institutions, although that’s not going to be entirely the case. I think that there are actually a population of community college students who really appreciate the transition to virtual. I think that the pandemic really pushed many community colleges, I mean all of higher education, into embracing more online and virtual formats.
As I mentioned, some of my background has been at small private institutions, regional comprehensives, community colleges. In all of those, with the exception of one, they did not have really robust online virtual presence. And so, I think that being challenged during the pandemic to really think about what is effective online pedagogy, how do we deliver student services, how do we create a sense of belonging has been a really good push, that uncomfortable change that community colleges have had to go through.
And I think creating that virtual space has also been really important for the students that community colleges serve. So, if we’re talking about that adult learner who is working full time, balancing being a caregiver, whether that’s to a child or a parent, that sandwich generation, it’s really tough for them to then squeeze in getting to class. So being able to go to class online has been a real added bonus. Being able to meet with their advisor online has been great. So, I think that’s great for one population of students. And yet because community colleges have this broad mission, online isn’t right for everyone. So, we’ve got institutions that have students who do not have the Internet connectivity that they need. I mentioned that I’m in Texas, I’m very lucky that I’m in a large metroplex, but Texas has many rural communities where there is not adequate Internet connectivity. So that can’t be the only solution.
And also, when we’re thinking about serving the broadest population of students, that means that inevitably there are students who also don’t have the technical savvy to navigate online classes. In some of my work during the pandemic, it was even around helping students learn how to do online courses. So how are you successful in a course? How do you navigate what an online course shell looks like? Where is your syllabus? Where is the discussion board? And also helping students understand that just because it’s an online course, doesn’t mean that it’s less work. You might still have to log in for a live lecture. You’re still going to have deadlines; you’re still going to have to write a term paper. So, I think that, again, the transition to virtual and the addition of more virtual student services has been good on the whole for community colleges and the students that they serve, but it also can’t be the only strategy to reach students.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. I totally agree with what you’ve said, and you’ve given me some insight because we have some partners in the community college environment, and I needed help on identifying what do they need from us as we talk about articulation agreements, like getting the feel for the community college environment after the pandemic. And some things that we may have offered do not make any sense right now.
Now, you mentioned something earlier about enrollment going down, and I will be perfectly honest. Of all the different types of institutions, I was the most surprised to see community college environment take such a dip. I’m still a little bit confused about why that’s so, but you introduced something that I want to explore. You mentioned that not only are students not coming back to the classrooms, but you see situations where they’re not going back into the workforce either. Now, in my opinion, I think it’s because during the pandemic, it gave individuals the opportunity to think about what’s important in their life. And from that point, how are they going to switch things around? Do you believe that we have been adequate in having a conversation with potential students to talk about how we can fit their new needs?
Dr. Katy Launius: No, I don’t think we have been. I actually agree with you too, that I think the pandemic has caused everyone to really reflect on what their values are and to seek out a life that better aligns with those values. And I think that’s where higher education can do a better job with communicating the value proposition of it. And so, I think this goes back to some of the earlier themes we’ve touched on today around Americans really questioning, does higher education have a value? Am I still going to be more successful if I have a college degree than not? Those are reasonable questions to ask when we also see things like the student debt crisis. So, if a lot of the media messages about higher education are that it’s so expensive and that generations of students are now locked into this debt that is almost like carrying around a mortgage in their early 20s, well, that’s going to really make a lot of people question whether or not going to college is the right decision for them.
And so somewhere in that conversation, we have maybe stopped saying or not saying well enough that even with that debt, your lifetime earning potential is higher. And maybe that’s not the right answer either, because if you’ve gone through a questioning of what my values are and you say, “Hey, during the pandemic, during lockdown, I learned that I can live a much simpler life and I’m happy with that. So, I don’t need the same financial incentive that I previously did.” But you know what else higher education does? It also increases happiness. It increases wellness. So, it’s not just a financial benefit. Folks who have a college degree, on average, live longer lives, live healthier lives, live more fulfilled lives.
So, from that vantage point, we do need to make the value proposition that higher education is an investment in yourself, yes, for your career, but for your purpose. It’s going to help you build new relationships, have new experiences, different perspectives. It’s going to shape your life in ways that you couldn’t have imagined. And so, yes, one of the benefits coming out of that is hopefully that you’ll have a fulfilling career that sustains you and your family, but also that you’re going to be a healthier, happier person as a result of attending college.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, and I like your message of sharing the value added. With that said, in the past, having the opportunity to do that was always seen as getting student loans. Do you think we have the opportunity to shift people more towards…? Like community colleges focus on the workforce, that to encourage them to get to companies that have tuition reimbursement programs so that the students or potential students are gainfully employed, but the way that they increased their skillset is by a benefit that the company is offering versus student loans?
Dr. Katy Launius: That’s a great point, and I think that that’s an example in which community colleges already are and need to disrupt more than they currently are. So, whether that is seeking partnerships with businesses who are going to provide a benefit to their employees or other forms of non-traditional higher education models, whether it is maybe expanding early dual enrollment initiatives. So, what if instead of having to come out of high school and start college right away, there are many states doing dual enrollment where you can graduate from high school with not only your high school diploma, but also your associate’s degree. And so, you’ve already got those first two years completed. And so then really, you are only looking at two years to complete a bachelor’s degree. Or if you get an associate’s degree in the right field, you can just go straight into the workforce.
I think the other thing that colleges need to increasingly do is think about stackable credentials. So, when we talk about the prevalence of students who start college and don’t finish, well, if we are only going to get you a credential after you’ve completed 60 hours of an associate’s degree, that does create a lot of opportunity for a gap. And so, what if instead after your first semester, you earn a certificate in cloud computing on your way to an associate’s degree in computer science? So, after that first semester, you can already increase your earning potential. You can go from being that help desk assistant to now, you’re the cloud computing technician. That student not only is going to progress through their curriculum, but through their career at the same time and increase their earning potential while still enrolled.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. I’m glad that you brought that up because our institution is promoting our nano certs as ways to get skill sets that are needed in the immediate future, but to look at earning a degree as their long-term goal. Do you think that is an excellent way of promoting how higher ed still adds value?
Dr. Katy Launius: I mean, absolutely, because I think that that’s also an area where higher education can innovate quicker. You know better than I do how long it takes to get a new bachelor’s degree approved. Not only do you internally have to work with your faculty around designing the curriculum, but then depending on your institution, you’ve got to go outside to accreditors to say, “Hey, here’s our plan. Are you on board with this?” That whole process can mean it takes, what? Two years longer.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Sometimes.
Dr. Katy Launius: Yeah. Maybe in the best scenario, it takes two years.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, that’s the best scenario.
Dr. Katy Launius: Well, oh my gosh. In this day and age, imagine if you were designing a healthcare program pre pandemic, how might your program need to change while you’re still waiting for approval? But when we’re talking about these nano or micro credentials or short-term credentials, the reality is that a lot of times those do not need board approval, accreditor approval. Those can be the areas where higher education is working in lockstep with industry to say, “Oh my gosh, what has just come up? Okay, what’s that maybe specialized skill that someone needs, and it only takes a semester to complete or less?” Because I don’t think that we’re going into a world where suddenly credentials are not going to matter. I know that we’re taking away degree requirements, but I don’t think that that means that credentials are going away. But it does mean that how we think about quantifying and saying, “Yes, this individual has these skills that you know you need.” That might change the different types of certificates. I think all of that might change, but it doesn’t mean that certificates or credentials are going away from the workforce.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I totally agree with you. You said a couple of things. First, I want to go back to the length of time it takes to get a program approved and running. What are your thoughts about how do we overcome that challenge? With the way things are changing so quickly now, it’s very discouraging to know that you’ve done your research and you create this program only to find out by the time it gets approved, it’s irrelevant.
Dr. Katy Launius: That’s where I think each institution is its own little ecosystem. And so, I think this is where I get back to, it’s about relationships. Because in us talking about getting a program approved, what did we talk about? We talked about faculty, we talked about accreditors, we talked about… Right? So yes, these are organizations, but they’re groups of people. And so, we’ve got to maybe think about asking faculty, how can we move curriculum development processes quicker? We’ve got to talk with accreditors about really what all needs to be approved or what does it look like to certify and guarantee programs. That’s one of those things where it’s like, I feel like I don’t quite know the answer. And that’s part of why disruption is challenging. Because a lot of times when we’re talking about having a sense that something’s not quite working, we often don’t know what the answer looks like because it’s something different than what currently exists. And that’s what makes change so uncomfortable because oftentimes we know we need to change, we know things need to look different, but I can’t paint you the picture at the end of the road.
Part of the change process is that the change itself is going to change along the journey, and that’s why it requires a bedrock of trust of relationships amongst different parties where we can be honest with one another and say, “Here’s what I’m uncomfortable with, or here’s my perspective, my lens.” And we’ve got to really co-create what that new thing is. What is the new way for how we do curriculum development with faculty? What is the new way that we talk with accreditors about how we are meeting the needs of our students and industry at the same time? I don’t quite know what that answer looks like, but let’s get some people in a room together and talk about it.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, I totally agree. The other point that you mean that triggered a question for me was about the faculty and the certificates where we are now. I remember starting out in online education, I actually took a year off from working on my doctorate degree to go back and get a certificate to help design online programs. My dissertation was on faculty satisfaction with online programs, especially as it related to their promotion and rank. One of the things that came across was the value of online teaching and learning to their career. I’m starting to hear the same type of concerns about certificates. Have you heard that, and what are your thoughts about having faculty buy in, especially full-time faculty buy in to, I don’t want to say switch, but to have an acceptance of certificates as being valuable and valid?
Dr. Katy Launius: Honestly, this is where sometimes despite our best efforts as colleges and universities, we can be a little disconnected from industry because the reality is that industry has already accepted certificates. They already recognize their value. And so, I think what we’ve got to do with faculty, and again, this goes back to relationships, I think that we have to find ways to bridge the gap even more between our institutions and the communities that they serve. So how can our faculty be more embedded within current industry? How can they hear from employers directly? This is where oftentimes we can agree with maybe faculties’ critiques of administrators, where we’ve taken away some things that were historically faculty responsibilities, administrators or staff do that now. So, we’ve got advisors, we’ve got career services, and it’s those folks who are often the ones talking with employers. So, it’s our career services department that might have the relationships with business and industry that they’re hearing, “Oh, yeah, we need project managers. So, it’s great if a student’s got a bachelor’s degree in business, but maybe what we really want is someone with a PMP.”
So, I think that we’ve got to oftentimes maybe bridge the gap and create spaces and ways to do that for faculty. Does that mean reconceptualizing what faculty service looks like? So, is it not just service to the college or the university? Is it service to the community? Is it engagement with industry? And so, letting faculty be more engaged and learn directly from the industry that they’re preparing students for. I think that that might be a way to do it so that they can really see the value in the certificates that they’re providing.
The world is changing outside of our ivory tower in higher education, and so helping our faculty, as well as administrators and staff, all of us can be separated from industry so I don’t want to make it seem like it’s just faculty. I believe deeply that when our institutions are more embedded in the community, they better serve students, and they better serve our community.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: And I totally agree with you, and I think it all boils down to getting people to engage and embrace their communities. That’s one of the arguments that I use for when people question whether or not work at home status encourages engagement between employees. For me, personally, one of the things the pandemic did was to allow me to engage more with my community. I’ve done a lot of work, but I had the opportunity now to take a break and then get out to meet the people that live around me, and what are some of the things that are of concern to them. Now, one other question that I have before I asked you the last one, and that is, industry recognizes the value of certificates, and we have institutions who have always been the expert that industry has gone to. How do you think we can help assist the transition and mindset with the different types of institutions in higher education, that we no longer need them to be the experts, we want them to be the partner?
Dr. Katy Launius: That’s a great question, and maybe also makes me just think about the last question as well in regards to faculty and maybe their appreciation or embracing certificate programs in general. What I’m thinking of is just we also see industry; we see certain industries willing to step in where we are not. So, we’ve now got companies saying, “Okay, well we’ll do our own corporate universities.” I’ve got different feelings about that because I think that there’s a critique to be made for saying that, hey, maybe the pendulum swung too far with industry, relying on higher education too much to do all of your training and preparation such that a graduate is going to come out and be able to hit the ground running with you, and that there wouldn’t have to be any kind of on-the-job training.
So, I think we’ve got to find a way to maybe recalibrate together, because I think that corporate universities will see that’s kind of new. I haven’t seen a ton of research or outcomes yet on that, but I guess I’m hesitant about that being the solution as well. Because I do think that we have value in being pedagogical experts, we have value in the student development that we provide outside of the classroom. So, I think that we can’t just say, “Oh, well, we’re going to throw our hands up and just let corporate universities move forward with short-term credentialing and on-the-job training.” We’ve got to find ways to bridge that gap between both of us, between industry and higher education.
And this is where my perspective and my lens on it is that I think that policy is the answer for that. That I think oftentimes policy can help incentivize and bring folks together, bring them to the table to really think about some of these big issues. Like, how do we better prepare students for industry while not sacrificing those more holistic outcomes like wellness and happiness? If a student foregoes college and just goes the corporate university route, do they have the same wellness outcomes that you would have from obtaining a traditional higher education degree?
So, I think again, it’s about bringing folks to the table, whether that is at the local level with your community college and your largest employers, to say, “What role do you play? What role do we play and how do we really work together?” But also, maybe delineate between, we prepare students broadly and you’re still going to have to provide on-the-job training, or is it a collaboration around designing specific certificates for that institution or that industry partner? So, I think that there’s a lot of challenges that higher education faces right now, but I think that that creates these opportunities for more robust partnerships and innovation that hopefully better serves our students, better serves industry, and equips all of us for the purpose that we want to lead.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Great. And you know what? You mentioned some very valuable points that I think will head us in the right direction, and that’s the whole concept of partnerships. We have to let ego get out of the way, recognize that there has been a paradigm shift, and those of us who are capable of moving forward and not holding on to old stakes, I think will make it. With that said, do you have any closing remarks?
Dr. Katy Launius: Oh, I just appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation with you about really the future of higher education and how we can just develop these more robust partnerships to make sure that our institutions are meeting the needs and hopefully answering that question of what is the value proposition of higher education? It’s one that prepares our students to live both lives of meaning as well as ones that contribute to their communities as well. So, I’m excited to continue the conversations with you and with others and hear the other ideas about how we can move forward in this new reality.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Agreed. I enjoyed speaking with you today, and I think you have given us some food for thought. I’m looking forward to when you come back again as time progresses and we see what our industry is doing, and then we can talk about whether or not we think we’re going in the right direction. Hopefully, we are. But I will enjoy having future conversations with you.
Dr. Katy Launius: Thank you.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: We have been speaking with Dr. Katy Launius. This is Marie Gould Harper, thanking you for listening to our podcast today.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Dean of the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist, and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of experience.
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