What is Higher Ed 2.0 and Why Should You Care? 

A Legendary Podcast 

Back in June Kamaar and George sat down with Jason Pfaff, now Vice President at Ancora Education, to talk about the higher education industry. They didn’t’ know it at the time, but this episode would become a landmark in The Higher Ed Podcast Series. You can catch the episode here.  

As usual, they talked about the changing landscape of higher ed, with a heavy emphasis on marketing thanks to George’s expertise as the CEO of Chief Digital Marketers and Jason’s experience across many roles.  

Pfaff also has experience as the Head of Learning Innovation at the Association for Talent Development, and has applied the concept of innovation across several roles. He said on the podcast “The way my mind works, you either innovate or you die.” 

This thought is especially true within the modern practices of higher ed, both in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic and just the growing role of technology in general. Pfaff believes that many colleges and universities need to change, or innovate, in order to survive. These changes are big, and they would shake the modern marketing and admissions practices of many higher ed institutions to create a new way of operating. This idea gave way to the most frequent question that Kamaar asks our guests – What does higher ed 2.0 look like to you?  

Channeling Elon Musk  

This concept of innovation is what drove the episode, and is the reason that it’s titled “Higher Ed Needs and Elon Musk.” As many people know, Elon Musk is one of the greatest innovators of our time. Not only did he revolutionize online transactions through PayPal, but he’s also changed the world through his roles with companies like SpaceX, Tesla, and several AI companies. Engine COO Kamaar DeJarnette is a big fan, admiring the aggressive ways in which Musk is willing to disrupt normality to make way for innovation.  

This is exactly the mindset in which Kamaar, and everyone here at Engine Systems, wishes to approach the higher education industry  

The fact of the matter is that higher ed institutions must be more aggressive than ever when it comes to student acquisition. Never before have colleges and universities had so much to compete with. Whether that’s non-traditional education, smaller certifications, competing with other institutions to recruit students or the vast amount of knowledge that people can access for free on the internet, it’s never been easier for people to learn and become qualified for professional careers. Which means, conversely, that it’s never been harder for colleges to survive.  

This was true even before the COVID-19, yet the onset of this pandemic has only exacerbated the situation, making it dire for certain institutions. Jason Pfaff noted that “COVID has forced people to understand how close to the brink they were, and they just didn’t get it. They just didn’t understand, you know, ‘I run an institution that’s been here for 100 years or 50 years’ [nor] understand how close to the brink that they really were.” 

Higher Ed Needs a 2.0 

So what’s the problem? Why were many universities on the brink of failing before COVID-19, and how has the pandemic left them even worse off than before?  

Pfaff has some interesting insight and a unique perspective on the matter. Not only did he grow up thinking about higher ed – with a professor for a mother and a university president for a father- but he has continued the family tradition by working in higher ed for nearly 20 years.   

“One of the challenges right now, you guys may agree or may not agree…But you’ve got a lot of institutions run by folks that are new to this [digital]  landscape, right? They did not grow up with Instagram, they’re not on Snapchat, Tiktok, they don’t understand SMS, email, some other ways of accessing folks.” 

Many colleges are led by older folks, likely in the baby boomer generation. While they do have decades more insight than their younger colleagues, many of them lack the technological insight that’s necessary to maintain authority in today’s technological world. Despite their potential lack of knowledge, they do have resources available to them, like our consulting services at Engine Systems.  

Pfaff continued to say “The first thing you got to do is you got to flip it, you have to get in this in the mind and in the heart and in the viewpoint of your students. And what keeps me up at night is not a lot of institutions are doing that. And let’s go a step further. Not a lot of institutions are capable of doing that one and never had to…[operate] in a competitive landscape.” 

How to Get There 

The competitive landscape that Pfaff is referring to is the internet. Never before have consumers – in this case students- had so many options available to them so readily. Before the internet was widely used, it was harder to learn about colleges that people didn’t have any personal connection to, especially if they were far away. But now the internet provides boatloads of instant information that prospective students can peruse at their leisure.  

Not only do they have more access to information, but more colleges are competing for their attention. This is the competition that Pfaff was talking about. When students search, for example, “best colleges in Tennessee” or “best nursing programs in Georgia,” the first hit to appear on their Google page may not actually be the best programs, but instead, that college might have the best marketing team who know how to ‘sell’ their university and get its information in front of searching eyes.  

Properly marketing a college is crucial in today’s marketplace. So how can institutions do that? Pfaff says they need to start now: “Let’s face it, you have 40 million people out of work, right? So most folks will be looking for training, but they may be searching for it in a different way than the folks [were] before we entered into this, so, you know, I would say folks need to really do some analytical homework due to COVID and see how online patterns have changed, because I think it’s been a massive shift.” 

Engine Systems was created to solve this very problem for universities. Our consulting services cover every aspect of performance management, from marketing and budgeting to staffing and beyond. And our network of higher ed professionals ensures that we’re staying informed and up to date on  

Tune in to Hear More 

Jason Pfaff laid out lots more actionable advice throughout the episode, which you can listen to by clicking here. While you’re there, be sure to subscribe to The Higher Ed Podcast to hear more from myriad industry experts, and follow Engine Systems on LinkedInFacebook, and Twitter to hear clips, watch videos, read quotes, and more.   


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