07/17/2013 05:55 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Unpacking the Agenda for the New Academic Year

We're on the downside of another busy summer at Bethany College. In just a few weeks, our students will return to campus and unpack their semester's worth of belongings in the residence halls. How times have changed, when those of us who departed for college a generation ago brought little more than a suitcase or two!

Much more than that has changed in higher education. For one thing, there is no summer down time anymore. The agenda for the coming academic year is already waiting to be rolled out in August, while the fleeting days of summer for this college president are spent visiting alumni, presenting at professional conferences, and engaging new faculty and staff members. What most of us administrators do on our summer "vacations" is what we do the other nine months of the year.

In many ways, the agenda for fall term is no different from what it has been in recent years -- but it is increasingly urgent.

Affordability remains a paramount concern for all of higher education, with students and families challenging institutions as never before to justify an investment of tuition dollars. A report on college trends by The Lawlor Group, a leading higher education marketing firm, states, "Higher education has become less an end in itself and increasingly a means to an end -- primarily an economically viable career path. In calculating a college's value proposition, families factor in outcomes as well as cost and prestige. They expect proof of high graduation rates and graduate employment at acceptable salary levels."

Colleges and universities increasingly recognize their responsibility to deliver that "viable career path," seeking to find the most productive and meaningful balance for students of preparing for a career while learning for life. Although many institutions successfully market the life preparation conveyed by their liberal arts traditions, consumer expectations drive enrollment. And the expectation most often voiced these days is "how will my degree translate into a job?"

A related trend is how personal technology and social media are shaping the campus experience -- even before students enroll. The Lawlor Group points out that students use technology to "instantly verify any claims a college makes." Another study by Inigral Insights shows that 72 percent of new high school seniors have used social media in the college search process. Colleges are well advised to update their marketing to ensure that they reach their preferred audiences with the messages they prefer.

Once in the college classroom, students today absorb information quite differently, responding less readily to traditional lectures, relying more on online sources, and learning new rules that govern Web-based research, verification of facts, and etiquette. The possibilities posed by technology are also very exciting, however. "Smart" classrooms, videoconferencing, and other innovations now permit students to interact in real time with their counterparts thousands of miles away, in other classrooms around the world. This is important as we continue to prepare students for the global career marketplace. As I often advise our students, they will be as likely to compete with graduates from Delhi and Tokyo as they will Pittsburgh and Columbus.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), along with many social and economic factors, are challenging colleges and universities to rethink their traditional strategies of teaching and transferring credits. Many of my colleagues are participating in that discussion to discover new opportunities for college access while preserving the classical, residential campus experience that most of us still subscribe to.

Devoted faculty members, of course, remain at the heart of educational achievement. As they guide and mentor their students, arrange internships, and open career doors -- often with the active assistance of alumni networks and social media -- the entrepreneurial role of many faculty can only be expected to increase. As I travel around the country each year visiting Bethany's graduates in major cities, most credit the leadership and friendship of our College's faculty as the most influential and enduring factor in their career success.

Part of any institution's agenda each year, however, is finding the resources to recruit and retain faculty, to provide the tools of contemporary instruction and research, and to assist students with the shifting norms and values of a fast-paced society. Although we often stress the need for scholarship dollars to underwrite student opportunity, gifts dedicated for faculty research, development, and mentoring are equally welcomed and valued in meeting the true cost and contemporary needs of a quality education. "Faculty development" is not always easy to articulate to donors, but along with funds for innovative academic programs, it's at the core of many capital campaigns these days.

The success of any higher-education agenda depends on a proactive view of the internal and external forces that influence success. The most viable strategy of any college or university is not simply to react to those forces, but to lead the necessary process of planning for change that will anticipate and prevail over them.

It's more than a matter of having large endowments or healthy enrollment trends, though these indicators are obviously critical. It really comes down to taking a hard look at the consumer landscape, five years to a decade or more from now. That landscape is not unfriendly to higher education as we know it today, but the GPS of our strategic planning needs to be precise. An unnecessary detour, like any wrong turn, can be costly.

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 22nd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.