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Standifird: Current higher ed environment is challenging, but reasons for optimism about Bradley's course

Tim Shelley
Bradley University president Stephen Standifird visits the WCBU studios in Morgan Hall for an interview.

The recent Lincoln College closure announcement grabbed the attention of many working in higher education across Illinois. Bradley University president Stephen Standifird is among them.

He said he believes the Lincoln College example is illustrative of a trend of institutional failures he expects to see continue.

Standifird said he recently reviewed research conducted for the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based group, which suggests that demand for higher education remained essentially flat from 2009 to 2019, but capacity ballooned over the same timeframe - leading to more supply than demand.

"About 25% of the seats in higher education are sitting empty right now. If you think about that, in any other industry, that would be considered a wildly oversaturated industry that's going to have to have some type of market correction," Standifird said. "And I think you're gonna see that in higher education."

Standifird said the research suggests institutions will adapt by diversifying options, such as offering more online coursework; or via mergers and acquisitions with other institutions.

"You're going to see some closures. It is just going to be, unfortunately, an inevitable part of the market. All the more reason why it's absolutely critical that we are focused on and responding to the needs and interests of today's students," he said. "Because I'm absolutely convinced the universities that are doing that are going to be fine. And the ones that aren't, are going to pay the consequence."

Standifird said a more student-centric focus is the basis of the university's recently-adopted strategic plan. He said the research conducted in drafting that plan brought out two dominant themes: students want to be part of a diverse, welcoming campus community; and they want more than just career preparation out of their higher ed experience.

"Jobs still matter. That's obviously important. Students are reminding us of that. But it's more than that. They want to have a life of impact. And they want us to help them figure that out," he said.

He said that means offering courses students want, such as Bradley's burgeoning video game design program. But it also means offering a full and comprehensive experience that students are demanding universities create not only inside, but outside of the classroom.

That includes changing how advising works by adopting a new mindset which encourages paths traditionally frowned upon in higher education - even if that means something as unorthodox as helping a student switch majors in their junior year. He said a new coaching function and more off-campus opportunities are also part of the mix in creating a better Bradley experience.

"If we're doing a good job of creating that environment, the students will come here. They'll choose Bradley as their choice. And unfortunately, it's a pretty big mental shift for higher education. And I think it's going to be a real challenge for a lot of universities to make that shift."

"I know if we really get serious and remain focused on identifying the needs and interest of today's students, whether that's today, or 125 years from now, we'll be successful," Standifird said.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.