ICYMI: Higher Ed Trends

PeakSpan Capital
9 min readApr 6, 2023
Recording: https://vimeo.com/810291436

We’re back with some more EdTech content — this time focusing on the trends circulating the Higher Ed landscape! For this round, we collaborated with one of our decorated PeakSpan Expert Community (or “PEC”) members and a well-known EdTech influencer in the Higher Ed space, Dustin Ramsdell, for a moderated discussion hosted on the Higher Ed Geek Podcast — audio accessible here. The Q&A discussion was moderated by our colleague Russell Perkins, a Senior Associate on our EdTech theme. It featured an amazing exchange between Dustin and our EdTech Theme Lead and Partner, Sanket Merchant, on the state of Higher Ed, challenges/opportunities, and the trends we’re all watching closely. A few things they cover include:

  1. Impact and mitigants to decreasing enrollments
  2. The current state of admissions, recruiting, and more, including the importance of career pathing to improve student outcomes and differentiation
  3. Student experience (SxM), engagement, and EdTech infrastructure to support the modern campus
  4. Opportunities to improve access to campus resources, support, and more
  5. Alternative education paths

You've come to the right place if you hadn’t heard the episode already. The full video can be viewed here, but if you want a quick synopsis, read on for a summary of the discussion with some of our favorite quotes. Full bios of our participants are available below — otherwise, feel free to catch up on the discussion; as always, ping us with your thoughts and questions!

Dustin Ramsdell (LinkedIn) is a Higher EdTech content creator and influencer who aims to drive meaningful conversations with top leaders in the field. His show, The Higher Ed Geek Podcast, explores all the nuances of higher education, with a focus on innovative technology and practices from his fellow professionals. Dustin also currently works as the Community Engagement Lead at Pathify. He loves craft beer, good pizza, and sustainability. Dustin lives happily in Delaware with his wife, Jenn, their daughter, Ellie, and their dog, Chelsea.

Sanket Merchant (LinkedIn) is a Partner at PeakSpan Capital and leads our EdTech and broader Learning & Development sector focus, which spans Pre-K/ECE, K-12, Vocational Education, Higher Education, and Professional/Lifelong Learning. He has 10+ years of experience in B2B SaaS investing with participation on 10+ growth stage boards in addition to extensive exposure to the broader HCM/L&D markets. He is also the father of twin 3-year-old boys who only recently started their own academic journey and recently had their first day of school 😊

Russell Perkins (LinkedIn) joined PeakSpan Capital in 2022. Prior to joining PeakSpan, Russell sourced and advised growth stage technology companies on M&A and capital raises as a member of the Investment Banking team at Vista Point Advisors, covering vertically focused SaaS and internet businesses. Before Vista Point, Russell began his career in the Investment Banking Division of Financial Technology Partners.

Admissions and Enrollment:

Q: How can Higher Ed institutions differentiate from competitors to tackle the challenge of decreasing enrollment rates?

Dustin: Institutions can resist the urge to be all things to all people and instead lean into their differentiation, academic specialties, and the sort of experience they want for their students. Institutions don’t necessarily need to keep growing more and more in terms of students every year because that comes with more complexity. Instead, I think that you can level set and calibrate to what feels like a good size for the education you offer and focus on clearly differentiating your student experience. You don’t have to provide every single academic program under the sun, but instead, align your educational experience with your existing faculty and whatever resonates most with your brand and mission.

Sanket: “I think we need to break away from what we have traditionally seen as the conventional view of the student, and consider the widespread variety of alternative paths that are now available to the modern learner. The advancements around different programs, boot camps, specialized skill development, etc. are really amazing…I think universities are starting to latch onto this idea of divorcing themselves from national rankings, and instead, measuring success based on the social and economic mobility they are offering. It’s an awesome paradigm shift in terms of creating sustainable differentiation, and actually measuring success based on the outcomes these institutions are driving for students, i.e. what are they doing to transform their lives post-college, how does that affect career success, trajectory, earnings, and social mobility.”

Q: How is the current state of recruiting, admissions, and enrollment working, or conversely, broken? How can EdTech tools serve to fix a potentially “broken” status quo?

Dustin: “There’s an opportunity for institutions to revamp what they are doing, and for students to make better informed choices around social, academic, and financial fit. You sometimes see that students are overly bottlenecked towards name brand, high-end academic options, but those aren’t always the types of students that need additional support or the types of institutions that need to innovate due to their resources. For first-generation, underrepresented, online, and/or adult learners, there’s a lot of opportunity for informed decision-making and a shift towards best-fit institutions and learning paths that haven’t always been on the radar.”

Higher Ed Institutional Management and Infrastructure:

Q: How have colleges historically handled campus-wide communications, student engagement, and digital infrastructure? Specifically, how have EdTech tools changed the status quo in recent years?

Sanket: Blended learning is here to stay, but many organizations in the academic world are still experiencing the growing pains of using disconnected communication tools and information systems. There are so many pockets and silos that exist between student groups and departments on campus (physical or digital), and there traditionally isn’t a single place to go for visibility across all campus experiences. However, in recent years, EdTech platforms (like Pathify, where Dustin works 🙂), have started to succeed in creating systems of records for students and faculty to have visibility across academic pathways, student experiences, and on-campus resources to help drive best-in-class student experience. Generally, EdTech tools need to meet students, educators, and faculty in their natural flow of work, whether that be text-based or mobile platforms. However, there’s a disconnect between the amazing EdTech tools that can enable these improved outcomes and the infrastructure that is required to back them from an interoperability, governance, compliance, and security perspective. As investors, we are really excited about the potential behind these infrastructure solutions to help power the front-end applications at the university level. For EdTech businesses, there are massive opportunities around recognizing the pain points around the office of the CIO or CTO that might lack the bandwidth to think about these strategic problems and to help reduce some of the friction that a lot of school leaders have recently been burdened with.

Dustin: “My hopeful aspiration is the creation of a more unified, campus-wide student information system or CRM… i.e. essentially a database of students, who is interacting with them, when and why.. If everybody could use the same system or speak the same language in terms of systems, it would be huge in terms of better integrating systems at the university level.”

Q: What are some of the issues that students face when lacking access to or knowledge of campus resources, support, and mentors?

Dustin: Whether students are online or not, they experience gaps in support and/or high-quality mentorship experiences. If a student continuously can’t find the information, resources, or contacts they need, then it’s likely that they get frustrated, and possibly leave your institution or back out of their education entirely. It’s a huge issue in terms of helping students, whether they be first-generation or adult learners, access the resources they need amidst already complex lives (which is often further complicated by misinformation from peers). With a lack of access to or knowledge of these critical resources, there’s potential for students to go about their education with much less efficiency (e.g. spending too much time on the wrong assignments, or taking the wrong classes for credit). Unfortunately, many institutions just handle the journey from application to enrollment, and students are left scrambling to fulfill their education. Instead, we need to make sure students are cared for through the entire learner journey with a variety of resources, support, and mentors.

Sanket: “I think it comes down to two things: First, is there awareness, or visibility, across these programs and services that are being funded and supported on campus? Second, what is the context and evidence around how these resources are affecting outcomes? There are a lot of students that might have visibility of these programs, but didn’t take the initiative because they lacked the context or reason to get connected to resources, even in a time of need. If we better orient ourselves around the right barometers of success (student outcomes, impact, etc.), then we can provide better context around the career services and programs available on campus to help students understand how to get from path A to path B.”

Alternative Education:

Q: What are the alternative career paths available to young professionals outside of higher education?

Dustin: There’s a variety of alternative paths for students that I have been keeping an eye on. The boot camp model has come and gone more or less, and there are a lot of people trying to find ways to make it work — it’s become a crucial island for gaining subject matter expertise, engaging adult learners, etc. Additionally, digital certifications have emerged through platforms like AWS and Google as a way for individuals to reach milestones and use them towards employment (and often continue to have certifications covered by employers, allowing learners to continue their education at low to no cost). Another somewhat radical idea I have acclimated to is the idea of “gap years” becoming a more intentional decision and overall more popularized. Many of these decisions were initially driven by the pandemic, but there are more students and organizations going down this path, enabling productive learning experiences prior to the traditional higher education path. In the context of the institution, I think new roles or programs can facilitate these experiences and decisions (whether they are intentional at the student level or driven by deferred admissions).

Q: How does EdTech play a role in enabling vocational education, externships, and workforce enablement initiatives?

Sanket: There’s a mature landscape around knowledge workers, whether it’s corporate-sponsored, independent/self-directed, etc. As of now, the U.S. economy isn’t equipped with the right skills to be successful in the years ahead, so I think there’s going to be a big move toward solving skills gaps. There’s a big area within the broader umbrella of education and technology that is underserved in relation to hard skills and roles — e.g. electricians, plumbers, cosmetologists, etc. I think you’re going to see a lot of folks around the globe going down some of these “unconventional” learning paths to help them be competitive in a future labor environment, and there’s a big opportunity for the same tools we have seen in K-12 and Higher Ed to be implemented in regards to vocational institutions. Whether that be back-office management, student information systems, payments, etc. There’s also a big opportunity with externships, in which corporates can partner with universities to help connect the labor supply and demand of students seeking work, thereby allowing for EdTech platforms to remove a lot of the administrative and execution burden from both sides. Lastly, I think EdTech can help facilitate a more dynamic outlook of skills acquisition. Over time, we are shifting away from our conventional view of labor, and more towards how we can view individuals as a collection of skills, strengths, and weaknesses. Through this, organizations or academic institutions can better plan and mobilize skills development most effectively to fulfill the requirements of the organization or better equip individuals with an inventory of skills as they leave the university setting.

Q: Do you have any closing thoughts on the Higher Ed ecosystem and/or the topics discussed today?

Dustin: “I’m an eternal optimist. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for institutions…there’s some fatigue, but there’s an opportunity to better take care of people (staff, faculty, students) and give them the support and tools they need to be successful…I’m hoping for a very active future where everyone is able to re-calibrate and re-envision their goals and the ability to work with great EdTech partners and other folks to achieve that.”

Sanket: I think the future is incredibly promising. The market opportunity [around EdTech] is absolutely massive and the importance of education is incredibly durable. The reality is you have got a ton of key ecosystem stakeholders that care deeply about driving a better future…and I am really excited about the shift towards equitability…There’s a lot of capital flooding the ecosystem and folks that are out there trying to support the ecosystem, whether it be from a policy setting perspective, or from a capital perspective.”

A special thanks to Dustin for his continued partnership and for participating in this discussion!

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PeakSpan Capital

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