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Embracing the Startup Mentality in Higher Education

There are few tasks in my professional life I find more rewarding than creating a new solution. Solving problems using the startup mentality is challenging and requires vision, focus, diversity, and teamwork. However, when you finish a major task or critical project and look back at what the team has built, that feeling of accomplishment is something I find to be unmatched. This approach to problem-solving is core to the startup mentality. For those of us who embrace it, the results are powerful and the process makes work more creative and fun.

I propose that we need this startup mentality today, more than ever. No doubt, we are living in a time of historical change for higher education. As we all know, the pandemic caused massive upheaval in many industries, and higher ed is no exception. The truth is that rapid change and technology disruptions were coming anyway. For decades, students have gravitated towards more online or hybrid learning formats. Universities have been adapting to these and other preferences in all aspects of the student experience. But, how do we get past the plateau of results we see today?

Startups embrace the “fail-fast” philosophy. Everything is tested and incrementally adjusted as quickly as possible. At it is a privilege to support the most innovative colleges and universities in the world. Like most startups, these institutions have benefited from using the same, fail-fast philosophy. This is just a small component of the total startup mentality. The last two years have been fueled by a whirlwind of change, with many of those changes resulting in powerful, helpful innovations. Thinking and operating like a startup just might be the key to navigating rapid change and maybe a factor that separates the institutions that thrive from those that are struggling.

In my last post, I discussed the need for institutions to think more like startups, with a bit of planning and action higher-ed stakeholders can adapt to disruption well. Institutions generally don’t look at themselves the same way a startup founder looks at their company. Yet this is a mindset that can provide considerable benefits if leaders in higher ed fail-fast, testing new approaches centered around student experiences and institutional growth.

Students have more choices than ever before, and with that comes greater expectations. Here are four ways that institutions can embrace the startup mentality.

Help students see value throughout their academic journey

The startup mentality demands all investments be focused on creating value for their customers. At, we stay focused on creating measurable, value-centric outcomes that prove our platform improves communications and knowledge management across an institution. To demonstrate how creates value, we track and measure our results, collaborating with every partner at our quarterly partnership meetings. All that data goes into a matrix we use to adjust processes so everyone gets optimum service and value from the platform.

For students, addressing how to track and place value on their learning journey is critical. Students are more than “just a customer”; however, students deserve the same transparency about how money invested in education generates the same value-centric outcomes. When a student is making a major investment in their education, they want to know that their decision will ultimately lead to better job outcomes. Universities understand they have an important responsibility to help close that gap.

Consider that, one of the big points of frustration with students is that they may not see the correlation between the value of classroom activities that translate into career outcomes. Providing a skills matrix that showcases the market value or earning potential from lessons taught in the classroom could help bridge the value perception gap. To further expound on the concept of a skills matrix, encouraging educators to create a new style for syllabi for classes that align with future job responsibilities might be another idea or method to illustrate the value of education.

Ensure engagement extends across the total student experience

The startup mentality teaches us that an engaged customer is more often, a satisfied customer.

It is no mystery, that institutions that find ways to invest time into more personalized instruction and coaching tend to generate better results for students. Automating the “tier 1” support needs that are often repetitive can open more doors by saving precious time. Imagine addressing all of your IT helpdesk needs in one chatbot. At our core, this is one of many ways generates the most valuable benefit of all, more time to engage meaningfully with students.

By gaining back time, engagement can be focused on helping student realize their goals. Partnering and promoting opportunities in, job shadowing, internships, and networking in professional organizations helps students make a more immediate connection between college and their professional life. Without the proper guidance, students may feel like their time at an institution was a waste. There’s an increasing trend within higher education that correlates classroom activities to outcomes. This is something all campuses should be adopting. The most successful institutions partners with, job opportunities, and internships outnumber, the students they have enrolled!

Strive for a 100 percent student service resolution rate

Customer support and success are the lifeblood of the startup mentality. Nearly everyone can remember a poorly executed service experience. Bad service is distracting, unencouraging, and the catalyst that prompts a person to reconsider why they made an investment, to begin with. The goal of every startup is to create flawless services and to resolve issues with 100% satisfaction. Of course, universities and startups share these goals. Two major roadblocks may prevent higher ed from providing students with customer service on par with startups: a lack of scale and bias.

Lack of scale is often the primary factor impacting institutions. Strained budgets, smaller workforces, and cross-functional job duties slow down the speed of service and contribute to workplace fatigue. Humans naturally have a limitation on how much work they get done on any given day. They get tired, make mistakes and take breaks like the rest of us. And as the volume of work increases, the limits of human performance get pushed further to the brink. Yet higher ed needs to make a concerted effort to resolve all issues within the same day it’s brought up.

Several tools can help institutions reach this high standard of customer service, including What’s most important is that you get back to students promptly and ultimately help them resolve their problems.

However, it’s not only speed that higher ed must grapple with, it’s also dealing with implicit bias. Many institutions have worked hard to ensure that staff members treat students the same, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. However, we all know that this is easier said than done. Humans are naturally prone to bias and it can be difficult to deal with complex situations in a completely neutral way. That’s why some institutions are allowing students to ask questions anonymously. It not only lets the student be more comfortable opening up about his or her problem but also eliminates any bias they are likely to encounter from a staff member.

As a startup founder, customer service is one of the biggest priorities in helping succeed. And with most consumer companies doubling down on improving the experience, this will need to also be a priority for any institution that wants to maintain a distinctive, competitive edge and make it to the other side of the enrollment cliff.

Invest in a high-powered self-serve website

The startup mentality is often a “born digital” one. Meaning, companies who start from day one, with intuitive, one-stop service tools tend to thrive more easily. Conversely, a startup often solves a legacy problem with manual, paper, or phone-based systems modernizing them to be more convenient and on-demand. Institutions that are intentional about how they organize information are using the startup mentality.

Like me, you may find continually improving your website to meet the needs of your customers be a worthwhile move for improving services and promoting your services to reach more people. Another option is changing the language on your website to match how your students speak.

Getting the voice of the customer has always been one of the best tried and true ways our marketing team improves messaging. We’ve done customer interviews to understand their various pain points and receive regular feedback from the sales team on the type of questions that prospects are asking them.

There’s no reason why the world of higher ed should not think the same way. Institutions that devote themselves to listening to students will ultimately benefit by providing a better understanding of how you can make a difference from an academic standpoint while decreasing the number of questions you get daily.

Keep in mind that students don’t want to rely on staff to get the help they need. In all other aspects of life, they’re used to getting the answers on their own, whether that’s on a laptop, their cell phone, or even Amazon Alexa. The same should be true from a higher-ed perspective. Look for ways to help your students be more self-service than they are today.

While the long-term effects of the pandemic may be uncertain (especially as it relates to an accelerated impact on the enrollment cliff), one thing is clear: institutions of higher learning have an opportunity to embrace the startup mentality now and improve all aspects of academics, operations, and research. I believe that higher learning is paramount to our collective success, but institutions must take it upon themselves to act more competitively to make it through the road ahead.