This episode is sponsored by Podium Education. Christopher Parrish, President of University Partnerships at Podium Education talks with Jon-Stephen and Joel about digital education, the challenges facing higher ed, and why tech skills education is crucial to student career success.
Doing Digital Education Right Episode Transcript
This episode is sponsored by Podium Education
Podium Education partners with colleges and universities to offer turnkey, tech skills programs delivered 100% online. Their coursework covers emerging technology areas like data analytics and web development – giving students from all majors the skills needed for a great career in the modern workforce.
If you’re interested in increasing enrollment and attracting top students – bring Silicon Valley to your campus with Podium Education. Learn more today at www.podiumeducation.com
Joel Goodman: Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. I’m Joel Goodman with me as always as the magnanimous, Jon-Stephen Stansel, and we are super excited to have Chris Parrish from Podium Education joining us today. They were gracious enough to sponsor this episode of Thought Feeder.
And, we’re going to have a great conversation around online education and, and the types of content that goes into programming and the various options that exist for universities. And just some of the stuff that Chris and the team over at Podium have been seeing happening in higher ed, especially as we’ve come into this gigantic move to digital education. And yeah, Chris, we’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for thanks for being with us. And we were looking forward to the conversation.
Chris Parrish: Yeah, thanks for having me. and am I your favorite sponsor of all time?
Joel Goodman: Yeah, definitely. Definitely the best sponsor we’ve ever had. Yeah.
Chris Parrish: It’s good to be here guys. Thanks.
Joel Goodman: Yeah, so let’s dive right in. can you tell us and tell the folks that are listening just a little bit about Podium, the services you all provide and kind of what your goals have been to affect higher education, especially now, but I mean, just since, since Podium started.
Chris Parrish: Yeah, sure. Our company Podium Education is really, I think we’ve got a pretty unique model in the space and I’m excited to tell you guys and your listeners a little bit more about it today. What we saw at Podium was really sort of two key trend lines, before we start our business. The first one was that, on a year-over-year basis, we continue to have more college graduates than we’ve ever had before, which is kind of surprising because we do hear a lot of the sort of the macroeconomic stats about incoming freshmen and those becoming more limited, but really on a year-over-year basis, there’ll be, there are more college graduates than ever, so far, at least that’s been the trend.
And at the same time, the tech skills gap continues to get larger. And those two things never quite squared with us. Right? Why do we have all of these colleges, college graduates, but at the same time, this massive tech skills gap?
So we decided that we were going to focus on building courses and curriculum and programming in those in-demand technology and data fields, right? You can kind of think of the disciplines as a step between the traditional university and Silicon Valley, right? Things like data analytics, front end web development, Python, Tableau. So the pieces of the skillsets that we really think are going to be required for really the modern workforce.
So we started our company, about two years ago, spent the first 18 months or so really focused on our programming and what I’ll call the academic product — so the courses, what they look like, and then just started talking to partners here within the last seven or eight months.
So we’re partnering with 15 universities, which we’re really proud of. And most of our university partners, sort of are medium-sized private universities that are looking at their curriculum. And trying to figure out a way to supercharge it so that it’s more relevant to incoming freshmen and that students at their university or at their college, gain the skills that they need, in addition to their major, to get a really high paying job when they, when they graduate.
So that’s been core to us. Our North Star is making sure that students from all majors and backgrounds get a great job when they graduate. And, yeah, I think we’re up to, a number of employees now and just close on our Series A financing round. So it’s been a great ride.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: That is awesome. That’s great to hear. And you know, I think timing-wise, it’s incredibly relevant right now because, motions my arms, all of this that’s going on right now. And just about every week, we’re seeing more schools going remote, hybrid, some are just having to go remote for two weeks at a time and go kind of back and forth.
So, you know, what are you hearing right now in the space? What have you learned and what advice can you share with to kind of help in some of this transition, both moving forward in the short term and, you know, we don’t know what the spring’s going to look like, what can we be doing right now, to prepare, For for, for, for better online offerings here, in the near future?
Chris Parrish: Yeah. I mean, that’s the big question, right? I think, you know, there… Universities are doing, in my opinion, a spectacular job of scrambling and planning and doing everything without a ton of direction from most States and the country. And I just want to like first off commend all the university listeners, cause it’s been a crazy couple of months and we’ve been in the trenches with our partners and I can, I can certainly speak for them and that they’ve done a tremendous job trying to figure this out.
So my advice around this is always that, you know, I think COVID in some ways is going to be a forcing function whereby even those universities that said, “I’ll never do online,” or, “I’ll never do digital,” it’ll be a forcing function whereby they start to realize that there’s some real utility to giving students added flexibility, giving students a different medium by which they can consume their university content. I think that will open some horizons for faculty and staff who never thought that they could do this in an effective way.
What makes me a little nervous about it all is that I do worry a little bit about sort of a rubber band snap back effect where because universities are having to move so quickly online that they haven’t thought about things in the way that, like for instance, we have, right? Where we were designing our curriculum from the ground up to be fully digital. So the way that we thought through the pedagogy, the way that we thought through the student experience was very thoughtful because frankly, we had the time and the resources to do it.
For a lot of universities that are having to do this now, I do worry a little bit that the quality of what they’re going to put out to their students and ultimately what students are going to consume here, may lead to some persistence issues for students who say, you know what, maybe this isn’t worth it. Or, maybe more severely, some, faculty becoming that sort of, “I was right! This online experience isn’t great. And look, look how poor it is for my students. So therefore we should never do it again.”
So I’m worried kind of about both those two things. Like, one, there’s a ton of effort that went into this and I want to sorta pat everybody on the back that I talked to, cause I know how much it took and really moving mountains at institutions.
Then on the other side of things, I do worry that because we’ve been pressed into this world and most universities hadn’t really, you know, wrestled with digital learning, that it could cause some sort of negative collateral damage down the line.
Joel Goodman: I’ve been saying this forever. I mean, I think I’ve said this on this show, but you know, I worked at, yeah, I worked at two different universities before I started my own agency. And the first one was just a small liberal arts college, outside of St. Louis. And we had, you know, around 1,200 students total. So yeah, tiny. Maybe not even small, it was a tiny school.
And we were moving to hybrid learning in our classes. We were moving a little bit to fully online. They finally have some fully online programs. And then I was in the middle of doing that. Like I was at one point through different things, I ended up being the web guy that was in IT and somehow ended up supporting the LMS a little bit and like working on design for it. But we, like, I remember the transition, you know, this was, this was 2000-what? 2008, 2009, something like that. But I remember the transition going into trying to just stand up these hybrid things a decade ago.
And then moving to another school and you know, them taking the approach of, “well, we don’t have the resources to do this in house. I’m going to send this out to an OPM.” But then relinquishing a ton of control and honestly looking for the most budget-friendly OPM that they could find. And so their students weren’t having a great time.
And I think, you know, there’s been enough time for institutions to really focus on trying to nail digital-first education. And it, it makes me sad because like you, Chris, I see the amount of work that people have done, but it makes me sad that that that amount of work is especially in the short term, going to go into programs that that students are still going to be like, I didn’t have a good experience. I didn’t feel like I got the quality of education that I wanted.
We’ve been talking a lot about, universities being pressured into, into discounting you know, their tuition rates and everything else because they haven’t set about a good value message. And I think a lot of that is because most of these students and their parents coming in, look at what online education has been, which is really taking that traditional lecture format of I’m sitting in class, listening to someone, tell me what to do. And just moving that to, like, forums basically, you know? Like, like, or having a Zoom call, which has been the standard, since COVID started.
And what I really like about what Podium’s done is that you’re trying to put together quality programs, quality curricula that are going to make someone buy into the education. And actually learn from it because there has to be an outcome, right?
And I, I think that’s one of those gaps that I see at a lot of institutions is that they know there has to be an outcome, but they don’t know how to get there. And so they need, help bridging that gap, whether it’s hiring professionals to come in and work to develop it or working with a partner like Podium to invest in curriculum, that’s going to make a difference.
Chris Parrish: Yeah, let’s play a quick game here. Cause I think you just hit on something that I always say to my team. Take a guess what our biggest challenge is when we go into universities. J.S., you can go first. What do you think? Our biggest challenge is?
Jon-Stephen Stansel: Oh, just for, for me, I’m gonna, my guess is gonna be informed by being former faculty and it’s going to be faculty pushback. saying we don’t, we don’t want to do online courses. We don’t want to have anything to do with it. We want to be in the classroom, one-on-one. Or faculty just being afraid of the technology.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. It’s. I don’t know. Joel, do you want to guess? But that’s pretty close.
Joel Goodman: Yeah. I mean, I would guess, I would guess it’s faculty, to some extent, feeling like they’re going to be devalued and are going to have their jobs, made redundant because “the numbers” are going to take over as one of my good friends in college used to say.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. So it’s, it’s a little bit of both of that, but sort of, even on a more granular scale. The very notion of preconceived notions of higher education, like online, higher education, I should say. Preconceived notions of online higher education, right?
They’ve read news stories about HotChalk and Concordia Portland. Right? They’ve read news stories about the University of Phoenix’s of a world and DeVry’s of the world. And whenever you say online, you actually trigger a lot of those sort of. Horrid memories. So actually, I transitioned to using the word “digital” just to keep away, to stay away from that connotation.
And oftentimes what’s so interesting is, you know, we’ll go in and initially talk to a president or a provost, or a VP of Enrollment and say, you know, we have cutting edge tech skills courses built for credit that are turnkey and we can stand up in a matter of weeks and we’ll use it to help drive enrollment at your institution. And, you know, they’re wide-eyed like, Oh my gosh, this makes so much sense. Like we need to prepare students for the workforce. And this is super unique. Nobody else has it in my region. So I can win hand-to-hand combat on the yield side, right? Like sort of normal thought process.
And then usually the next step is, okay, you got to talk to the faculty. And you’re right. Most of the time when we walk in, there are some faculty that are maybe a little territorial. and think that perhaps they already are doing what we’re doing. But ultimately when we spend the time with them to show them what we’ve constructed, the design of our coursework being oriented around real-world case studies, so that a student that’s learning how to do hypothesis testing is doing it within the framework of the way that Netflix tests different artwork on us three when we’re clicking through at night to see which one will be ultimately the one that we click through to watch Tiger King, right? And your artwork probably looks a little different than mine cause we’re from two different backgrounds. We live in different states, right? So students are actually learning about how Netflix use is A/B testing and hypothesis testing, and they get to practice it themselves and ultimately apply it.
So when faculty see sort of the quality of the production, in addition to the thoughtfulness of that pedagogy, usually they jump on board. And in fact, some of our, our biggest and strongest supporters are Computer Science faculty, because the most oversubscribed course right now on most college campuses is CompSci 101, cause everybody knows like, Oh, I need to know something, right.
Technology. Like, all I hear about is Silicon Valley. Right? And they take CompSci 101, but CompSci 101 is for people that want to be Computer Science majors, right? If you want to learn a little Python on the side, to have fun with your friends, and maybe build an app, you should really be taking something a lot lighter.
So we sort of have provided that, it’s almost like a little bit of a life raft, really, for a lot of those faculty that want to really operate within a more technical domain.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: And, you know, I want to sidetrack here cause you, you mentioned production quality and preparing for you to come on I looked at some of, some of the course offerings you have and some of the demos and, just, I was blown away by the production quality. It looks fantastic. You know, as, as a former, radio, television production major, I was, I was, I was, I hadn’t seen anything like that in any sort of digital offerings before.
So can you just kind of touch a little bit on that?
Chris Parrish: Yeah. You know, there’s, I like to say there’s no magic to the business model, right? For those, listening out there that have tried to build coursework in-house, you know, that there’s always a constraint on resources and what you can spend, you know?
The beauty of our model is that we’re a platform business. So what does that mean? It means that I can invest upfront in producing a course at, not to use Netflix again, but literally Netflix level quality right? We use very similar production capabilities. With the idea that we’re going to work with 30, 40, 50 universities across the country. And this, this, this coursework becomes part of that home university, right? Podium falls into the background. And that allows me just to spread the cost of that out.
So this really is in, in our opinion, leveraging the natural efficiency of building these courses once and keeping them up to date, of course, but building them once with the full capital outlay, and then scaling that across universities.
And, you know, oftentimes I think to myself, like, doesn’t really make sense for every university in our country to be building and teaching Accounting 101? Like, does that really make a lot of sense? And that is a part of the reason why we’ve developed this coursework is we really think there’s some efficiency there to be harvested.
I know you guys are in higher ed, so you might know the answer to this, but I was just looking at sort of my university list before, and I pulled the full list of four-year degree-granting public and private universities, only nonprofits.
Do you know, do you know how big that list is in the U.S.?
Joel Goodman: It’s, I had the number in December. It’s something like, what’s it like it’s [2,000]?
Chris Parrish: It’s 2000. Yeah. It’s like 2,143.
Joel Goodman: 2,100 something. Yeah, yeah.
Chris Parrish: That’s a lot of Accounting 101 and History 101 course is being taught.
Joel Goodman: We might talk about this later, but like, I mean, that’s, that’s one of those issues that I think every, especially the medium-to-small universities or colleges have is differentiating themselves when all they really offer is the same course.
And it’s, you know, the differentiation is I’m regional, so I’m a commuter school or, you know, or something like that. But it’s not, it’s not usually in the actual programming they, they have. And so I so, actually, I think it kind of leads into one of the questions. Could you kind of detail and break down a little bit, how Podium has like leveraged your programming and, and the, you know, all this content that you’ve been creating, the curriculum that you’ve been creating, to drive enrollment and to, and to kind of help, universities and other institutions differentiate themselves in their, you know, main competitive markets?
Chris Parrish: Yeah, I mean, a really important question. And I think for the example that you just used Joel, of the small regional private school, I mean, a lot of times they do their best work from a yield standpoint, by inviting me students to campus. You know, this is what it feels like. This is what it’s like here and with COVID, that’s completely been stripped away.
So many of our partners fall into that bucket that you just described or at least the archetype of that bucket. And, yeah, fortunately with our programming, we’ve been able to help them drive. A really spectacular results on the yield side of things in application volume, despite the COVID crisis. And I wish I could say that we were geniuses about this from the beginning and we knew this was going to be a big yield play, but the reality is we started Podium to provide better skills and better opportunities and access to students from all different backgrounds. Right?
We wanted the Humanities student to learn Tableau and to learn Excel so they’re employable upon graduation. It was really our partners, our early partners that looked at our stuff and said, “Wow, this is exemplary quality. Like this is a really shiny thing that, can I use it over here on the enrollment management side of things?
So we started partnering up with some of our VPs of Enrollment partners, and, ultimately what we ended up designing was a highly interactive, fully digital experience where for most higher ed institutions, when they’re sending out yield messaging, right? Usually it’s an email, sometimes print mail. Sometimes you pushed them to a landing page. Most of them look the same. so we really want to design something quite different than that so that students not only got the sense that they’re going to learn something much different than maybe they would at another rival school, but the way that they’re interacting with it was much more show versus tell. Which I haven’t just seen a lot of in higher ed, to be frank.
Joel Goodman: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, we’ve had previous conversations with folks that … we actually, our friend Mike Richwalksy went through the whole admissions process with his son going to college, for the first time this year, just a few months ago. And, we had a great conversation with him about how being on the list for all of those emails and seeing that all of the emails are the same. Then like a lot of times it’s the same company behind them and they’re not doing enough to customize the content, you know? It’s really just a straight template thing that has the same copy and maybe they switched out a photograph and some colors, and branding.
And, I think, being able to show, yeah, I mean, that’s, I think that’s, that’s actually one of the bigger challenges with, with digital education, in general, is that, you can’t have that necessarily in-person example. And you also have to have to kind of walk a line of not being too salesy, right? Like not being like, Hey, we’re selling you this canned content that’s going to be your education while you’re here. It’s showing that this is actually a part of the culture. This is a part of the, you know, the overall mission of what that institution’s doing.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. one thought here that I think maybe resonates, and I don’t want to make this sort of a generational thing, but I do think it does have something to do with it. I was talking with one of my partners, the provost of one of my partners. And he said to me, “you know, Chris, Because Schools of Nursings have been established so many times that I know generally like that a Schools of Nursing if I wanted to build it here, is going to cost me X dollars. And because this has been done so many times, and I know generally that I’m going to get Y number of students on the front end and depending on my sort of return appetite that I make a decision on, whether it’s worth it for me to build that school, you’re telling me that the future is technology, which I believe, but I have no data to show me that if I invest in sort of analytics related coursework, web development, you know, some of these cutting edge areas that it’s going to pay off for me on the front end.”
So I thought that was really interesting. so we designed a test this past year where we took half of their admitted non-deposits and gave them like the standard university drip and then half of their admitted non-deposits and gave ’em, the interactive digital experience that I talked about. Talked to their students, you know, in this digital experience about the fact that if they come to that school, deposit with that school, they’re going to have the ability to interact with companies like Airbnb, Netflix, Spotify, learn in-demand skills like SQL and Tableau and Excel in addition to their major. And, our goal was to, you know, let’s see these two marketing messages and then see which one yields out a better class.
And the students who received, our test messaging around the tech skills, 57% more likely to deposit and enroll than those that did not. So, that was sort of a resounding, data point to the provost that, you know, the world is moving this way and it may be, more importantly, students and parents know that the world’s going here and they want that to be a piece of the educational experience for their son or daughter now enrolling in a private school, right at a $30,000 a year clip.
Joel Goodman: So it sounds like it’s not really just that the courses are online, that’s driving interest. There are a lot of different factors can we just put that, would you mind putting that in like the simplest terms possible? Because I think, no blame cast on any of these folks, they’re doing all the hard work. I think there’s just a lot of details and it’s all very complicated for universities, but you know, when, when you’re coming from a standpoint where, the quality of your education is the thing that sells what you’re doing, but also that’s, kind of augmented by the typical college experience, and that’s kinda what you’ve been selling. When you’re moving to all-digital, what are some good tactics or some, some good messaging, things that you’ve seen work to help institutions sell this as something that is valuable and that their prospective students should kind of go after?
Chris Parrish: Sure. Yeah, no, it’s a really good point. So, there’s sort of two buckets of things here that, that I don’t want to try and tackle. The first one is, to your point about online versus tech skills, to be clear, like the discipline that we operate in is sort of the tech skill areas, data analytics, web development, and we build all of our coursework to be digital or online, right? So we do have a little bit of a built-in advantage in that the stuff that we’re pitching is sexy, right? Like to an 18-year-old kid that just heard that the CEO of TikTok just resigned because of data sharing issues, right? They’re naturally more curious about that than myself, 12 years ago when I was applying to undergraduate.
So, I think there is a little bit of a built-in advantage in that we’ve been able to pitch really cool things versus like trying to pitch history online. Which is a little more difficult. So that’s one piece.
But then on the online piece, you bring up a really good point, which is like, for those institutions that were able to move online 10 years ago, they became really dominant players. Okay. Because if you sold “online”, You could get a ton of enrollment just by saying this thing is online. Right. But now that everybody’s being forced online or COVID is a forcing function of online, saying your program’s online isn’t going to be good enough anymore.
So I do think there’s going to be this wave of institutions that realize that if they have quality content, they’re going to have to show that more, right? Put more out there. Maybe there’s a “try before you buy” model that pops up. There’s something below just the fact that it’s online, that is going to be pushed as the value prop for students. Because online is not good enough to buy anymore, just cause there’s so much noise and so much volume out there.
Joel Goodman: You were, you were talking about the institutions that started to transition to online 10 years ago, you got to think like so many existing institutions can’t, right now, start the process of becoming a SNHU or becoming a, even putting in the efforts that like Arizona State has into their online.
It’s kinda too late and everything else hurts. And so there’s, there’s gotta be a way, gotta be a way to work that seamlessly into the programming that they’re already doing on the curriculum side.
Chris Parrish: Totally agree. but of, I think one of the areas where I continue to feel like that there there’s more to squeeze up the sponge, maybe the best way to put it, is when you’re talking to most universities and colleges about revenue generation, they immediately go to graduate programs, right?
Graduate programs typically lend themselves more to an online friendly audience because people don’t want to quit their job, pick up their life and move to, Conway, anymore, to study there. Right? Is that what you did J.S.?
Jon-Stephen Stansel: Low cost of living here.
Joel Goodman: Low cost of living.
Chris Parrish: So they don’t necessarily want to make that sacrifice anymore. And I do think that on-campus graduate programs will continue to exist, but only as a luxury good. Right? The Harvard’s of the world, the MITs, the Berkeley’s. The people that can afford to do that will do that. But most graduate programs are going to be online. And I think that’ll be here in very short order, couple of years.
But when you, when you talk to universities, they automatically think, okay graduate programs. And the next thing I go to is like continuing education, right? How can we engage with more adult learners? Both of which are worthwhile areas, but areas that have very, very strong competition.
Where I don’t hear universities think enough about is how do we expand our ability to enroll undergraduate students, either at the traditional age or non-traditional undergraduate student age so that we can grow that piece of the pie for the university.
I think a lot of people are sort of mentally like, Oh, well, You know, the macro trends show that there are less high school graduates interested in college right now. So we’re going to continue to see decline. But I think there’s still massive opportunity there for the right universities that want to tell the right value proposition story to an 18-year-old, to grow a ton.
And I, I just, I hate to see the provosts and presidents and VPs of Enrollment lose sight of that because I do think there’s still a ton there to be done.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: You’ve kind of touched around this and an area that really hits near and dear to my heart. You mentioned, you know, humanities, students learning Tableau and, web design and liberal arts are in danger right now.
And that’s, that’s my heart of hearts. Right there. But. You know, is this something where you could see, you know, we read so many articles about places like Google looking for liberal arts graduates, because they have that critical thinking skills that maybe a tech student hasn’t necessarily built yet.
Do you see this, sort of digital education and some of the offerings that the Podium has as a supplement? So maybe a value proposition where a Literature student can also learn web design and kind of be that double threat?
Chris Parrish: That’s so well put and I think it was Kaplan — I think it was Kaplan, maybe was Gallup — somebody did a large survey of employers, of name-brand tech companies like Apple and Google. And they showed them three different candidate profiles. The job was for like entry-level Cybersecurity Analyst. Job profile number one was a graduate, good school, English major. Job profile number two was graduate, good school a cybersecurity major. And then job profile number three was graduate of the same school, English major, but with an undergraduate certification in cybersecurity. And so which one do you want to hire?
And it was an overwhelming amount. I can’t quote the exact statistic, but over the majority, voted to hire the third person because they said, you know, they’ve sort of best of both abilities. They’re one, they have a certificate in cybersecurity so that they know the base level skills they need to ramp up pretty quickly, which is nice, so we don’t have to train them from the ground up. But they’re also like this really interesting liberal arts background that has learned how to think critically and help us solve problems as an organization, which we find really valuable.
So we are huge fans at Podium of pairing the liberal arts focus with some tech skills. To be clear, like actually, I think one of the biggest faults that I see for undergraduate programs in things like data analytics and data science, is that they become so deep, right? To even get access to the really applied content, you’ve got to take Operating Systems, you’ve got to take Statistics, you’ve got to take Cybersecurity before you even get to things like Excel and Tableau. And that to me is a quick way to isolate most of your student population that has a little bit of math-phobia.
So we got our start with the idea that every student, regardless of their background, can and should be able to learn these entry-level tech skills. And the way that we deploy support for a sophomore Philosophy major versus a senior Financial Engineering major is very different, but we have both of those profiles in our classes and that’s something that we’re really proud of.
So I think like this idea of blending, the liberal arts with an applied work credential or badge or certification is the future of the liberal arts college, at least giving students that option.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: that sort of thing makes my day. I love to, I love to hear, about that and kind of that, that future, because, you know, I have a liberal arts background, but I work in relatively tech field and I think that that’s, it’s vitally important that you, you get a little bit of both. And I credit a lot of my liberal arts education with, giving me that extra push, but you need that balance these days.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. And I think the question is, how much of these sorts of skills-based applied courses can you put within a liberal arts college without changing the DNA of that liberal arts college? Right? I mean, that’s the question that a lot of presidents and provosts and others are struggling with, it’s like, I don’t want to change my DNA. This is what’s been so good to me. This is what all my donors and alumni expect from us. But I also know that the world is evolving. The workforce is evolving.
And I think one of the reasons why we’re attractive to a lot of universities, we don’t ask them to change their DNA. For most students, our first two courses are really what they need by the time they graduate. Right? They learn data analysis, how to work within Excel, and they learn from 15 different company case studies in the first course, and the second course teaches them how to communicate that data and visualize it. And those two skills, I would argue you need in any role regardless of what you want to do when you graduate.
Now, if you choose to go down the Computer Science path or you want to go more technical down Data Science, we actually don’t have all the artillery to do that. We would encourage that institution to invest in faculty at that point to build the full track. But, for survey level classes, to make sure that students have the real-world skill sets that they need to, to get a great job when they graduate and pay off that debt, that’s what we provide in, in spades for universities. And we don’t ask them to change their DNA while doing it.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: I think that’s a good way to put it, you know, change, change their DNA. We always kind of talk about how higher ed has trouble thinking digital-first and building interactive experiences and, kind of framing it in that way kind of gives us a bit of an idea of why that resistance sometimes happens, you know? That, they’re just so hardwired into one thing. So why do you, why do you think higher ed has been a little bit resistant to that and how, how can we move past that?
Chris Parrish: Yeah, it’s a, it’s a really good, it’s a really good question. Which one of you guys had put the thing on Twitter that was basically said, I’ll challenge, any higher ed institution to hire me and I’ll build you a website and if I convert better then, I get paid that way?
Joel Goodman: Oh yeah. That’s me.
Chris Parrish: Oh that’s Joel? Okay. I love it.
Joel Goodman: Cause I’ve done it before. Like, come on.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. Yeah, it’s my background is not in Enrollment Marketing or Enrollment Services, any of those things. So I’m really learning a ton about the way that higher ed Enrollment teams have been constructed, Marketing teams have been constructed, Communication teams, over the last couple of years.
But you know, I think it’s a, it’s a classic case of, something had been working really well for a really long time. And if it’s working really well and you can basically predict what your application volume and yield is going to be, then you tweak certain things, right, year over year, you’re doing certain things to see if you can go up a step-growth, a step-growth. But there wasn’t is need to sort of reinvent the whole cycle or do something drastically different because that risk tolerance just wasn’t there for most higher ed institutions because they were doing fine for the most part. So I think the COVID crisis, but even prior to that, the pressure that, reducing numbers of high school graduates was putting on the smaller liberal arts colleges has forced them to think really creatively about doing things that are a little more bold.
So there have been some, I think, some real innovations in that area, but I still haven’t seen sort of the interactive experience the way that we’ve designed it in higher ed. That’s why we’re so excited to be partnering with our schools is we really want to give that student the sense of what it’ll be like to learn these in-demand skills before they even have to enroll. And we think that there’s no better carrot than that right now.
So, you know, I think, industries learn from one another and, you know, higher ed is on the cutting edge of some things on like on the, on the back burner of a lot of other things. And I think this could be a case of us learning from some of these other tech-related industries that have figured out how to interact with their potential purchasing users before they even make that purchase.
So the thing’s a learning life cycle, I wish I had a clearer answer on that, but I do think that there’ll be a lot of strides made in this area over the next couple of years.
Joel Goodman: I think like you said, you said earlier, like COVID is kind of forcing the issue, right? It’s making institutions think a lot more about these things and at the beginning of this, I remember flat out saying that the digital decisions that universities make are what are going to affect whether they last another 50 to 150 years or whether they are forced to close down. And that’s, I think that’s at every level, I think, you know, like I, I focus on the marketing side because that’s what I do day in and day out, but I think it’s it’s at every level.
It’s, automating systems internally from an admin side, it’s figuring out how to do better digital delivery of courses and curricula it’s, it’s how to build engaging experiences. Because if you present a terrible online education experience, then you’re going to lose students to someone that’s doing something a lot better. Doesn’t matter if you’re building it in house, if you’ve got your own instructional designers that are creating really, really awesome stuff, or if you’re partnering with, with a company that’s, that’s helping build stuff, that’s tailored to your students and, and works within your, your general strategy.
Chris Parrish: I’d love to ask a question, just following up on that point. Like what is your sense in terms of — actually, let me just take a step back. So I used to work with the University of California, Berkeley. The previous Dean there, she has since, gone back to faculty, but previous Dean, there was a woman named Anno Saxenian and she is sort of this, Silicon Valley luminary. We built a master’s in Data Science together at Berkeley.
But, some of her work, her published work, one of the books she wrote was called Regional Advantage. And it was all about how, in the 70s, Boston, and I think it’s the 295 corridor [ed. note, it’s Route 128], there is sort of the tech corridor, and then Silicon Valley, we’re basically in the same spot. Meaning that they had a ton of government funding to work on these new technologies, a lot of it defense-related. They had great universities embedded within them. But at the time, sort of Boston sort of grew pretty slowly and Boston’s tech hub has come back, but you know, Silicon Valley is that its own stratosphere, at this point. Silicon Valley really took off. Boston didn’t take off as much.
And there are a bunch of things to her work, but one of the main reasons she chalked that up to, is that Silicon Valley, they didn’t have non-competes. Meaning that, if you were an employee at one company and you learn something really cool, you share that with the company across the street, knowing that you’re all in this together, we’re gonna grow together.
Which, polar opposite of Boston, right? Giant concrete buildings, where if you learn something in the basement of it, you’re not sharing it with anybody. And that really is what she attests to Silicon Valley’s growth is the fact that everybody was sharing.
So like, what is your sense of the appetite of Enrollment Management, Marketing professionals, when they figure something out, right? They figure out that a digital experience is really what’s moving the needle for students. How often do they share that with their colleagues or with conferences, or is it more of a close to the vest culture?
Joel Goodman: I mean, in my experience, they share a lot of it through conferences, things like the AMA Higher Ed Symposium, which is kind of more leadership-bent. J.S. is on the committee for the HighEdWeb conference, which is kind of more the, it attracts more of the people that, that do the actual execution of it. You’re more like a director level and down. I think because the work is so challenging from so many different angles, those people are very keen to have those conversations with other folks in other positions.
Now, I think there’s probably a subset of institutions that keep it a lot close to the vest. And it’s just because they’re, they’re generally the ones that, to be honest, that are ahead of everyone else. So like, like a few come to mind and I think they’re generally open about saying like, this stuff works, but they’re not going to sit…
They’re also like, you know, like you were saying, like, there’s, there’s no magic in this. It’s really like it’s funding in the right place, it’s hiring enough people, and hiring the right people to do the work. And it’s uh J.S. and I have been on Twitter this week, especially, there’s a lot of exhaustion, I think in higher ed right now, everyone’s just very tired and very over it.
And, and I truly believe that a lot of that is because most of these offices that are on the front lines aren’t funded well enough to, to be able to take care of their own mental health, in a lot of respects, right? So even, even if they wanted to do really, really great work, they’re often hamstrung by not having the funding, not having enough staff, not having enough people to do what actually needs to be done.
And they’re forced into trying to figure out how to, kind of duct tape a solution together. And I think that’s why — it’s why a lot of higher ed products do well. People that have products for, for higher ed on the marketing side, on, on the education and courseware side, they do well because higher ed would rather just pay the money and outsource it and not have to have the people inside.
But I think because it is such a small, it’s kind of a small industry in terms, I mean like, yeah, you know, we’ve got 2100 institutions in the U.S. But it’s like, that’s really, that’s not a hundred thousand, that’s not 200,000 institutions. So, so even the, even the products that exist aren’t that differentiated from each other.
And so you only really have three or three to five they’re competing and then eventually someone rises to the top. And so it’s, I think, I think there’s a culture of sharing, but I think there’s also just a culture of feeling like, when someone does something cool, well, crap, we can’t do that thing because we don’t have the money and we don’t have the resources and the people to actually get that thing done.
And a lot of that just comes down to who’s funding what, and what the university thinks, what university leadership thinks is important and worthy of that funding.
So that’s my soapbox for this week. But it’s tough. Like, I, I mean, I’ve felt it, I know J.S. has felt it. I know a lot of the, a lot of the folks that listen to this that are, especially the ones in social media roles at their institutions, they feel it. People that are in web roles that, at most schools, they’re just not putting the money into that side of things.
And I think that happens all over because I don’t know, budgets always feel tight and it’s like, well, why do the budgets feel tight? And I would argue it’s that money’s being spent in the wrong places. but, but that’s it. And I think, you know, I think a lot of it nowadays just keeps hearkening back to that, that idea of like, higher ed has not been digital-first.
So we’ve been talking about this for 15 years, 20 years, like how we need to make the transition to digital. I started in higher education in 2007 and you know, on the marketing side and we were talking about how do we go digital-first with our, with our marketing? How do we make the transition to digital with our education?
How do we, you know, 10 years ago, before I moved to Austin, I was sitting there thinking like, How do we make all these different student services connected in kind of a digital layer that goes on top of your campus so that when you do have an online student they’re feeling connected to your campus culture?
And I think there’s a lot of opportunity, I just think there isn’t a lot of time or money spent to make those things happen. And, you know, I did an online master’s. We were talking about, we were talking about how online programs tend to go to that graduate side of things. I did a completely online master’s through The New School while I was living in Chicago.
And. The experience was terrible. The education was good. I loved my instructors. I thought all the instructors that I had were great, but my educational experience was terrible. And this was, this was 10 years, 10, eight years ago. I got my diploma. So this was eight years ago. So it’s, I hope it’s changed. But I feel for those students that are looking at everything going online and being like, Oh, this sucks, like, this is a bad experience. Because I went through it.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: Well, you hit a good point because, talking about the hesitancy of, of higher ed to go digital-first and whether or not we share our, secret sauce or whatnot. And, and I think we’re very open right now to share that secret sauce because I’m not directly competing with a university of our size in Iowa, right? We’re not competing for the same students.
But as we shift to digital and online education, suddenly we are. And the schools that shift to a digital-first mentality now, rather than later, are going to be the ones that truly succeed in that. So, Chris, that brings me to my next question. How do those schools who want to be digital-first and be kind of on that forefront, what’s the first step? What, what, do we need to be doing to, make that transition happen and prepare for that, that digital shift that’s inevitably going to happen in higher ed.
Chris Parrish: Yeah, I think, I think there are two things that you should be doing right now. Number one is from, core competency standpoint, you’ve got to figure out what you want to offer and to whom. So there are some institutions that are always going to play in the MBA space, and they’re always going to say they want to do a general MBA. And there are some institutions that want to play in the bachelors-to-completion space. But I think there are a lot more flavors of target markets for online than most people realize.
So, I would heavily lean on your alumni and what you’re known for, to sort of develop that archetype of the first four or five things that we should be building programming around.
I tend to think that like, and this is true for me in my own sort of business setting is that like, I’m much better when I’m focused. So if you’re sort of taking the perspective of, I want to take everything we have on campus that we’ve already built, which by the way is probably losing money, right? I mean, that’s why we’re in this. And we’re going to move it online. And then, you know, we’ll be in a better situation because of that. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
I would, I would much prefer to see administrations look at what they have, look at their core competency, what they’re known for and what is needed in their local market and prioritize that first. Because you know, the unfortunate reality for a lot of smaller brand schools is that although “brand” feels like it could be national, the reality is most of your enrollments are going to come from 250 miles off-campus.
So I, at my previous company, we did a study where we looked at a brand regionality, even at some of the top tier names, names like Harvard and Yale, where we launched programs at Harvard, Yale, and Stanford and gauged, where we saw applications from. And you would think that those are national brands, right? Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. And sure enough, from an application, top of the funnel perspective, it was across the country, almost normalized. But, when it came to paying the deposit, butts in seats, I’m coming to this school: highly regional. Even Harvard and Yale.
So I would also caution those regional smaller colleges that do have limited resources, like pick your programs but pick it within the confines of what your local market and economy are demanding and where it’s headed because don’t start something because it’s a national trend because you might be very well behind on that and unable to attract sort of national students. And I mean, I wish I had better news.
Joel Goodman: It’s just, it’s just so consistent. Yeah. Yeah, of course. Yes. Yeah, it’s another one of those things that I’ve talked a lot about, and it’s just, that should be obvious. Like it’s a trend, like if you weren’t doing it, you know when it started, you’re not going to be a part of it.
Like you’re figure out what you can do that’s that’s going to differentiate yourself.
Chris Parrish: I had a Dean say to me that, although she was very happy that we decided on working on a couple of programs together, the best thing I ever did was provided cover for her, because I used to tell her faculty all the time like I know you think that’s the most interesting thing in the world, that thing you just did your research on for the last 10 years, and you think gonna be the next sliced bread, but the reality is there’s no market. And I’m so sorry there’s no market, but there’s no market. So we’re not going to build and spend all this money on something that is sort of, you know, somebody with blinders on is looking at.
So, yeah, that’s my advice is that, pick a few, right? That are gonna work for you and your brand, your reputation, and your local market. And then go, go in with those from a quality perspective, like spend the money upfront. It’ll pay off. Because if you go light and wide, you’re going to lose competitively. If you go deep and more focused, I think you’ll have a good chance at winning.
Joel Goodman: I think that’s a great spot to wrap it up. And Chris, can you, plug yourself, plug where people can find you plug Podium. Any, if there’s anything else you want to, you want to say about Podium, to our listeners, like this is, this is the time to do it. And they can find all the information and links on our website.
Chris Parrish: Yeah. thanks again. It was, I really enjoyed the time. you can find more about Podium at podiumeducation.com. We’ve got a bunch of different examples, sample videos. I know J.S. aid before he saw those and was really impressed. So I invite everybody to take a look at it and you can find me on LinkedIn, I’m Christopher Parrish, I’m President at Podium Education.
And, we’re really excited right now to be helping our partners with sort of Fall II, Term II contingency planning. The great thing about our coursework is that we can have it stood up in a matter of a week or two, which is pretty cool. So Fall II is right on our radar and then what we do in spring, right? How do we make sure that we’re providing students with an olive branch that maybe didn’t have a great summer, spring, and now fall term, getting them interested and re-enrolled? There’s going to be a Spring sort of marketing campaign around our unique courses at each of our university partners that is pretty exciting as well. So now’s the time. and, we’d be happy you to talk to anybody that that’s potentially interested in new technology and digital skill coursework. So thanks again, guys. It was a lot of fun.
Jon-Stephen Stansel: Thanks so much for being here today.
Joel Goodman: hank you so much for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast. If you like listening to our shows, we really would appreciate a rating or a review. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, where you can leave that wonderful review for us. We hope it’s wonderful. You can also follow us on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We’re on pretty much every aggregator out there. And if you can share this podcast with your higher ed friends and colleagues, I think we’ve got a lot of great content that they’ll really enjoy. You can also find all of our shows with transcripts and back episodes at thoughtfeederpod.com. You can follow us on Twitter @ThoughtFeedPod.
And again, we want to thank Chris Parrish and Podium education for being on our show today and for sponsoring us, Chris, thanks so much for the conversation and, and for being here.
Chris Parrish: Thanks again.
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