The 2016 Dive Awards for higher education

After months of research, we've narrowed down the year's top administrator, institution, startup and more.

Aggressive regulation of the for-profit industry. Decimated state funding models for public education. A perpetual state of defending the relevance of higher education in a 21st century economy. Reported disparities in the preparedness of graduates entering the workforce.

2016 has been a tumultuous year for higher education, though certainly not the first or last year the industry has seen numerous challenges set to disrupt the landscape. It is in this spirit of change and disruption that we bring you the 2016 Dive Awards for higher education.

These awards are the byproduct of months of work and research that began in January. We solicited suggestions for nominees from readers in August before consulting industry insiders to help us narrow down the choices. Ultimately, the winners were chosen by the editors of Education Dive with the help of a panel of industry experts. Here are our 10 winners for 2016:

Executive of the year

Winner: Matthew Holland, President, Utah Valley University

It’s really easy for a leader to come in and declare that an institution will be top-tier by the end of his tenure. What’s not so easy, and significantly less popular, is for a leader to assess the needs of the state and its industry and say the needs of the college will focus on the needs of the state, namely being a workforce development college that happens to offer bachelor’s degrees, rather than what’s popular in academe.

Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland

“We’ve got this scrappy, industrial, kind of can-do attitude that’s kind of been with us from the beginning,” Holland said in an earlier conversation with Education Dive. “We’re retaining this attitude that got us started ... but we’ve also grown as a university, as an economy. Even as we hold onto that vocational effort of the past, we’ve also been trying to modify that with the idea [of] building on those roots to something even more magnificent and sweeping in terms of broadening our commitment to the brightest and best field of human endeavor.”

Holland said he realized Utah likely needed another community college to focus on workforce development, but upon realizing the state was not likely to create one, he decided it was his institution’s mantle to carry.

“There’s this kind of Harvard envy, and if we all kind of see Harvard as the only way to [model] education, we’re going to price this thing out of reach,” he said.

Other nominees: John Hennessy, Stanford University; Todd Hutton, Utica College; Vice President Maribeth Ehasz, University of Central Florida; Vice Chancellor Tristan Denley, Tennessee Board of Regents


College/University of the Year

Winner: Arizona State University

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more innovative institution than Arizona State University. Perhaps that’s why Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz chose ASU as its educational partner when announcing a plan to pay for college for Starbucks employees.

Arizona State has an 86% freshman retention rate, thanks in no small part to its concentrated efforts around the Global Freshman Academy, which ASU President Michael Crow says “draws in students who, because of life balance or a need for greater confidence, have shied away from attempting higher education,” and the institution’s  First-Year Success Center — “which pairs highly trained upper-division graduate students with freshmen and sophomores to offer free, personal academic support and advocacy.”

In a number of ways, Crow and ASU are leading the way and changing the standard in higher education, which is evident in the institution’s annual ASU-GSV meeting, one of the largest conferences around innovation in education in the country.

Other nominees: University of California San Diego; Mesa College, San Diego Community College District; University of Wisconsin-Extension


Most Disruptive Idea

Winner: Microcredentials/Badging

Microcredentials and badges took off in 2016, as institutions continued to seek new ways to assert the relevance of their degrees. Some argued the addition of badges provided students and graduates with credentials they could show prospective employers to demonstrate job competencies. But others have argued that the microcredential gave students a pathway around college completion or enabled students who couldn’t read or write to graduate.

For employers looking to quickly discern what students had actually learned, microcredentials/badges provided an easy way to do that. Badges also lend to outside credentialers providing continuing education or even finding ways to supplant the traditional education model, which could lead to trouble for institutions which are slow to adapt to the new ways of providing training for the workforce.

Other nominees: Shaw distance learning in Google innovation hub; Open Learning Initiative (Stanford/Carnegie Mellon); Student Success Collaborative Campus


Turnaround of the Year

Winner: Sweet Briar College

After being taken to the brink of closure in 2015, the institution’s alumnae have rallied to save it. Fundraising campaigns continue to thrive and new students are continuing to enroll, providing hope to small liberal arts colleges across the country.


Sweet Briar is an extreme best-case scenario. Small liberal arts colleges are increasingly under attack and increasingly face declining enrollment, attacks on the model and the possibility of closure, but the mobilization of their alumnae is a case study for other development officers, even in institutions which are not under threat of closure. And for public institutions which may see public funding drop or become non-existent over the next decade, engaging alumni support and the support of the community at-large will become even more critical to the viability of the institutions.

Other nominees: Paul Quinn College; Bennington College; Utica College


Obsession of the Year

Winner: Affordability

One of the biggest pushes of the Obama presidency, and a key point in both Bernie Sanders’ and eventually Hillary Clinton’s platforms, has been college affordability. It was the emphasis on affordability that led to Obama’s free community college proposal, and is a driving force in the ongoing tug-of-war for public colleges facing both declining public funding and mandates to keep tuition low.  

Most institution leaders understand the need to provide an affordable and valuable education to students, not only to keep their own doors open and enrollment on target, but for national security and global workforce positioning as well. But trying to reconcile the idea of affordability with a need to meet payroll, increasingly rising administrative costs — like healthcare and overtime pay  is a difficult task.

Other nominees: out-of-state recruitment; PR firms for presidents in trouble; open education resources; community college incentivizing


Policy of the Year

Winner: The U.S. Department of Education’s zeroing in on for-profit colleges

Instead of pointing to a single policy  there have been several, from the stripping of accreditation authority of the American Council for Independent Colleges and Schools to the revocation of eligibility of federal funds — the entire focus on shutting down for-profit colleges wins “policy of the year.” The potential implications for other schools with unfavorable graduate outcomes and high debt ratios for graduates, remain great, though experts have said they’re not the intended target.

“This sector believes this department will do as much as it can to to shut down as many schools as possible before [President Barack Obama] leaves office.”

Steve Gunderson

President and CEO, Career Education Colleges and Universities

Steve Gunderson, president and CEO of for-profit advocacy organization Career Education Colleges and Universities, said the department’s targeting of for-profit institutions, and the swiftness of the process to close ITT specifically, has been “unlike anything I’ve seen in all of my years working in or associated with the government of the United States,” and said “it’s indicative of what [leaders in] the sector are afraid of.”

“This sector believes this department will do as much as it can to to shut down as many schools as possible before [President Barack Obama] leaves office,” he said.

Some have speculated that the election of Donald Trump and the rise in power of presumed House Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-NC) could bring a deregulation of the sector and a resurgence in operations.

Other nominees: $500 tuition proposal for North Carolina institutions; tightened guidelines on outside gigs for presidents in California


Legal Battle of the Year

Winner: Fisher v. Texas

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race-based consideration in college admissions, giving colleges a way ahead on affirmative action-like policies. In a different climate, perhaps the vote would have gone another way, but in the midst of a proliferation of campus protests around diversity concerns, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had never before voted for affirmative action policies, said in the majority opinion that universities must be allowed leeway to pursue diversity in ways that make sense for their campuses.

Abigail Fisher (right) with Attorney Bert Rein
Getty Images

As the demographics of this country change, higher education will be forced to reckon with the elitism it has perpetuated and consider more ways to increase access for students of a variety of racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. Many consider the next major set of challenges for institutions of higher education to be around how to fully achieve diversity on campus — and some argue this will only be fully achieved through the use of race-based consideration in admissions. And at least for now, the Fisher ruling allows those practices to stand.

Other nominee: Obama administration vs. states on transgender bathroom access


Best Investment

Winner: Public education

At a recent conversation hosted by the TIAA Institute, American Association of State Colleges and Universities President Muriel Howard said public institutions have been dealing with budget cuts for the last 30 year or more — they've adjusted so well, in fact, that government officials at the state and federal levels have continued to cut to levels that are no longer sustainable if higher education officials are to maintain the quality of product. Stephen Jordan, president of Metropolitan State University of Denver, recently said those in higher education are “having to reconcile in our minds that the likelihood of increased state support is zero” — they expect that “somewhere around 2025, there will be no funding in higher ed.”

But for higher education to survive as an enterprise, public investment in the industry must increase. And slowly but surely, state funding is starting to rebound. In January, a Grapevine Report found public funding for higher education up by 4.1% across the country, but did not include data from Illinois and Pennsylvania, two very large states with very public education funding struggles. Still, even a slight uptick in public funding is a good thing, and with national education attainment goals still hovering, public investment in higher education remains the sector’s best — and most critically needed — investment.

Other nominees: free textbooks at Virginia community colleges; Clemson Innovation Center; UMass solar panels


Startup of the Year

Winner: WorldQuant University

The totally online, tuition-free master’s institution checks all of the hot boxes in higher ed right now: online learning, affordability and pursuit of advanced degrees. And not only that, it’s global focus and emphasis on providing access to education even in rural areas makes the university one to watch, as a potential competitor in an ever-changing marketplace.

Other nominees: Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine; Minerva Schools; Ranku; Acrobatiq


Biggest Missed Opportunity

Winner: Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

There was some chatter earlier in the summer that Congress would reauthorize the Higher Education Act before the election season went into full swing, but it turned out to be just a cruel joke. And though most in the know did not have high hopes for any substantial movement of the bill this year, the idea that it might wait another year or two to come up on the next Congress’s priority list is less than ideal for many in higher ed.

Though the U.S. House and Senate managed to reauthorize the nation's biggest K-12 law, it failed to make significant progress on doing the same for the Higher Education Act. 

Looking ahead to 2017 and beyond, many higher education experts consider the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to be the top priority for the 115th Congress. Access, affordability and accountability all hang in the balance with the HEA proceedings. — all key tenets of the Obama administration's higher education legacy, the future of which many are questioning post-election. 

Other nominee: Not exploiting the “direct assessments” loophole in a 2006 federal statute to allow students to receive financial aid for competency-based programs

The 2016 Dive Awards were distributed across our twelve vertical markets: BioPharma, CIO, Construction, Education, Food, Healthcare, HR, Marketing, Retail, Supply Chain, Utility, and Waste. Click here to see all of the Dive Awards winners.

Follow on Twitter

Filed Under: Higher Ed Technology Policy & Regulation Online Learning Legal / Courts For-Profit