Chicago Startup Led By Seasoned Entrepreneurs Helps Higher Ed Digitize The College Experience In As Little As 8 Weeks

Beyond Academics Leaders (from left to right) Joe Abraham, Matthew Alex, and Joel Mathew Smiling in Front of Chicago Skyline

Matthew Alex couldn’t have predicted a global pandemic when he launched Beyond Academics to help higher Ed transform, but it was the final ingredient of the perfect storm that is claiming its casualties in higher education.

Alex is a former partner at Deloitte, where he led the Student Technology and Transformation practice—overseeing some of the most complex Student Technology Transformation projects in the country. He also led Deloitte’s Smart Campus and Future of Work initiatives.

“Other than a handful of elite, incumbent schools with 10 and 11-figure endowments and globally-recognized names, most colleges and universities have months, not years, to make a total digital transformation,” says Alex “most schools are either completely delusional or cautiously concerned about the future. What both groups have in common is that neither group has a plan that has any sustainable future. They think ‘zoom university’ is the way out of the storm.”

With big tech like Google and Amazon announcing their plans to enter the space, 40% of future freshmen saying they don’t plan to pursue 4-year degrees this fall, and a growing population of digital natives who have no interest in sitting in a lecture hall for 2 hours, the proverbial writing is on the wall. But higher ed is in denial. 

“Coronavirus was just the catalyst that accelerated the inevitable,” says serial entrepreneur and co-founder Joe Abraham. “Higher education has typically had an anti-business, anti-entrepreneurial mindset within its internal operation, and it’s about to cost a lot of careers. They’ve thought of themselves as so different and so separate, that they’ve lost the basic business fundamentals of customer-centric product design, voice-of-the-customer-driven innovation, and an agile, iterative pursuit of being fit for purpose.” 

But there is hope. Thought leaders and authentic innovators in higher education who recognized the warning signs a long time ago are sounding the alarm. Dr. Rufus Glasper, CEO of The League of Innovation in the Community College says “there is a sense of urgency for any college campus to shelve traditional strategic plans, and lift highly nimble and innovative 3, 6 and 12-month roadmaps focused on entrepreneurial transformation, and that requires new thinking,” Glasper said. “You have to establish culture where you can have the opportunity to have an ebb and flow like never before.”

Beyond Academics is helping campuses build and deploy these nimble plans for digital transformation while introducing low-cost ‘bolt-on’ technologies like its Smart Panda tools that automate labor-intensive processes, while making things like transcript portability possible within weeks, not years.

“Digital transformation is not about repaving the old roads of higher education with multi-million dollar student system installations, or synchronous classes delivered over 16-week semesters,” says Alex, “it’s about providing poly-synchronous learning, unbundling of courses into mini-artifacts that can be consumed on-demand, creating off-campus digital affinity for students – the likes of a Minecraft environment, and providing real-time transcript mobility so that students can take multiple classes across multiple schools – at the same time. That’s just the beginning of what the future of higher education looks like.” 

“Senior leadership teams are struggling to visualize the future because they’ve been in a bubble. Their teams are struggling to display entrepreneurial behavior – which is a prerequisite for authentic innovation,” says co-founder and author of Entrepreneurial DNA, Joe Abraham. “Higher education has some of the brightest minds on earth, but they need help breaking past limiting beliefs, and they need to discover the frameworks for how to design and deploy innovation in times of existential crisis. That’s what we need to help them through.”

In addition to Alex’s Future of Work platform and Abraham’s Entrepreneurial Innovation frameworks is 3rd co-founder Joel Mathew’s decades of digital media experience including running a digital marketing agency with clients like Nike, Allstate, Acura, and Rakuten. “Higher ed needs a fresh, customer-centric, and outside-the-industry approach to enrollment strategy in order to engage the digital natives of the future”, Mathews says.

7 Strategies to Create Campus Affinity in a Digital World


Welcome to the new normal. With the reality setting in that digital will become a part of the fall and beyond, many are struggling to attract students to their school without the actual campus aspect. Since online classes sterilize the in-person experience and level the playing field, numerous campus leaders have already expressed their concern on how they can foster their campus affinity through the digital layer. 

Without an immediate answer for them, I took some time to think about how other industries create online and social affinity for me. Immediately, Apple and Nike popped into mind.

So what makes Apple and Nike different in the market?

It is not their computer or shoes but instead what they stand for. If they solely focused on their products in their message, Apple and Nike would be like any other. Because there are numerous competitors selling electronics or athletic wear, they would get lost in the other advertisements.

Apple’s mission statement is “Bringing the best user experience to its customers through its innovative hardware, software, and services.”

They are also not the cheapest option, significantly higher actually. However, they have built a followership based on what they stand for: quality through simple design, in order to support your experience. Customers that buy their product know that they are purchasing quality products, and they continue to do so because of the personal connection they receive (‘Why’ statement).

Nike’s mission statement is “Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world.”  

*If you have a body, you are an athlete.

In the higher education market, there is a lot of noise around “the best.” Nike and Apple do not come out and claim best. They let their consumers decide that based on the quality of their products and the accomplishments that people connected to them achieve.

Similarly, the ‘Why’ for schools need to be showcased. The reality is that most students do not choose a college because of “what” you offer: courses, dorms, majors, top faculty. Students want to personally be a part of a community that can inspire and push them towards success. You need to create a connection to WHY they should join and gain affinity to your campus.

Every school should try this 3 Step Campus Affinity strategy exercise in order to reshape your “Why” brand in the market:

  1. List the reasons that students should choose your campus.
  2. Do the same for a competing school. 
  3. Cross out the shared ones. The remaining ones under your campus are the WHY answers that you should focus on spotlighting. It is what will uniquely attract prospective students.

You need to unconsciously resonate to your consumers. For all of the struggling schools at this pandemic time, you need to stand for more than the knowledge you disseminate, the best faculty, top rankings, graduation rates, programs you offer and your campus. Instead, represent how your campus will transform someone’s life and develop a sense of community. You need to connect with the human that wants to attend your campus, not the number that they will fill in the institution-centric metrics.

Below are some strategies to foster campus affinity.

create digital campus affinity graphic