Strategic Differentiation: Achieving the Triple Aim of Higher Education

Strategic Differentiation: Achieving the Triple Aim of Higher Education


Dr. Jack Rudnick, jr.

Competitive pressures facing higher education have never been greater1. A reality for universities and colleges in the twenty-first century is that they are not fully preparing students for the demands of the workforce. Given the increasing need for talent, institutions need responsive, adaptive, and transformative change to meet demand and remain competitive. Employers report that students graduating from colleges and universities lack the competencies required for workforce application of higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills2. J.R. Reid and P.R. Anderson reported in The Journal of Education for Business (2012) that 70 percent of Americans do not understand the scientific process, which infers a gap in basic reasoning skills—known commonly in business settings as “good business sense” or “business savvy.”

Globalization, advances in technology, competition from other colleges and universities, and accountability to multiple stakeholders are among the forces working against the sustainability of many higher education institutions3. While not a panacea, educating and developing future talent that can think critically can be a competitive advantage for higher education institutions that want to   remain relevant.

The healthcare community generally refers to a “triple-aim” when assessing the health of an institution or community, and the efficacy of care delivery. Three pillars —improved quality, reduced cost, and improved patient experience—can be summarized as basic units of measurement to help identify healthcare’s effectiveness4. A relevant (newly-introduced) parallel construct that applies between the healthcare and higher education fields could be coined as “the triple aim of higher education” —high quality, reasonable cost, and high stakeholder satisfaction. The pillars of this construct can be used as basic units of measurement to anchor, assess, and help identify the efficiency and effectiveness of outcomes in higher education. By adopting this model, outcomes for higher education could effectively be measured using standardized testing, course grading rubrics, and end of course satisfaction surveys. These three pillars can help measure and gauge students’ effectiveness as it relates to critical thinking. In order for students to learn effectively, they need to be engaged. They also need engaged faculty, as an active force for driving new classroom knowledge-development. The adoption of critical thinking as a heterogeneous tool will help fill the workforce readiness problem when delivered in a highly student-centric manner. When colleges create and offer a quality education at a reasonable cost using critical thinking as a foundation for learning, the net effect is satisfied graduates and their future employers.

Forces Affecting Higher Education

Responsive, adaptive, and transformative change is needed to increase students’ critical thinking and complex problem-solving competencies. Organizations must be skilled at fostering creativity as well as acquiring and transferring knowledge5. Critical thinking is a construct that is discussed at length as both essential and invaluable for addressing this requirement for change. Historians have championed the concept of freedom of thought and speech to establish the basis for reflective and critical thinking6. An examination of the fundamental bases for critical thinking through the linkage of critical thought with free speech and religious liberty6 appears to be re-emerging as relevant to addressing the need for change.

There are several prevailing forces that can impact new workers coming out of school, including globalization, technology, competition, and accountability. Globalization within the business community is becoming a part of everyday work life. Once thought of as a separate business unit or new initiative, global business is business. Similarly, technology is an enabler for all aspects of an individual’s work life. Certainly students understand how to communicate via technology, but they may not be trained on how it can be used to create a competitive advantage in a world market. Competition in the world market is another area that students may not be prepared for based on their current curriculum. Reading about competition for talent, resources, and revenue is different than understanding how these elements fit together to create success. Finally, students get some level of exposure to accountability by learning about the notion of dashboards and scorecards. Still, this is one-dimensional learning akin to asking a worker to run a machine by reading a manual without the benefit of hands-on training. Taken together, these are multi-dimensional, complex issues that highlight the demand for workers who can sort, analyze, and problem solve at the same speed with which these issues arise in their work lives. These issues underscore the need for our centers of higher learning to teach students how to think.

The Problem

Federal studies report on poor technology literacy, reading, and math skills among Americans7. The lack of critical thinking in education is significant because it also impedes the development of another “higher order thinking” component—problem-solving skills8. Yet employers require the application of critical thinking and complex problem solving as fundamental workforce skills9. The problem is that curricula design by faculty is likely not focusing on critical thinking as a student-learning outcome; nor is it likely that outcomes are being assessed and measured. A sub-problem exists in the inability to easily apply critical-thinking fundamentals to practical business matters. Consequently, students reach graduation but are not equipped with the appropriate training or skills to enter the workforce.

To facilitate students’ transitions from school to work; functional workforce requirements identified by employers must be factored into student learning outcomes. Universities and colleges must implement relevant key metrics for assessment. If an outcome is not measured, it is likely not going to be identified, celebrated, or addressed. For example, metrics for business students might include an ability to satisfy the following: clarity and effectiveness in oral and written communication skills; awareness of emotional intelligence relative to accepted principles of leadership, management, and supervision; ability to manage workplace conflict; ability to participate in consensus-building to work in groups and teams; and awareness of and ability to manage or influence the costs associated with providing benefits for employees.

Higher Education Institutions

G. M. Steyn asserts in Education (2015) that the ability of students to learn faster is a way for institutions to gain a competitive advantage in the higher education marketplace. Leaders in higher education shape a positive higher educational culture through visionary growth strategies. Charismatic and visionary leaders can initiate ideas such as research and entrepreneurship activities to avail campuses of new revenue funding streams10. Authoritarian leadership styles among those at the helms of higher education institutions are cautioned against1. A disadvantage and negative consequence of a “command and control” style of leader is that it typically results in inferior and expensive services in the long run. Conversely, transformational leaders characterized by a high degree of integrity and values experience more efficacious styles and sustaining outcomes. Transformational leaders are preferred to employ strategies that result from a more effective participatory style11.


Knowledge is important because it is what offers universities and colleges their number-one distinctive strategic competitive advantage12. Unfortunately, sources reveal many examples of deficits in modern teaching methods and resources as faculty have become subject matter experts in content areas; however, the content may not provide the life-long skills that students’ need and employers demand. There are a host of methods and tools faculty may consider embracing, but these methods may not meet practical needs for incorporation into a teaching plan. Content matter and knowledge needs to be packaged and conveyed in a practical manner useful for prospective employment. Higher order thinking skills also need to be considered, planned, and incorporated in order to bring context and relevance to the classroom.

rudnick_1Critical thinking is also the basis for other key skills such as communication. Strategic written and oral communication skills are essential for higher education graduates at all levels. Critical thinking is at the heart of academic writing13. Development of effective written and oral communication teaching strategies offer an opportunity for differentiation in the marketplace. Universities and colleges are the creative spaces where people can find themselves through writing. The practice of refined writing and contributions in the form of deconstructing and reconstructing to form new material for greater networking and relationship building14 is included in that discussion.

Partnerships, connections, and networking have a similar resonance in the context of parallels between business activities and entrepreneurship growth. Research and knowledge need to be part of the outcome from entrepreneurial activities. Select oral communication development, emphasizes the importance of debate as an effective tool and process for cultivating student knowledge15. General science courses as well as technology courses are identified as great course types for students to learn critical thinking skills.


The triple-aim of higher education—high quality, reasonable cost, and stakeholder satisfaction is considered in relation to new knowledge development. Critical thinking emerges, from the evolutionary process of cognitive reflective thought, as an underpinning theme involving important stakeholders. An analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of literature sources, reinforces the pivotal role played by faculty members through application of critical thinking strategies. In addition to students, others with vested interests in knowledge creation include higher education institution boards, higher education administrative staff, employers, and the communities served. Faculty member awareness of critical thinking is a dire need in the knowledge creation process.

Knowledge is the most valuable asset that higher education institutions can boast. Cultivation and refinement of knowledge creation processes are indicated. The host of variables influencing a knowledge creation focus on learning processes, and considerations for faculty members who navigate and drive approaches to student engagement suggest multiple areas for future exploration and study. The areas that seem fertile for future research include evaluation and assessment of critical thinking using online learning, the effects of critical thinking on competitive advantage and strategic differentiation, and a faculty development program to heighten an awareness of critical thinking tools as well as movement toward more active learning styles.

These considerations for future research establish the reality of the fluid and dynamic nature of higher education. Stakeholders have been and will need to continue as vanguards for knowledge creation and incorporate new research and developments as it

has since the inception of educational practice. The desired outcome of this research has been to acknowledge the gap in knowledge creation and to offer concrete solutions and suggestions for consideration.

His Holiness, Pope Francis, urges that, “True education enables us to love life and opens us to the fullness of life.” Employing the “triple aim” of higher education coupled with an encouragement of higher order thinking skills development, helps stakeholders achieve this outcome. Through active engagement, we are able to collaborate and witness to a further cultivation of the values of Thomas More College in its intellectual tradition.



1 Dunnion & O’Donovan (2014)

2 Scott (2009)

3 Bahhouth & Bahhouth (2011); Barbera, Layne, & Gunawardena (2014); Dill (1999); Emes & Innes-Cleveland (2003); Matheson, Wilkinson, & Gilhouly (2012); Stukalina (1991)

4 McCarthy (2015)

5 Barbera, et al. (2014)

6 Center for Critical Thinking (2015)

7 Reid & Anderson (2012)

8 Hsaio et al. (2013)

9 Bloch & Spataro (2014); Coi & Sankaran (2015)

10 Monsted & Hansson (2010)

11 Rudnick (2009)

12 Emes & Cleveland-Innes (2013)

13 Clifton (2012)

14 Badley (2009)

15 Scott (2008)