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To create an effective plan for student success, higher education leaders must understand the influences on today’s learners and their environment.

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The primary factors that will impact today’s college students’ success is not an internal change in institutions, but external factors, shared Ed Venit, the managing director of strategic research at EAB, in a May 22 webinar hosted by the American Council on Education.

Instead, Venit said, the six forces playing key roles in student success are found in public opinion, evolving strategies and the changing makeup of college students.

To be prepared, campus leaders should be aware of these factors and understand how they can mold the future of higher education.

Driving change: The six forces driving the future of student success are:

  • Public perception on value. Americans say they don’t believe a college degree has a return on investment given the high cost of attendance. Fewer high school graduates are also choosing to enroll in college, a trend that has been on the decline since 2016.
  • Changing student demographics. As higher education becomes more accessible to different types of learners, and as the number of traditional college-aged student declines, the makeup of college campuses looks different, with more adults and working students enrolled. Gen Z is also increasingly diverse, bringing new and different perspectives to campuses.
  • Mental health and wellbeing. Nationally, more adults experience anxiety and depression, and college students present unique risks for mental health challenges, which could impact their retention and persistence within higher education.
  • Declining academic preparation. Remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted student learning at all levels, and national benchmarks show a decline in college readiness at all levels. In 2023, only 38 percent of eighth graders were on pace for college math, compared to 43 percent in 2019. The preparation gap is more visible among fifth graders, of whom only 56 percent are on pace for college math in 2023, compared to 69 percent in 2023.
  • A sustainable scope of business. Given some of these external pressures, college administrators are choosing to reimagine their business models to be sustainable, or “doing less with less” as Venit put it. As such, institutions are reducing output in favor of sustainability, rather than looking toward a growth-minded boom.
  • Growth of artificial intelligence. Across sectors, artificial intelligence is set to become the fastest adoption of a new technology, impacting both how the institution educates and prepares students for their careers as well as how it does business.

So what? Based on these factors, practitioners and leaders should consider:

  • Communicating the benefits of higher ed. To prove the continued value of a college degree, stakeholders must be equipped with clear evidence to debunk common myths as well as to establish the proven benefits of postsecondary education. This could include conversations about personal growth and societal benefits but should also include career prospects and potential earnings differences after completing a certificate or degree.
  • Promoting inclusion for all students. Diversity enriches the learning environment, but also requires support services, teaching methods and campus culture to shift to be accepting of all students. Practitioners should be adaptable, ensuring that each student has equal access to opportunities and systems.
  • Investing in mental health services. Wellbeing is not a personal concern for each student but part of a supportive and productive learning environment, so expanding mental health services on-campus or through third-party providers can address student needs.
  • Identifying academic supports. Incoming students may require additional help in their academic success, so leaders should identify supplemental instruction programs, bridge courses and innovative teaching methods to meet various learning styles and preparation needs.
  • Creating strategic vision. Maintaining sustainability requires top-down leadership that coordinates mission alignment, demand and financial viability.
  • Preparing for innovation. To be best prepared for the adoption of artificial intelligence and other technologies, higher ed leaders must brace for infrastructure upgrades but also a cultural shift that embraces change while preserving the tenants of higher education, including academic integrity and equity.

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