2019: Higher Education at a Crossroads

Demographic projections for the next ten-plus years illustrate that college and university leaders must begin the planning process for enrollment in the 2020s right now by further differentiating their offerings to the distinct needs of new sets of students.

January 28, 2019

In the years since the onset of the 2008 Great Recession, many higher-education institutions have simply reacted to the forces bearing down on them without any real strategy for the future. Others have responded to the issues facing them with creative solutions to prepare for the decade ahead.

As we look forward to what this new year brings, we have drawn upon the insights of experts to identify five key trends likely to shape 2019 and beyond for colleges and universities.

1. The modern learner is beyond the traditional and non-traditional student.

Today, U.S. colleges and universities enroll more than 20 million students, compared to 12 million in 1980, thanks to adding a mix of graduate and professional programs, part-time and online degrees to traditional undergraduate programs.

Meanwhile, the outlook for enrollment growth in higher education among traditional 18-22-year-olds in the next decade is dire. Although institutions can turn to the adult market of 80 million Americans who have no college degree, or international students, most colleges have limited success in penetrating the adult market and the number of new international students at American universities is trending downward.

Based on student demographic projections for the next decade, colleges must begin the planning process for enrollment in the 2020s right now. The main imperative: institutional leaders need to think about serving students beyond the historical lens of age: traditional (18 to 22 years old) and nontraditional (everyone else). They need to further differentiate program offerings to fit the distinct needs of new sets of students rather than simply tweak what they have always offered to attract a new generation of learners.

2. A renewed push for working adults. It seems each time the pool of 18-to-22 year-old undergraduates shrinks, colleges struggling to maintain their enrollment attempt to develop an approach to serve adult students. Schools then often downplay or abandon that hat strategy when traditional undergraduate numbers improve. In their mind, it’s easier to recruit a student out of high school than those in their twenties, thirties, and beyond.

Meanwhile, the market for adult students remains underserved. In terms of numbers, nearly half of the adult population—74 million people—are prospective students for colleges, who continue to fish in the much smaller pond of high-school graduates, some 3.6 million students.  Of the 17 million undergraduates in college, 27 percent of them are over the age of 24. On top of that, 21 percent dropped out of college before earning a degree. So

Knowing that about 26 percent of the adult population have only a high school diploma, more than 26 states have set specific goals to increase the percentage of their residents with a college credential by 2025. As a result, college officials in those states have started focusing their efforts on better serving the adult market. To date, not enough schools are serving adult learners at scale with strategies that are known to work for them: prior-learning assessments, competency-based programs, and online degrees.

Prior-learning assessments take into account what students have learned through their own experiences, allowing them to tailor their degree programs to broad areas. More than 350 institutions also now offer or are seeking to create competency-based degrees, which award credentials based on how much students know, not how much time they spend in a classroom.

And the proportion of undergraduates who are enrolled in at least one distance education course has risen from 27 percent to 30 percent since 2014, while the proportion of graduate students enrolled at least partially online has grown from 32 percent to 36 percent.

3. International enrollment will continue to grow—for some institutions. The past decade saw an unprecedented increase in the number of international students coming to study in the United States. But that era is over. As educational options improve in their own countries, more students are choosing to attend college closer to home, while a pack of aggressive new entrants into the international-student market—places like Canada and Ireland—seek to lure away those who might have once gone to the United States.

The United States remains the top destination in the world for international students, enrolling double the number of foreign students of its nearest rival, Britain. But going forward, universities without obvious built-in advantages with foreign students will have to play the game differently in order to stay in it—by being more thoughtful and intentional about their international student recruitment

For many institutions, the decision to recruit abroad was very much a reaction—to financial uncertainty and to seeing competitors expand their international enrollments. Colleges cannot now count on passively attracting international students but will need to invest in a recruitment strategy to find students who will be the right fit for their institutions. Colleges must also work to make the experience on campus and online a good one for students. To fully compete, colleges will also need to build clear brand identities and embrace strategies that fit their institution, such as emphasizing specialized academic programs or tapping overseas alumni networks.

4. Learning is no longer episodic, but continual. After years of talking about lifelong education, the rhetoric has finally reached reality. Accessing education no longer requires months and years of planning, lengthy applications, tapping savings or taking out huge loans, and giving up months or years of your life to match an institution’s schedule.

There is widespread agreement among labor economists that workers need access to continuous education to stay ahead of rising automation. One frequently quoted 2013 study from Oxford University predicted that nearly half of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by computers by 2033. While experts predict that few occupations will be totally automated, most jobs are likely to have many of their basic activities performed by a computer in the future.

Half of workers already prefer to learn at the point when they need to, according to a LinkedIn survey of 4,000 human resources and learning and development executives. The changing nature of work demands that higher education use new approaches to reach workers in the new economy.

5. Connecting the data dots on students. Campuses have spent years transforming their operations from analog to digital, department by department. Financial records are all electronic. Just about every course, online or in-person, now uses learning-management systems. Keycard systems count entry into dorms, gyms, and libraries.

But until recently all that digitization stayed siloed. That is changing, as colleges work to connect the dots, by creating data warehouses that draw on activity across systems, sometimes in real time. And institutions are putting the data into the hands of administrators charged with student success, giving professors a richer picture of their students and, in some cases, letting students get answers to their questions in new ways.

What makes this round of technology different is artificial-intelligence algorithms, which can bring raw numbers into focus in new ways and can detect patterns fast enough to make meaningful interventions.

Connecting the dots can form a rich paint-by-number of each student, a portrait colleges hope will increase retention and deliver clear ROI on the tech investment. And every student saved from failure helps colleges maintain enrollment during this time of challenging demographics.



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