It's now been more than ten years since the onset of the Great Recession. In the years since, many higher-education institutions have simply reacted to the forces bearing down on them without any real strategy for the future; but some have seized the opportunity to respond to the issues facing colleges and universities with creative solutions to prepare for the decade ahead.
As we look forward to the final year of this second decade of the new millennium, we have drawn upon the insights of higher-education experts to identify five key trends likely to shape 2019 for colleges and universities.
1. The modern learner is beyond the traditional and non-traditional student. One thing has been certain in higher education over the last three decades: enrollment just kept growing year by year.
In the decade between 1994 and 2004, enrollment in American higher education jumped 21 percent. It grew another 17 percent in the decade that followed. Today, U.S. colleges and universities enroll more than 20 million students, compared to 12 million in 1980, thanks in large part to graduate and professional programs, part-time and online degrees to the mix of traditional undergraduate credentials.
If demographics are destiny, the outlook for enrollment in higher education among the traditional 18-22-year-old demographic in the decade ahead is dire. Sure, colleges always have other outlets for students, such as the enormous adult market where 80 million Americans have no college degree and the insatiable demand for higher education among international students. But most colleges have little experience or success in truly penetrating the adult market and the number of new international students at American universities is already declining.
No matter what, the demographic projections for the next ten-plus years illustrate that colleges must begin the planning process for enrollment in the 2020s right now. As a result, institutional leaders need to think about and serve their students beyond the historical lens of age: traditional (18 to 22 years old) and nontraditional (everyone else). They need to further differentiate their offerings to the distinct needs of new sets of students rather than simply tweak what they have always offered to try 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. That strategy is usually followed in fits and starts as schools abandon it 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.
That said, the market for adult students remains underserved. Of the 17 million undergraduates in college, 27 percent of them are over the age of 24. Another 26 percent of the adult population have only a high school diploma. On top of that, 21 percent dropped out of college before earning a degree. So 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.
More than 26 states have set specific goals to increase the percentage of their residents with a college credential by 2025. In an attempt to reach that goal, college officials in those states have focused their efforts on better serving the adult market. It's not that higher education doesn't know how to serve adults, it's just that not enough schools are serving them at scale with strategies that are known to work for them: prior-learning assessment, competency-based programs, and online degrees.
Prior-learning assessment allows students to plan their specific degree programs in broad areas, and they are assessed on what they have learned through their own experiences. At the same time, more than 350 institutions now offer or are seeking to create competency-based degrees, which award degrees 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, and 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, some 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.
Does that mean the U.S. will lose its position as the top destination in the world for international students? Not likely. The United States enrolls double the number of foreign students than 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.
First, they will need to be thoughtful and intentional. For many institutions, the decision to recruit abroad was very much a reaction—to financial uncertainty, to seeing competitors expand their international enrollments. Second, colleges cannot 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 work to make the experience on campus and online a good one for students. Finally, to compete, colleges will need to build clear brand identities and embrace strategies that fit their institution. For some that may mean emphasizing specialized academic programs; for others, 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, countless applications, tapping savings or taking out huge loans, and giving up months or years of your life to match some random institutional schedule.
There is widespread agreement among labor economists that workers need access to continuous education to stay one step 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 requires that higher education figure out 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, whether 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's likely to change in the coming years, 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 the students sitting in their classrooms 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 through visualizations and can detect patterns fast enough to make meaningful interventions. Once connected, all those scattered 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.