Each year, EAB creates a State of the Sector presentation, leveraging our global perspective to identify the big trends shaping higher education strategy and operational directions. This year’s presentation, Reckoning with Relevance, will debut at IGNITED, our annual summit convening presidents, provosts, CBOs, and heads of strategy.
Across the session, we will elevate need-to-know information, foster in-depth peer conversation, and focus on key priorities that demand strategic planning both in the near and long term, including:
- Enrollment and demographics: What is the current post-pandemic enrollment outlook and how might it change as the demographic cliff “levels up” to peak population?
- Public perception of higher ed value: How the public gets ROI wrong, and how that’s impacting your campus
- Student readiness and well-being: Reckoning with intersecting crises in youth mental health and unfinished learning
- The hybrid campus: Flexible work and the future of multi-modal campuses
1. Enrollment and demographics
While enrollment has stabilized post-pandemic, we are far from “back to normal.” Graduate enrollments are up across segments since 2019, while the undergrad flight to size and selectivity continues, leaving most institutions facing outright declines. And on the horizon, the much-discussed “demographic cliff” starting in the mid-2020s marks just the initial phase of a larger phenomenon. The United States and the world will soon approach “peak population,” wherein the total population will reach a maximum before steadily declining. This trajectory forecasts up to a 20% reduction in the U.S. youth population by 2050, translating to fewer students everywhere.
This impending decline will necessitate significant transformations to the global economy, representing both opportunities and challenges for higher education institutions. The question remains: are we adequately poised to confront these forthcoming changes?
2. Public perception of higher ed value
Higher education is currently at the epicenter of several cultural-war debates and faces growing skepticism of its return on investment (ROI). Despite alarming headlines, EAB analysis has shown that objective data underscores the enduring benefits of a college degree, both financially and societally. However, this negative discourse poses risks, potentially influencing on-the-fence student enrollment decisions and dampening campus morale.
For universities to thrive, they must strategically counter these narratives, targeting marketing messages to appeal to the most skeptical student subsegments and emphasizing the multifaceted value they offer to society and their essential role in today's world.
3. Student readiness and well-being
Declining student mental health is a known and growing challenge, with the percentage of college students reporting anxiety or depression nearly doubling from 2013 to 2019. The pandemic has only “poured fuel on the fire” according to U.S. Surgeon General Murthy. To make matters worse, many students experienced significant disruptions in their high school education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for both math and reading fell sharply in 2022 and 2023, erasing 40% of the test score gains made since the 1990s.
As these students now arrive on campus, academic challenges like poor grades or overwhelming assignments lead to feelings of stress and inadequacy. These emotions hinder focus and study habits, further impacting grades, and potentially trapping some students in a vicious cycle. As universities ramp up investments in student services to address these combined issues, questions emerge about which investments have the greatest impact—and where emerging technology could play a role.
4. The hybrid campus
Employers like JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and Twitter have famously brought workers back to the office for a full five days per week, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. The private sector writ large is approaching a hybrid steady state of 2-3 days in office each week. This model has shown productivity gains, increased engagement, and better hiring outcomes.
Does this flexible model work for higher ed? Senior leaders increasingly accept the idea that many of their employees can work remotely but aren’t sure if they should.
Ready to dive deeper into these topics?
Join your peers in Washington, D.C. at our two-day IGNITED summit. You'll have the opportunity to discuss the latest challenges facing our sector and develop a framework for reimagining shared governance in an era that demands both agility and renewed trust. Select which session date works for you and save your seat online.
Ready to save your seat?
Register now to join your peers at IGNITED, EAB's two-day event in Washington, D.C. for presidents, provosts, chief business officers, and chiefs of staff.