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What industry leaders want you to know about the trends shaping today’s higher ed landscape

April 9, 2024, By John Workman, Managing Director

In our recent State of the Sector webinar, I unpacked the six critical trends shaping today’s higher ed landscape. Following the presentation, I spoke with a panel of industry experts who shared their thoughts on the future of higher ed. Our talk focused on the ongoing national dialogue that challenges the traditional role of higher ed in society and the fundamental shifts we are seeing, like demographic changes and student preparedness.

I was joined by Dr. Mildred García, chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system, Dr. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), and Jeff Selingo, journalist and author. Read below for highlights from the discussion or watch the full webinar here.

We are seeing a new low in the public perception of higher education, with headlines particularly communicating a negative message of higher ed. What is at stake in convincing the American public that a college degree is still valuable? What have you found to be the most compelling arguments?

Dr. Mildred García: It’s crucial that we turn around this narrative, especially given the evolving demographic landscape of our country. The prevailing story, often fueled by misleading headlines, poses a significant threat to vulnerable prospective student communities, including first-generation students, low-income populations, students of color, and adult learners. Our focus should be on ensuring comprehensive support for students, facilitating graduation, and aiding their entry into the workforce. We need to find a way to emphasize that college graduates typically earn higher lifetime incomes, experience lower unemployment rates, and are more active voters.

I hate the notion that a college degree isn’t for everyone and am a firm believer that we – as higher ed leaders – must recognize that we need to serve today’s changing students.

As our resident expert on the college admissions process, how prepared do you think universities are for the coming enrollment threats? What does demographic decline mean for students and families?

Jeff Selingo: Institutional leaders tend to focus on short-term trends and immediate challenges, particularly in the post-COVID landscape. In my conversations with enrollment leaders specifically, they reveal concerns about financial aid, its impact on enrollment, and how it could hinder the development of comprehensive long-term strategies. Demographic decline poses a significant threat to financial sustainability, especially for tuition-dependent institutions already lacking resources to invest in student experience, success, and support for vulnerable populations. Urgent attention and assistance are needed to help these institutions build sustainable business models.

In the face of growing budget pressures, what are some bold efficiency and organizational changes that you would like to see universities start to adopt?

Dr. Ted Mitchell: I really like what the University Innovation Alliance is doing. They’re creating an efficiency model that emphasizes shared services and regional collaborations. From joint procurement of supplies to faculty sharing, universities can explore opportunities to broaden their impact while reducing operational scale through partnerships with other industries.

Also, leveraging AI for academic planning and transactional student services holds promise. It could be the key to achieving administrative efficiency, allowing faculty and staff to focus on tasks that require their unique expertise.

MG: We [the CSU system] are taking a strategic approach to planning for our future. We are looking to adopt a predictive tuition model to fully capture what the cost of attendance looks like at our universities. We’re asking ourselves different questions to look at these metrics: How do we use our scholarships and state-provided budget to support our campuses while prioritizing underserved students? Can we better work with our community colleges? EAB has been a great thought partner through this process as we work to strengthen our existing strategies.

Where are universities primed to incorporate AI? Are there any areas with which they might struggle?

JS: Higher ed is well-positioned to integrate AI into administrative and admissions processes, with many institutions already exploring these applications. But concerns arise when implementing AI in the classroom. While AI can automate administrative tasks, ensuring quality teaching requires intentional efforts from institutional leaders. Professors and faculty need a nuanced understanding of generative AI and its limitations, which poses a challenge. How do they find time to integrate these new ideas amidst busy semesters? This is becoming an important question to consider, especially as students increasingly bring a working knowledge of AI to campuses. Balancing these factors is crucial for successful AI integration in education.

Dr. García, you hold many notable student success victories but have said that there is more work to do, especially for underserved students. What can institutions do to prepare students – of all backgrounds – for success in higher ed?

MG: To prepare for all students, institutions must first recognize the diverse demographics they serve, acknowledging the rise of non-traditional students. CSU’s GI 2025 Plan, for example, prioritizes academic preparation and wraparound services, addressing financial concerns and eliminating administrative obstacles hindering registration. This should be coupled with a focus on strengthening academic programs and establishing strategic partnerships with faculty. Leaders should ask themselves how they are ensuring a seamless transition for any student, whether it’s from the K-12 system or a community college. Institutions need to tailor their approach to the specific needs of student populations, fostering inclusivity.

Hybrid campuses and work are here to stay – what are the necessary changes higher ed needs to make and what could get in the way of those changes?

TM: Hybrid campuses need to be thought about in the context of student belonging. Our [ACE] surveys consistently show that families do not feel like their student is being looked after. We need to prioritize the connection between students, faculty, and staff to foster a supportive environment. Integrating this mindset into campus culture is crucial for creating a community where those with less influence are aided by those with the most influence. Without this emphasis on community, the hybrid model will fail.

This is the main challenge with the hybrid campus. It has an inherent tendency to disperse individuals from a central hub, relying on the hope that alternative tools can bridge the gaps. Although productivity is maintained, creativity and support services still need a centralized environment to fully thrive. But I like to think that our schools go beyond physical space and are an idea. For example, for universities in rural or densely populated urban areas, a hybrid campus doesn’t just have to have one physical campus. It can be composed of spaces that serve academic and cultural importance and allow students to connect outside of the traditional classroom setting.


John Workman

Managing Director

Read Bio

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