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4 Possible Futures for Student Success

Higher education plays a pivotal role in shaping lives and communities. But in periods of rapid change, the future can feel more opaque than ever. How can you make smart decisions for your students without knowing what lies ahead?

At EAB, we applied strategic foresight methodology (environmental scanning, trend analysis, scenario development, impact assessment, and strategy formulation) to help you anticipate change, identify opportunities, and shape the future of higher education.

As part of this work, we developed four possible futures for student success. Explore this infographic to understand what may lie ahead and start planning for the future you want for your institution—and your students.

Key Forces Shaping Student Success

We identified the six forces shaping the future of student success—known as “drivers” in strategic foresight parlance. These serve as critical lenses for analyzing and anticipating future trends. In each scenario below, click “What might this look like?” to see what is happening in these particular areas.

  • Public Perception of Higher Ed Value

    What is an institutions’ role in proving the value of college?

  • Evolving Demographics

    What are the needs of the increasingly diverse student body?

  • Mental Health

    How should institutions respond to the rising need for student mental health care?

  • Academic Preparation

    How do institutions respond to increasing levels of missed academic preparation?

  • Sustainable Scope

    How do institutions provide effective support without burning out staff?

  • Artificial Intelligence

    Will Generative AI enable personalized support at scale?

4 Possible Futures

The four futures below represent different potential scenarios or conditions for the future of student success, ranging from continuity to radical transformation. Each state reflects a distinct set of circumstances and outcomes based on how well institutions respond to emerging challenges and opportunities.

Same system, same rules

Future 1: Slow to Adapt

In this scenario, higher education operates under existing systems and regulations without significant deviation. Colleges, slow to adapt to the changing landscape, offer only minor adjustments. Student success teams, already stretched thin, face increasing demands for support due to pandemic-related challenges affecting Gen Z learning and well-being.

What might this look like?

  • Students question the value of college and entertain other options, but few viable alternatives emerge. Tuition falls, and the wage premium rises, generating a financial ROI for most college graduates.
  • Enrollments diversify racially and economically, including for the first time at elite colleges. The adult learner market contracts while dual enrollment grows, dropping the average age of college students.
  • Student demand for wellness services continues to outpace the capacity of their schools. Colleges invest their own resources and receive grants to build out their mental health services.
  • Colleges passively adjust to falling student math preparation across the decade. Enrollment in STEM, health, and business programs drops; employers find it harder to recruit qualified job applicants.
  • Student success teams respond to budget cuts with incremental reductions in staffing, support, and scale, but make no major changes to the larger portfolio of services. Reduced capacity reduces their impact.
  • Colleges lag behind the overall economy in adopting AI due to concerns over bias and job loss. Adoption is further slowed by poor data governance and fragmented databases.
No system, no rules

Future 2: A Downward Spiral

Higher education faces a collapse as institutions lack regulation and systems, causing disarray and uncertainty. Pandemic aftermath worsens, affecting K-12 and college students’ mental health and persistence. Overwhelmed student support teams struggle, leading to closures of vulnerable schools amid plummeting revenue. Negative headlines fuel public skepticism toward college value.

What might this look like?

  • Public confidence in college value falls, driven by hostile politicians and the media. High school graduates prefer to enter the job market. Employers de-emphasize college degrees in the hiring process, preferring to do their own training.
  • Economic and social forces discourage students of color from attending college, although rich and elite colleges continue to thrive. As a result, college enrollments get richer and whiter for the first time in decades.
  • Mental stressors on young people continue to rise, completely overwhelming colleges. Mental health incidents become more common and deter students from continuing their studies.
  • Colleges are blindsided by a dramatic dip in academic preparation in the latter half of the decade. Enrollments drop and faculty morale hits a breaking point, with many leaving the profession.
  • Staff turnover exceeds 20% as morale falls. Wages do not keep up with other sectors. Schools are reluctant to cut services in a crisis and staff are asked to work longer hours, further compounding morale issues.
  • AI is a bust or is outlawed, neither students nor schools adopt it broadly, and an underground market emerges for specific use cases.
Same system, new rules

Future 3: The New Specialists

Higher education adapts to survive amid intense competition, emphasizing specialization and efficiency. Colleges face crises, leading to scaled-back programs, consortia formation, or dramatic transformations. A diverse landscape emerges, offering specialized offerings tailored to student needs. Optimized support leads to breakthroughs in student success.

What might this look like?

  • Schools differentiate by specializing in specific fields, shaping the public perception of college. Those who demonstrate a higher return on investment become highly sought-after and selective, influencing how society views the value of higher education.
  • As schools specialize, some opt to specialize on specific demographics, behaviors, or student needs
    (e.g., neurodiversity). Specialization allows student success teams to focus their efforts and improve effectiveness.
  • School mental health services increasingly partner with emerging third-party providers. Some schools will fully outsource mental health services while others double down and make it part of their value proposition.
  • A few colleges adapt quickly and expand their offerings in business, STEM, and health fields. Many students, having faced missed academic preparation, turn to third parties for additional academic support.
  • Specialization allows student success leaders to shift resources to services that match their students and missions. Multi-institutional service consortia emerge. Outsourcing of services becomes common.
  • Colleges reject AI, but AI prospers in the marketplace and students look outside their institution for AI-driven support.
New system, new rules

Future 4: Innovation and Adaptability

A dynamic new educational system emerges, driven by innovation and adaptability. Colleges reinvent value delivery in response to pandemic, integrating career preparation into traditional programs. AI advancements enable personalized support at scale, enhancing graduation rates and the quality of each student’s experience.

What might this look like?

  • Colleges reorient themselves around maximizing student value. Career prep integrates throughout the curriculum, including in the liberal arts. As a result, college degrees are broadly seen as high-return investments.
  • Colleges adopt new DEI strategies that circumvent political pushback. Traditional colleges launch programs and support structures specifically tailored to the needs of transfers, adults, and other non-traditional students.
  • Colleges become places of wellness, with mental health as a central part of the value proposition. Students choose to go to college instead of the workforce in part because of access to better mental health support.
  • Colleges vastly expand dual enrollment to increase revenue, with the side effect of helping close pandemic learning gaps. Advancements in math education help students enter high-demand quantitative fields.
  • Staff use transformative technologies to dramatically scale their student support efforts. Advancements in analysis allow teams to focus new investment where it matters most, improving impact and effectiveness.
  • Each student uses a personal AI college coach to guide their journey through school and into a career. Administrators make full use of AI and business tools to increase their efficiency and impact.

Don’t wait for the future to unfold:

Technology empowers you to respond to the dynamic needs of a diverse student body with speed and innovation. With Navigate360's proven track record of enhancing student success over the past decade, we're ready to help you shape an even brighter future for generations of students to come. Submit this form to speak with an expert or request a demo.