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Five Questions for Higher Ed to be Mindful of in 2024

As higher education is at a crossroad between being innovative and preserving convention, higher ed leaders need to look ahead and plan for what’s coming next.

For years, workforce shortages, student demographic shifts, and technological advances have pointed to the need and opportunity for new and innovative models. Institutions haven’t been quick to adapt; regulatory constraints, antiquated notions of how best to serve students, and misaligned incentives are just a few of the dynamics that tend to impede innovation and preserve convention.

This past year, federal policies spurred national conversations about the role of colleges and universities in democratizing opportunity, and in many cases, highlighted the sector’s failure to act as an equalizer and engine of economic mobility. Reports about declining confidence in the institution of higher education dominated headlines, with renowned publications like The New York Times asking, “Is college worth it?

Yet despite what can feel like a glacial pace, it’s clear to me that many institutions are evolving to meet the needs of a more diverse student body and connect more individuals to opportunity. The question is: will their peers follow suit, or cling tightly to a centuries-old paradigm?

If 2023 was higher ed’s year of reckoning, 2024 is poised to emerge as the year when we finally test the potential of groundbreaking innovations. With that in mind, here are five questions to be mindful of in the coming year:

1. Will the accelerated shift from exclusively in person to exclusively online continue?

As reported by Phil Hill, online learning has seen an astronomical rise since the onset of the pandemic. From the 2019-20 academic year to the 2021-22 academic year, the number of students enrolled exclusively in distance education increased 39%, while the number of students enrolled exclusively in person declined 41% (the number of students who enrolled in hybrid programs rose 19%).

Equally encouraging is that the concentration of online enrollment is dissipating as more public and private nonprofit institutions invest in technology. If online is where primary growth is coming from and building and scaling online operations is hard, the few who corner the space will have a very strong mote. More importantly, if this shift continues it could lead to significant regulatory changes providing institutions a more favorable context in which to rethink their pedagogical models, instructional supports, and mentoring. Such a dramatic shift will surely have major compounding effects, perhaps even serving to bend the arc of the cost curve in higher ed.

2. Will institutions harness the full potential of technologies—like AI—to personalize learning and advance equity?

Technology is drastically changing the way we live and work, and higher education is no exception. With AI, colleges and universities can enhance and personalize the student experience from enrollment to graduation and beyond improve operational efficiencies for faculty and staff.

Above all, I’m interested in seeing how AI can democratize learning in the same way that the internet democratized access. But as with any innovation, it’s critical that AI not be confined to the same artificial constraints found in traditional models, such as deploying synchronous virtual lectures and fixed-pace schedules. To mitigate that risk, leaders should ask themselves: How can we deploy AI to dramatically increase the ability for every student to consume, engage, and master learning materials?

3. Could advances in AI drive a resurgence in liberal education?

I’m a big believer that for education to fulfill its purpose, it needs to connect students to opportunity. This rationale is why Western Governors University doesn’t offer obscure programs that are disconnected with workforce needs; instead it provides programs that set students up for success in the most in-demand fields. But as AI learns to automate many knowledge-worker tasks, it's going to become increasingly important for individuals to develop enduring, uniquely human skills such as problem solving, dealing with ambiguity, critical thinking, and communication. After all, if AI is supposed to be a co-pilot, the pilot better be very good at being human, especially given AI, like any technology, will only reflect the morals of the user.

Enduring skills can and should be embedded in all degree programs, from computer science to marketing. But there’s no doubt that certain liberal arts degrees—for instance sociology, psychology, political science, and other interdisciplinary degrees—will also be desperately needed in the future as we contend with challenges including population health, mental health, policy shifts, and climate change.

4. Will the value of non-degree pathways be proven, and lead to the re-imagining of the degree?

In some circles, leaders seem poised to declare that the college degree is dead—but I’m not convinced. Driven in part by demand from emerging adults, 2024 may indeed see an accelerated shift away from one-and-done four-year degrees, but that that doesn’t mean the degree won’t still carry value. The degree provides optionality for a lifetime that no other credential can offer (yet).

In the coming year, I’ll be interested to see how institutions reimagine the degree to enable stackable, timely, and career-relevant learning that’s packaged in an affordable, flexible way (students shouldn’t be forced or expected to complete 120 credits in a single sitting, just as no one should be pressured to consume a 96 ounce steak all in one go). I’ll also be watching to see whether promising alternative pathways, including apprenticeships and certificates, are accepted and validated by employers, and how institutions ensure their quality and relevancy.

5. Will income driven repayment plans reduce incentives for institutions to control costs and provide value?

In an effort to address the student debt crisis, the Administration is expanding an income-driven repayment plan and pursuing an alternative regulatory path to extend loan forgiveness to more borrowers. It’s important to note that the Administration has also finalized regulations designed to give students more information about the net costs of post-secondary programs and the financial outcomes they can expect.

But I’ll be honest—I’m still concerned about the potential risks of making college effectively free for more borrowers. Could doing so create a moral hazard for students such that they elect to borrow more knowing they may not need to face the full cost of their tuition? Could it further open the door for institutions to recklessly increase spending, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill? Higher education already has a massive spending problem that sadly does not translate to better outcomes.

Colleges and universities face numerous constraints that impede progress, but we have good reason to be hopeful as we step into the new year. Across the country, innovative institutions are demonstrating what is possible when singularly focused on helping individuals experience social and economic mobility. Given political rhetoric and college football season, it can be easy to lose sight of higher education’s true purpose, but when institutions align around a common goal—helping individuals experience progress in their lives by activating their innate talent and connecting them to opportunity—everything else comes into focus. With clarity of purpose and a commitment to progress, we can finally make opportunity work for everyone.