Visit Modern Campus

Five Trends Impacting Competition in Today’s Higher Ed Marketplace

Five Trends Impacting Competition in Today’s Higher Ed Marketplace
By understanding the trends transforming the higher education industry, leaders can position their institutions to adapt to the new competitive environment.
Higher education is a rapidly changing and evolving space. Everything from traditional academic institutions, for-profit schools, online universities and specialized skills programs are making headlines as players in the higher education market continue to refine their plans for success in a crowded and competitive market. Some of the biggest stories have been around the fact that in the last few years, colleges have seen declining enrollments for the first time since 1990.[1] Others call out the change in the for-profit sector, where for-profit universities (which in recent years reported double-digit increases in student enrollments) are now facing increased competition from nonprofit and state schools.[2] And another major theme has been on the role of technology and innovation, and how these forces bring alternatives to the traditional paths of education.

So what does this all mean to the higher ed landscape? For one thing, the landscape is rapidly evolving and changing. Higher education is increasingly crowded, and therefore we can continue to expect to see market shifts at rapid-fire pace. It also means higher education marketers must stay on top of the latest trends and stay nimble and flexible in this ever-changing area.

Here are what I view as the top five trends in higher ed:

1. It’s about skills

Gone are the days when degrees from traditional four-year universities reigned supreme. In today’s information economy, employers are looking for graduates with skills immediately applicable for career advancement. As a result, vocational education is back en vogue, teaching students the specialized, technical skills they need to succeed in the job market.

We’ve seen many schools redesign their programs to be shorter term and focused exclusively on skill building. Recently, we saw Kaplan, Inc. acquire Dev Bootcamp, an up-and-coming code school for aspiring software developers, perhaps signaling vocational training is on the mind of the for-profit educational sector. We’ve also seen schools spreading across the country, such as New York Code and Design Academy, that teach students the computer skills they need to excel in as little as two months. I also expect we will see more traditional academic institutions bundle existing degrees with heavily skills-based programs to diversify their offerings to students and give students a competitive edge in the job market.

2. Think globally

When it comes to student acquisition, higher education practitioners need to think globally. Schools need to go beyond traditional recruitment strategies to gain exposure to international students. The global education partners INTO has been effective in partnering with leading universities across the world to meet their internationalization needs. In March, INTO announced its most recent on-campus partnership with Drew University, a liberal arts school in New Jersey, marking the sixth U.S. operation for INTO. This connectivity between American and international students is vital in our global economy.

3. Enterprise learning

We’re also seeing proprietary colleges align themselves with companies to design programs that are right for the workforce. A great example of this is General Assembly, a school that provides a host of specialized training programs, including immersive courses in product management, web development and entrepreneurship. The company’s recent capital raise will help them continue investing in programs and services for corporate giants such as General Electric, American Express and PepsiCo.

4. Competency-based degrees

Schools, students and employers alike are shifting their focus more to gaining the “right skills” than the “right degree.” Schools are increasingly focused on measuring their own success in terms of jobs that students secure upon graduation. Schools can do a better job of this if they measure students on the marketable skills they develop while at school instead of whether students are simply passing their courses or obtaining a degree.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is actively encouraging employers to hire based on skills and competency as an alternative to hiring based on college degrees. This way of thinking has led many schools to start breaking down their programs into skills types and then developing validation tools to test how well the students have acquired those skills. These competency-based programs have the potential to revolutionize the way students are prepared for the workforce.

5. Don’t forget MOOCs

What is a trends discussion without the inclusion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?  While MOOCs may not be meeting their overall promise in terms of enrollment and completion rates, they’ve certainly played an important role in educating the general public about online and ongoing learning. In the future, MOOCs have the potential to transform higher education, but it’s still very much an evolving model. Perhaps if more online courses include live instructor interaction or if MOOCs are able to establish partnerships with companies that provide better opportunities for students to find work, we may see more of a transformation.

This is a dynamic time in education as university officials figure out how to capitalize on the best of the old while embracing the new. As these trends continue to unfold, we can expect to see even more innovation in education.

– – – –


[1] Richard Pérez-Peña, “College Enrollment Falls as Economy Recovers,” The New York Times, July 25, 2013. Accessed at,&_r=1&

[2] Melissa Korn, “For-Profit Colleges Get Schooled,” The Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2012. Accessed at

Author Perspective: