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Five Thoughts on the Next Five Years: Where Higher Ed is Headed

The last few years have shaken higher ed, but more disruption looms ahead. And securing their success through it requires institutions to remain flexible and adaptable.
The last few years have shaken higher ed, but more disruption looms ahead. And securing their success through it requires institutions to remain flexible and adaptable.

As we move into the fall 2022 academic year, it has become apparent that a few significant trends will have a big impact on higher education. While the most impactful trends will vary somewhat among institution types, this article will review five trends that will impact institutions across the United States in the next few years.

The first and perhaps most significant of those impacts will focus on people. We continue to see human resource shortages across higher education. Faculty, staff and administrators are finding other professional outlets and retiring at rates faster than that at which institutions are able to acquire new talent. Faculty in high-demand areas such as nursing, sciences and computer science continue to be difficult to entice into higher education. Mid-level to president-level administrators continue to suffer from the fatigue of managing higher education’s changing nature. Faculty, staff and administrators are fighting burnout and the sector’s inability to match the higher salaries provided elsewhere. Encouraging new talent into the realm of the higher education human resource pool will be critical as we engage in conversations on why higher education is still a desirable part of the professional lifecycle. 

Additionally, employers’ strong connection to remote work has fractured components of the university’s culture and ability to be a truly student-facing enterprise. Students who arrive on campus seeking a strong student experience, after almost two years of taking classes online in isolation, are looking to talk with individuals in offices, be part of student life and find faculty interested in building research agendas with incoming students. The reluctance to return to a student-facing experience is helping to fuel the disconnect between higher education and the students they serve. Universities are complex organizations. The communication breakdown creates cultural barriers through imposed isolationism across our campuses. Just because we can work remotely does not mean that it will be the most effective model for universities and colleges that focus primarily on people.

The second impact on higher education is the numbers of freshmen deciding not to enter college immediately after high school. Enrollment management trends have indicated for some time that fewer and fewer freshmen are entering college immediately after high school. Although high school graduation rates are up, the number of people choosing college as their next phase in life has decreased. Student sectors are more scattered, which makes it difficult to reach the right students. Some College and No Degree (SCND) sectors are increasing and causing workforce issues for employers who seek employees with a degree. Many students are weighed down by the barriers to higher education and need assistance to be able to seek pathways that make a degree a reality. Three states—Illinois, Oregon and California—have passed laws to hire Benefit Navigators, who will help break down barriers for students. 

The third area of impact will be college campuses’ focus on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. This area is critical to achieving higher education’s goal to deliver on the promise for the greater good of society. Helping all students find means to achieve their higher education goals through a variety of opportunities will be critical to the future of higher education. Students are interested in campuses seeking to become diverse centers of learning. They look for campuses that will help them grow and achieve success through its equitable and inclusive programs and opportunities. Learners are looking for experiences and opportunities to feel a sense of belonging on campus. Regardless of the modality in which a student decides to study, the areas of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are all critical to the future of our campuses and our students.

A fourth trend that continues to grow is Continuing Education and alternative credentials. Strategic thinking about the future must include a fortified Continuing Education effort with strong initiatives in building alternative credentials that help students incrementally gain and skills develop their employability. Practicing sound CE principals to deliver customized courses allows for professional skill development to meet the private employment sector’s needs. Skills in strategic thinking, writing, problem-solving, and change management are what many employers are seeking. Students need to feel competent demonstrating their developing skills in these critical areas. Continuing Education and alternative credentials will ensure students understand that their degree has high value. Using Continuing Education to build employability skills, whether for a new job or a new position within a current company, will help students reach their goals and expand their learning opportunities.

The fifth trend to impact all higher education institutions is faculty, staff, and administrator ability to manage the changing landscape. Change management within higher education will occur in a number of structural areas. The use of instructional technologies has been impacted over the last two years but will continue to be a major component of change across institutions. Strategic thinking about the business of higher education must evolve. Over the next three to five years, many institutions will consider changing business models, seeking new revenue sources through external public-private partnerships and looking to extend research and entrepreneurial opportunities in a variety of outreach efforts. Change in human resource management, as noted in our first area of impact, will be an important component of higher education’s recovery from the loss of historical knowledge brought on by so many people retiring and resigning. Branding a university to truly demonstrate a degree’s value will require rethinking how higher education professionals discuss and approach education as a societal good. Change management in higher education will require intent and practice to move higher education into the future well.

A multitude of trends will affect higher education over the next three to five years, and higher education professionals must prepare for these trends and ask difficult questions to provide resolutions to complex issues and meet the challenges.

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