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Three Predictions for Higher Education in 2024

Higher ed is facing a whirlwind of changes. AI integration, new admin hires and continued mergers and acquisitions are just some of the ways in which institutions will continue to evolve. 

Anyone that says 2023 was a tame year for change in higher education wasn’t watching closely. According to Higher Ed Dive, 20 colleges and universities either closed or announced their closure in 2023. To some, this may represent a significant number. To others, this is far from the doom-and-gloom predictions higher education experts and pundits have offered. However, this number doesn’t include the mergers and acquisitions that were completed in 2023. There were a handful of transactions, but the reporting of closures overshadowed the merger and acquisition end of the industry. We will see another significant acquisition in 2024, as the University of Idaho (most likely) closes its deal to acquire the University of Phoenix.

That said, there were mergers and acquisitions outside institutions, mainly in the edtech sector, that are significant to higher education overall. Academic Partnerships acquisition of Wiley Education’s online program management division and Instructure’s acquisition of Parchment are two deals of note that have ripple effects throughout the industry. And, of course, there was continuous conversation about accessibility, debt, admissions inequities, the changes to the FAFSA, declining birthrates, enrollment issues, name-image-likeness impacts and student retention. As I said, a year of significant change!

As we enter 2024, I thought it prudent to make a few predictions based on my interviews with higher education and educational technology leaders on The EdUp Experience Podcast over the last year.

1. Mergers, Acquisitions and Closures Will Continue in 2024

Should I be able to count this as one of my three predictions? This is like saying LeBron James will dunk a basketball in 2024. It’s great to see a merger or acquisition because it means the parties are thinking forward. When an institution closes, we must ask why the board of a nonprofit entity would rather let it die rather give up control for survival. It’s a question we’ll continue to ask.

OK, time for the real predictions.

1. The Three-Year Baccalaureate Degree Will Gain Traction

To this point, Ensign College, through their three-way partnership with BYU-Idaho and BYU Pathway Worldwide, and the American Public University System are the only institutions approved to offer 90-credit bachelor’s degree. The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and the Higher Learning Commission become the first two accrediting bodies to approve the 90-credit degree. Look for other accreditors to follow. I interviewed Dr. Barbara Gellman-Danley, President of HLC, in late 2023. She indicated that the requests and submissions for 90-unit degrees were scarce. Look for this to change quickly. I predict that 2024 will be the watershed year for the 90-unit bachelors’.

2. Faculty and Administrators Will Struggle to Define What Cheating Is

The emergence of consumer awareness of artificial intelligence in 2023 has created beautiful possibilities and mass confusion. In a world with ChatGPT, and Google Bard, using AI as a personalized learning completion tool is becoming more common. Students are using AI for all types of tasks, whether to create outlines, finish ideas or identify themes across research articles. A September study in Learning: Research and Practice collected responses from 49 students about cheating. Of the 49 students, 38 students said they did not use ChatGPT to complete work, but detection programs flagged their assignments as being AI-generated. What’s true and what isn’t? That is what faculty and administrators will work to decode. Get ready for a wild year where academic integrity becomes a line in the sand for some and an opportunity to evolve for others.

3. The New Presidential Pathway Runs Through Enrollment

Many college and university presidents were products of the traditional pathway: faculty, assistant dean, dean, vice president/provost, president. While this will still be the case for some leaders and some universities, I predict that institutions will take some calculated risks on a new leadership profile that prioritizes sales, enrollment and fiscal management backgrounds over the traditional higher education background. Why? Because schools are stressed financially, and boards are looking for solutions. Look for a VP of Enrollment or a VP of Student Services to be the next frontier of presidential candidates. Just look at some of the presidential search profiles out today to see why I make this prediction for 2024. As higher education accepts the word business into its identity, the leadership profile will change.

The higher education landscape is changing rapidly. While some lament the closures and disruptions, others see opportunities to innovate and better serve students. The predictions outlined here attempt to capture key trends that seem poised to accelerate in 2024. But the only certainty is uncertainty. Colleges and universities that can adapt and operate with agility to meet market demand will thrive no matter what colleges arise. The path forward calls for creativity, resilience and a willingness to embrace change.