Higher Education Trends: The Imperative to Meet Students’ Needs

Higher Education Trends: The Imperative to Meet Students’ Needs

Just like that, another summer is nearly over. In advance of the 2023-2024 academic year, I’m taking time to reflect on recent higher education trends I’ve observed and expect will continue in the year to come. 

Interestingly, a common thread connects most of these trends: higher education’s imperative to meet students’ needs. Let’s dive in. 

1. Breaking Down Admissions Barriers 

It’s no secret that the college admissions process is complex, confusing, and emotional. I recently experienced the challenge of navigating admissions, not as a higher ed partner but as a parent. The good news is that many schools are actively seeking ways to break down admissions barriers. 

Direct admissions programs have recently emerged as an antithesis to the exclusionary admissions process associated with elite colleges and universities. Students fill out a profile or application through a company like Niche or even via the Common Application, and schools solicit them instead of the other way around.

Dual enrollment and “try before you buy” programs are other options schools are testing to make college admissions more accessible. 

2. Acknowledging the Value of Prior Learning Assessment (PLA) 

With the majority of Americans questioning the value of a 4-year degree, recognition of prior learning is one important way for schools to meet students where they are (and maintain steady enrollment). 

Just as military and veteran students can earn credits for military experience, prospective college students who have been in the workforce ought to be able to earn credits for their work experience. The details of how these initiatives would work remain to be determined.

Schools also have a significant opportunity to address PLA in relation to microcredentials. Until non-credit credentials map to credit-bearing programs, a student who takes an extensive microcredential must essentially start over from scratch when beginning a related degree program. 

Where’s the logic in that? Fortunately, more schools are asking that question.

3. Diversifying Learning Modalities 

The pandemic accelerated the widespread adoption of online learning in higher education. More importantly, it provided a large-scale proof of concept: when done well, online learning effectively connects schools and students. 

However, for programs to reach their full potential, schools must recognize that online learning involves much more than hosting a lecture on Zoom. Forward-thinking institutions will continue to innovate and improve their hybrid and online learning programs to provide maximum value for students. 

4. Shifting the Mindset about Emerging Technologies

The tidal wave of artificial intelligence is approaching quickly, sparking conversations in higher ed about how students can appropriately leverage emerging technologies. 

ChatGPT is the latest tool that has people frantically questioning AI’s implications. But we’ve been at a similar inflection point with other technologies in the past, including smartphones and even calculators. 

If you walked into a math class without a calculator today, you’d be considered unprepared. But there was a time not too long ago when bringing a calculator to math class would get you labeled a cheater. The mindset shifted. Embracing the latest tools requires a similar mindset shift. 

For starters, it’s time to acknowledge that many test environments—which prohibit students from using technology, leaving them to rely on nothing more than their own brains—don’t reflect the reality of a modern workplace. 

Businesses expect workers to use all available resources, and schools must consider doing the same. Yes, even if one of those resources is ChatGPT.

5. Planning for a School Year That Lasts Year-Round 

Once the exception to the rule, winter and summer sessions are becoming the norm at colleges and universities. When done well, these programs enable schools to grow enrollments during typically slower periods.

Forward-thinking schools will not only build winter and summer sessions into their curriculum but also run dedicated, tailored campaigns to grow enrollments for students who aren’t enrolled in 4-year degree programs. 

6. Addressing Declining Enrollments in Master’s Programs

Formerly a significant economic engine for many schools, master’s programs are suddenly higher in supply than demand. One contributing factor is the drop in international enrollments following the onset of the pandemic. While online learning is an option for international students who can’t easily travel to the US, it doesn’t afford them the experience of living in America that many of them value.

Whether or not a master’s degree is worth the cost is a broader topic of conversation extending beyond international students. As students consider smaller credentials and certificates as cost-effective alternatives to pursuing a master’s degree, colleges and universities must be willing to respond to this demand.

7. Inflating Tuition Prices 

A trick colleges use to elevate their perceived brand value is inflating their tuition prices to align with competitors in the tier above them. In most cases, they’ll offer significant financial aid to bring the net cost down. Of course, that doesn’t negate the sticker shock many applicants initially experience. And it certainly doesn’t help restore the trust many have lost in higher education

To restore that trust, colleges and universities must embrace ways to make the college admissions process less stressful and more transparent.

8. Confronting the Mental Health Crisis 

According to the United Nations, an estimated 1 in 4 people worldwide suffer from a mental health condition, and the pandemic “caused a 25 to 27% increase in the prevalence of depression and anxiety around the world.” 

In the midst of this global mental health crisis, it’s more important than ever for schools to meet students where they are and provide the support they need. 

From a practical standpoint, offering better support for students with mental health challenges could help reduce stopout rates, as mental health is a significant contributing factor to why students don’t complete their degrees. 

Which higher education trends do you anticipate to see during the 2023-2024 school year? Connect with me on LinkedIn, and let me know what you’re observing.