UPCEA 2024 Recap: Uncertainty in Higher Education

UPCEA 2024 Recap: Uncertainty in Higher Education

MindMax recently attended the 2024 Annual UPCEA Conference in Boston, and my team and I were thrilled to participate in such a lively and well-attended event. 

This year’s conference was centered on the following themes: “growing [higher education’s] impact through expanded access and innovation (focused especially on emerging topics such as AI), broadened inclusivity, policy advocacy, organizational transformation, engaging faculty and other critical partners, and building our individual networks.” 

Throughout the sessions I attended and the conversations I had with other attendees, it became clear that many higher education leaders are currently experiencing a great deal of uncertainty. More than anything, I sensed that uncertainty in discussions about two primary focus areas: AI and financial solvency.

Uncertainty about AI in Higher Education

The impact of AI is a looming unknown in higher education, and the technology is evolving so fast that it’s difficult for anyone to know with certainty where it is heading. The possibilities are both scary and exciting, depending on how you look at it.

Something I find exciting is the possibility of using AI to plan and create programming and course content, especially in the context of microcredentials or even smaller offerings. Consider the potential of content that bridges the gap between a Google search and a microcredential course—content that can improve a person’s skills and competency with incredible efficiency.

I envision a place for that kind of content in higher education. Ultimately, I believe AI could do much of the heavy lifting to implement the instructional design basics (e.g., creating a course outline and developing learning objectives and assessments).

AI exposes biases in higher education admissions 

AI was the topic of the compelling standout session, Revolutionizing Professional Education: Harnessing AI for Workforce-Relevant Programs. Georgia Tech shared an interesting anecdote about AI exposing biases in its admissions process: The school’s admissions counselors helped set up an AI decision-maker that ended up working so accurately that its decisions reflected the counselors’ own biases!

I find it fascinating that AI can provide such pointed insights, challenging us to confront and overcome some of our more unsavory characteristics. (We all have them!) There’s no hiding from an objective and non-judgmental technology that exposes you for who you really are.

Uncertainty about Financial Solvency in Higher Education 

Higher education leaders are uncertain about the future of many colleges and universities. While some schools continue to grow enrollments, others are struggling amid challenges such as reduced funding for state schools, hiring freezes, and changing market perceptions about the value of a 4-year degree.

On the other side of the spectrum, recent reports have called out higher ed’s increasing tuition costs; some schools are expecting to exceed six-figure annual tuition soon. Those increases create their own kind of uncertainty. As more prospective students question the return on their investment in traditional education and pursue alternative pathways instead, the demand for microcredentials and other affordable, bite-sized options will increase.

The good news is that most of the higher education leaders I encountered at UPCEA have bought into the importance of microcredentials and are looking for ways to effectively provide these offerings. However, there are economic hurdles to overcome.

Whereas a master’s degree generates an average of $25,000-$40,000 in revenue for schools, microcredentials generate an average of only $2,000-$5,000. In other words, schools must enroll more students in microcredential programs for them to have the same economic impact as a master’s program. The cost of delivering a microcredential program is lower than the cost of a master’s degree which certainly helps. But the cost of acquisition isn’t low enough to account for the difference in revenue. How can institutions reduce costs to help make microcredentials a viable business alternative to larger degree programs?

Another complicating factor is that 2024 is an unprecedentedly tricky year for digital marketers. A high volume of ads during a contentious election year combined with AI enabling anyone and everyone to generate more content than ever before will not only make it more difficult to grab prospective students’ attention but also drive up the cost of digital marketing, as ad dollars won’t be as impactful as they were even a year ago. How can marketing teams adjust for the impact on advertising and maximize their budgets during this challenging year? 

A three-pronged approach to higher education marketing 

In the UPCEA session I participated in with Robert Bruce from Rice University, I shared the three-pronged approach MindMax advises higher education marketing teams to use to overcome challenges regarding financial solvency. Essentially, it boils down to once principle: schools should embrace multiple audiences to expand their reach. 

  1. From a B2C perspective (i.e., marketing to students), schools must commit to creating meaningful, relevant content that connects with students and inspires engagement.
  2. From a B2B perspective (i.e., marketing to companies), messaging must target not only an employee interested in upskilling but also the first-line supervisor who will need to allocate budget and time for the employee to take a course and the leadership who will want to know how obtaining a specific credential will help that employee contribute to the value chain. The most successful B2B higher education marketing initiatives prioritize building strong relationships and minimizing friction.
  3. From a channel perspective (i.e., marketing to professional associations and business consortia), as with B2B marketing, schools must be willing to put time and effort into developing relationships with professional associations and business consortia.

Each approach has challenges and opportunities. For instance, while marketing to students is generally cost-effective due the marketing cycle being short, schools can only grow enrollments one student at a time.

Alternatively, marketing to companies, professional associations, and business consortia can generate many enrollments at once, but the relationships take time to build, and the buying groups are more complex, resulting in longer sales cycles.

One Thing That Is Certain…

Despite all the uncertainty higher education leaders are experiencing, one thing UPCEA 2024 reinforced is the undeniable value of in-person experiences. In some ways, it seems the post-COVID relief and joy of seeing people face-to-face hasn’t diminished—and there’s something truly gratifying about that. 

Those of us who attend these events seem to genuinely enjoy the camaraderie and conversation, the opportunity to empathize with each other’s challenges and celebrate each other’s wins. At the risk of sounding corny, that’s something AI will never replace. 

Learn more about MindMax’s higher education marketing services