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5 trends that will shape the future of higher education

Dec 11, 2023

Higher education was forced to stand up digital delivery to survive during the pandemic. Now, digital delivery is helping schools reclaim enrollment.

In 2023, undergraduate enrollment grew for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. Freshmen enrollment was still down, but community colleges helped pick up the slack. Nontraditional (older) and short-term students are also stabilizing enrollment figures across the industry.

Digital experiences have become a permanent part of the student experience. Colleges and universities that optimize their learning platforms and fully embrace technology are appealing to more students. They’re also saving on critical administrative costs.

Money matters

The cost — and value — of higher education are both under scrutiny. Student debt is widely seen as a barrier to higher education, especially for lower-income students.

Successful schools are answering those concerns with alternative education paths, such as short-term credentialing programs and partnerships with local employers. Students want to learn skills they can use — and get paid for — right away.    

Looking ahead

Across these issues (and others), schools are responsible for keeping students safe. Physical security may have been top of mind in previous years. Now, cybersecurity is a serious threat. As more classrooms and operations move to the cloud, colleges and universities must safeguard student and faculty data and essential programs.

Most colleges and universities aren’t operating in crisis mode anymore. That means it’s time to develop new master plans and start looking ahead.

2024 trends that will shape higher education

As higher education administrators look to the future, they should keep these five areas in mind:

1. Cybersecurity

In the first half of 2023, there were 27 reported ransomware attacks on colleges and universities in the U.S.

Today’s cyberthreats are more serious than a student hacking in to give themself an “A.” Recent attacks have universities paying ransoms of more than $1 million.

Schools have enormous amounts of student data and, in some cases, research data that’s covered by federal protections. Threat intelligence must be top of mind. Administrators need to proactively develop business continuity and disaster recovery plans to help ensure operational and financial resilience.

Higher ed IT teams need to assess real-time vulnerabilities across all their on-premises, mobile and cloud assets. Schools also need strategic plans around data to address how it will be used and governed.

2. Data and business intelligence   

Schools need to use the data they have. Business intelligence is the key to driving smarter decisions about everything from admissions and hiring to facility utilization and financial reporting. It can help schools streamline processes for overworked staff and lower administrative costs.

Data can also help colleges and universities assess community needs to make sure they’re adequately serving students from every background. Faculty leadership can use analytics to assess learning and improve student outcomes, too.

Most of the data that schools need to do this already exists. To activate it, institutions need to address two issues: access and training. Data needs to be unified so it’s accessible across departments and programs. And staff need upskilling in digital literacy. When staff understand all available data and tools — and how to use them — they can work more collaboratively and effectively.    

Find people in the organization who are digitally inclined. As data stewards, they can mentor faculty and staff on data practices and gather feedback about roadblocks or inconsistent approaches.

3. Student experience

How many logins does a student need to attend a full courseload? How many apps do they need to register for classes, turn in assignments, access the library or use a meal plan?

Chances are, it’s too many.

Schools rushed to offer digital Band-Aids during the pandemic. Now, they need to mature their digital strategies and bring them under a single, seamless experience. IT infrastructure needs to align with how students interact with their college or university.

IT plans should align with other initiatives, like enrollment strategies, too. If the goal is to attract online learners, then tools and infrastructure must support that student segment, which requires investment.

To improve the student experience, faculty also need help navigating hybrid learning environments. They need training on effectively redesigning lessons to match new delivery models.

Student satisfaction can help institutions retain students and stabilize their enrollment. Colleges and universities need to create simpler digital experiences for students, across their institutions.

4. Alternative programming  

Schools need to adapt their service models to attract working members of the local workforce — and to meet employers’ needs.

Community colleges gave enrollment figures a boost this fall. Their success, in part, came from working closely with local employers and community partners. For example, in Illinois, Heartland Community College created a 60-credit-hour associate degree in electric vehicle technology to meet the needs of a nearby manufacturer, Rivian.

Schools should consider alternative education models, such as credentialing and licensing programs, to encourage upskilling and continuous learning. Employed individuals need different skills to advance their careers today — but they can’t afford to take years off to go back to school. The idea of juggling work, family and school for a traditional multiyear degree is not feasible.

Colleges and universities need to adapt to the needs of the market. Students want to gain applicable skills from quality institutions, but they also want flexibility and nontraditional timelines.

5. Talent

During the 2022-2023 academic year, voluntary turnover in higher education was the highest it’s been since CUPA-HR started tracking it in 2017. In fields like IT, higher education has struggled to compete with the private sector on salaries and other factors, like working from home.

Schools need to find creative ways to fill the gaps caused by the labor shortage. At the same time, they need to prioritize faculty and staff well-being.

Here again, technology has a role. Administrators need to look for ways to make work easier, more rewarding and more flexible. They could move access off premises if it can be done securely. Most importantly, colleges and universities that implement change need to give their students, faculty and staff time and support to adapt.

How Wipfli can help

After 2025, high school graduation classes are expected to shrink. That means colleges and universities will face tougher competition over fewer prospective students. Right now, higher education institutions need to shore up infrastructure to make smart decisions, operate efficiently and create superior student experiences.

Wipfli can help. Our perspective on innovation and technology can help find the right tools and digital strategies to attract students, support staff and protect your digital assets. Learn more about our education services or contact us today.

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Author(s)

Sean Grennan, MS
Manager, CIO Advisory
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