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Reengagement after interruption: 2023 outlook for higher education

Dec 15, 2022

Recovery efforts from the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are not unlike those from a natural disaster. Like a community that returns home after a storm, educators and students spent 2022 sorting through the wreckage, surveying the extent of damage and mobilizing efforts to rebuild and resume their work.

While the K-12 segment of education reels from learning loss, higher education is also experiencing loss expressed by an overall decline in enrollment. Nearly a million fewer students are currently enrolled in college than before the pandemic. While the reasons are varied — prioritizing employment over education, a shifting focus away from traditional degree programs and challenges of affordability — many seem to share a root in the increased scrutiny of the value of a college degree.

Additionally, many students continue to struggle with lingering mental health challenges stemming from pandemic disruptions, resulting in an increased demand for higher education institutions to provide support services such as counseling and mental health training for faculty members.

Students are not alone in their disenchantment. Educators and administrators who feel overwhelmed and undervalued have been empowered by the Great Resignation, impacting workers across many industries. More career-track education professionals find themselves willing to step outside of traditional expectations to reevaluate their path and reconsider their futures.

Higher education administrators faced their own challenges in 2022. Institutions with aging facilities must now consider how to evolve spaces to foster ever-changing learning environments. This includes the ability to accommodate the latest innovations in technology, provide support for new academic programs and continually streamline student support services. Addressing these issues require massive financial and strategic resources.

2023 higher education priorities:

As recalibration continues, these are the main strategic priorities most likely to affect those in the higher education industry:

1. Demonstrate tangible value

Seismic shifts in enrollment demographics, motivations and expectations suggest that the days of traditional recruitment practices at colleges are fading away. Institutions willing to examine and respond to the evolving and wide range of needs of prospective students will better position themselves for success.

Those needs include increased flexibility in instruction delivery, clearer paths to employment based on labor market trends (like electric vehicle production and the legalization of cannabis) and a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

2. Market those values to the right audience

While higher education faces scrutiny, overwhelming evidence still suggests that the employment rate among those with bachelor’s or higher degrees remains significantly higher than those without.

Still, affordability and other burdens can create major obstacles to those seeking a diploma. Therefore, institutions face pressure to demonstrate tangible evidence of success like measurable results and potential return on investment. This means that the days of a one-size-fits-all approach to college are over, so directly addressing the unique needs of each demographic is imperative.

In the current landscape, a streamlined application processes; a safe, supportive, diverse and flexible environment; and experiential marketing experiences are gaining popularity.

3. Address the mental health crisis

Students and educators are likely to feel the ripple effect from the COVID-19 pandemic long after mental health federal relief funds run out. Traditional campus counseling centers continue to face massive increases in demand for care. In response, many schools are applying innovative solutions to increase awareness and promote a broader culture of wellness into their policies and offerings.

In addition to increased funding for additional mental health professionals, schools are creating opportunities for students to increase resilience, learn coping strategies and create a strong sense of connection. These opportunities include peer counseling, group therapy, telehealth and emergency crisis training from faculty and staff.

4. Approach facility adaptation with flexibility

To remain competitive, institutions must continuously invest in facilities that are modern, inviting and in a position to support the next wave of technological advancements. This doesn’t always require a full makeover. In the face of budget strains, some schools are finding creative ways to repurpose old facilities in ways that retain unique and appealing elements.

Renovation efforts vary wildly in scope, cost and overall outcome. Design firms that specialize in the unique task of transforming historic or outdated buildings for a new era are helping institutions evaluate facilities and make informed decisions that balance innovation with budgetary considerations.

5. Collaborate to share burdens and successes

Once fueled by competition or indifference, relationships among institutions are shifting toward the cooperative. Instead of chasing the same declining student pool, schools are banding together to raise their collective value proposition. By streamlining expenses and maximizing compatible strengths, institutions can weather declines in enrollment, eliminate redundancies, expand offerings and create new sources for revenue.

Opportunities for partnership expand beyond the walls of the classroom. Collaborations with local businesses (especially those that align to popular majors) and community-based organizations (like those that support underserved populations) can be mutually beneficial. Both can create learning opportunities like internships, community work and networking that enhance instruction.

How Wipfli can help

While the COVID-19 pandemic upended the educational system in profound ways beyond anyone’s control, it also helped reveal vulnerabilities that already existed. Wipfli can help. Grounded with deep knowledge and driven by innovation, our professionals are equipped to provide holistic solutions to clarify strategic planning, improve student support, protect your assets and more.

Learn more about our education services.

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Sara McKenna, CPA
Senior Manager
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