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5 Ways Universities and Colleges Can Prepare for the Future

  • 17 Min Read

Rising tuition costs, funding shortages and fewer barriers to education—higher education institutions are feeling the brunt of years of change.


Picture this: a gorgeous, ivy-covered building, with red brick peeking through the green vines, standing at the end of a well-maintained courtyard. The crunching of freshly fallen autumn leaves echoes above the din of students walking to and from class, holding coffee cups and carrying on intellectual debates.

It’s an idyllic image, one that may have sprung to mind over a decade ago if you were asked to imagine a typical university setting. But the reality unfolding across campuses paints a very different picture: Higher education institutions are feeling the brunt of years of change. The traditional model described above is no longer the norm.

What Does the Future of Higher Education Look Like?

It would be easy to say that the decline of the traditional university was caused by the pandemic, but the writing was on the wall before COVID-19 even appeared. Rising tuition costs, funding shortages and a digital world where barriers to education are lowered every minute are all contributing to students rethinking the value of a degree and, in turn, forcing universities and colleges to change operational tactics.

While there is no shortage of lists, here are some of the bigger challenges universities and colleges must contend with:

  1. Student demographics have changed.

    The universities of old were designed for full-time students, largely between the ages of 18 and 24, who rarely had commitments outside of their education. That’s no longer true and as a result, higher education institutions need to rethink how they’re recruiting students and delivering education.

  2. State funding is down and tuition fees are up.

    Over the last decade, cuts to higher education funding have forced more of the costs associated with attending and completing university onto the students. This also contributes to inequalities, as higher fees act as a deterrent for those from lower-class backgrounds.

  3. Cyberattacks are on the rise.

    Ransomware attacks targeting higher education institutions have doubled since the start of the pandemic, causing financial strain and fear over data breaches.

  4. The younger generation wants more from colleges and universities.

    It’s not enough for institutions to only think about short-term solutions. Current middle and high schoolers are the university and college students of the future, yet many institutions, unaware of their expectations, are ill-prepared to meet their demands.

It’s clear that higher education institutions can no longer ignore the burgeoning issues we’ve highlighted above. But it’s not all doom and gloom. With the right approach and a willingness to change, it’s possible for universities and colleges to not only find their footing but flourish.

5 Ways Universities and Colleges Can Prepare for the Future

Below, we offer up five solutions that academics, provosts, deans and other admins should keep at the forefront of their minds as they plan for the future. We hope the insights that follow will help institutions craft long-term, sustainable solutions.

1. Deploy Flexible Learning Options to Suit a More Diverse Student Body.

Traditionally, the higher education journey consisted of students enrolling in a four-year, full-time college or university degree program after high school. However, this linear education process is no longer the norm—and hasn’t been for some time.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that “73% of higher education students fall outside the traditional higher education journey criteria.” NCES outlines three sets of conditions used to identify these nontraditional students:

  1. Enrollment patterns. Students don’t enroll in postsecondary education right after high school but instead wait a year or more. Part-time students also fit these criteria.
  2. Financial and family status. Students have family responsibilities and financial constraints.
  3. High school graduation status. Students didn’t receive a standard high school diploma but earned some type of certificate of completion.

The academic journey has been reimagined by students themselves, who are now engaging, and reengaging, in learning opportunities to support the different shifts that occur in their lives. To retain students in this changing higher education climate, colleges and universities need to have a variety of programs in place that meet their needs. But what types of programs are students looking for?

A Digital Learning Pulse survey published by Bay View Analytics found that 73% of students saw themselves taking online courses in the future. It also found that 68% of students wanted to take courses that mixed traditional face-to-face instruction with online learning. Such new learning opportunities may not just appeal to prospective students—they could go a long way toward retaining students as well.

All of the above isn’t exactly revelatory. We’ve known for some time that students are interested in HyFlex/remote learning options. The pandemic simply accelerated a move to delivering these experiences at scale. We also know that delivering a high-quality education these days rests in part on using technologies with the right functionalities in place. Where a lot of institutions get stuck is in the “how.”

Below, we highlight a use case of nontraditional students benefiting from a revamped educational curriculum.

The Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technologies (SIIT) was established by First Nations leaders in 1976 and serves the adult First Nations community in Saskatchewan, Canada, through a combination of academic and vocational education. Traditionally, program facilitators would visit local communities over the course of many months, providing in-person training and support.

When the pandemic forced SIIT’s programming online, facilitators were worried not just about delivering courses that students could engage with, but about making sure students could access those courses. Not every student had a reliable internet connection or computer.

SIIT found a solution in D2L Brightspace, largely because of its accessible tech platform and flexible educational model. The responsive mobile app meant those without regular computer access could continue studying. And the flexible course model meant those with family and work commitments could study when it suited them.

SIIT’s career services coordinator, Ally Rinas, shared that prior to the pandemic, the completion rate for the program was around 70%. Now that it’s been shifted online, that same program boasts a completion rate of 88%, something that Rinas says is “due to the support that we provide our clients and our facilitators, and the format of how we deliver programs daily.”

SIIT’s transition to remote learning is just one example of an institution pivoting to meet the needs of its nontraditional student body. While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, having a flexible learning model and an easily customizable LMS is a step in the right direction.

2. Rethink the Recruitment and Enrollment Journey.

Dwindling enrollment numbers are another challenge higher education institutions are facing. Enrollment at colleges and universities across the U.S. has dropped by nearly a million since the start of the pandemic and by nearly 3 million over the last 10 years.

Certainly, one of the big causes of this is the ongoing cuts to state funding for higher education. Between 2008 and 2018, after adjusting for inflation:

  • Forty-one states spent less per student
  • On average, states spent $1,220, or 13%, less per student
  • Per-student funding fell by more than 30% in six states: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania

But change at the federal level is slow, and state funding isn’t something that institutions can necessarily rely on.

One tactic that could really move the needle in terms of enrollment numbers is rethinking how your institution reaches and markets to students in the first place.

Traditionally, higher education recruitment teams relied heavily on student search lists compiled by ACT and the College Board. These lists would identify prospective students that recruitment teams could start targeting. For years, the size of the potential applicant pool outnumbered the enrollment goals of each university and college.

Nowadays, the tables have turned. There are fewer students applying to universities and colleges. Of those who do, the way in which they research postsecondary education has changed dramatically. The prospective students you’re targeting were born and raised in a digital age, and marketing and recruiting teams would be wise to meet them where they are—online. Having a solid omnichannel approach, one that includes multiple touch points across paid search, email, social media and, potentially, print and in-person options, is now a necessity for institutions that want to stand out from the crowd.

As is the case with everything these days, personalization is important. However, with more and more colleges and universities using artificial intelligence and chatbots, it’s easy for a student to feel like a number. Taking the time to properly understand the challenges of individual prospective students is crucial.

One way you can do this is by segmenting properly in your customer relationship management system and then sending tailored messages to candidates. The types of messages a potential biology major receives should be different from what a fine arts major is getting—yet many universities and colleges continue to mass email prospects or target them with the same types of generic posts and ads that resonate with no one.

As Regina Francis relays in this story by The Hechinger Report (a non-profit, independent news organization), she hadn’t planned to attend Florida Atlantic University at all. But she was so impressed by the personal attention from the financial aid officer who helped her with her paperwork that she ended up committing to the school. Francis is now majoring in political science and sociology and has plans to attend law school.

The riches are in the niches, so take the time to understand your prospects properly. Then, as students move further down the enrollment funnel, consider assigning a dedicated person to work with and support them through the decision process. Doing so can make all the difference.

3. Put a Greater Emphasis on Retention.

We’ve seen this time and time again: Colleges and universities will put a large emphasis on recruiting and getting students in the door—only to see them drop out after a year or two. While we do believe that enrollment strategies need to change (as outlined above), so too must retention strategies.

Higher education program completion rates are falling. More than a quarter of students dropped out between their first and second years in college in 2020—the highest level in nearly a decade. At community colleges, nearly half the students quit after their first year.

Reports show that it’s easier to retain a student than to recruit a new one. And in some states, college and university budgets are increasingly tied to how many students graduate.

The Hechinger Report published an in-depth story about how colleges are handling student enrollment and retention.

James Capp, assistant provost for academic operations and planning at Florida Atlantic University, said that until they took a deep look at themselves, they didn’t realize they were shortchanging their students. According to university data, fewer than 1 in 5 students graduated within the traditional four-year window to complete an undergraduate degree. So Capp and his staff focused on solving the retention problem, increasing support available for at-risk students. It’s a tactic that worked: By 2020, the percentage of students who dropped out between their first and second years had fallen from 25% to 18%.

Using data to improve student retention rates is something that Amelia Manning, Chief Operating Officer at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), is all too familiar with. Student advisers at SNHU use a combination of qualitative and quantitative data in D2L Brightspace to help flag at-risk students.

“When [the advisers] log in to our system, certain students will be prioritized. That’s based on years of data, which helps inform risk levels based on student behaviors and attributes that tell them, ‘These are the students on any given day that you need to be prioritizing in terms of your outreach.’”

This habit of using students’ behavior as an early indicator of their risk is as important to Manning as studying strictly academic results. “We’ve started to unlock sentiment data so we can understand what might be happening prior to someone dropping off that cliff.” With time, the goal is to prevent those drop-offs from ever occurring in the first place.

4. Be Proactive About Cybersecurity.

In 2020, the University of California was forced to pay over $1 million to hackers who had breached the university’s school of medicine. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. ZDNet found that ransomware attacks targeting higher education institutions during 2020 were up 100% compared to 2019. Also, the average ransom demand was for $447,000—not exactly loose change for struggling institutions. There’s also the reputational damage, as well as the repercussions for students and staff, to consider after such an incident occurs.

With remote learning here to stay, ransomware attacks will no doubt continue to escalate at higher education institutions. But there are certain measures universities and colleges can put in place to be prepared for such attacks and, should a breach happen, at least help mitigate the ensuing chaos:

Emphasize the importance of strong passwords.

Choosing and resetting passwords every three months can feel like a chore. But when put into practice, having a secure password really does reduce the likelihood of a data breach. If faculty or students struggle to remember passwords, consider using software like LastPass, which stores passwords securely on devices. Some other tips:

  • use a combination of special characters
  • make your password longer than the recommended number of characters
  • don’t use the same password for multiple accounts
  • use multi-factor authentication

Encourage virtual private network (VPN) usage.

A VPN is a type of software that protects your privacy online by encrypting your internet connection. As a result, your data is hidden from not only internet service providers but also ransomware attackers and other cybercriminals. A VPN won’t eliminate cybersecurity attacks completely but using one will drastically reduce the likelihood of them happening.

Choose your learning management systems wisely.

Zoom, Google Meet, Skype—all these videoconferencing tools have unfortunately been the subject of cyberattacks. If the surge in Zoom bombing has taught us anything, it’s that the software tools we use to communicate remotely are very vulnerable. Having a secure LMS is hugely important, so make sure questions about security, compliance and privacy are part of your evaluation process when it comes to choosing the right LMS and/or virtual learning tools for your institution. D2L Brightspace, for example, boasts some of the highest security certifications on the market.

Consider purchasing cybersecurity insurance:

Higher education institutions have a large amount of valuable data stored in their systems. Everything from medical records to student financial information to confidential research is fair game for ransomware attackers. In the unfortunate event that a data breach occurs, the right type of insurance can help universities and colleges deal with the fallout. As with any insurance product, it’s important to do your research before purchasing. We suggest having your institution’s chief information officer or security officer lead the vetting process—that person will be in the best position to understand exactly what your requirements are.

5. Consider the Current Crop of Teenagers.

Institutions shouldn’t be focusing only on what current students want. Many times, it’s too late to deliver on all their desires. Rather, the approach should be two-pronged: How can you serve current students while shifting to meet the demands of future prospects?

ECMC Group is a nonprofit corporation that focuses on helping students succeed. Early in the pandemic, they partnered with VICE Media and asked American high schoolers ages 12 to 18 about their thoughts on the future of education. More than half the respondents were open to pursuing something other than a four-year degree.

Barnes & Noble conducted a survey of 1,300 students ages 13 to 18, asking them their thoughts on the future of higher education, and the results mirrored a lot of what was shared above. The company found that 89% of respondents said they did value higher education, but that they see it as a route to a stable job.

These two separate surveys show us that Generation Z is very focused on careers. Most respondents to the ECMC survey were optimistic about their personal future, with 84% believing their job prospects were equal to or better than those of their parents’ generation—but this means that they will want to gain the practical skills that can get them secure, in-demand jobs. And 74% said degrees that developed STEM skills (think nursing, technology, engineering and math) were more attractive to them than other degrees that didn’t necessarily have a straight path to an in-demand career.

That doesn’t mean humanities don’t count. Soft skills, such as critical thinking and communication skills, will always be in demand. In October 2020, The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) surveyed nearly 500 executives and hiring managers about their thoughts on higher education. Over half the respondents said they viewed the skills acquired via a liberal education as “very important.” They consistently ranked critical thinking and analysis, problem-solving, teamwork, and communication skills high on the list of desirable soft skills.

If it ultimately comes down to having the right combination of hard and soft skills, traditional four-year universities could explore the option of partnering with technical colleges to deliver courses in IT and coding alongside Bachelor of Arts degrees. Students would still gain valuable soft skills but would also come away with practical knowledge that could help them land a job.

Reading this, it could be tempting for higher education institutions to revamp their curriculum and degree offerings entirely. Collegis is a company that helps colleges and universities leverage technology to grow enrollment, deliver high-quality learning experiences and manage their technology ecosystems. It analyzed everything from web searches to job postings and found that some of the fastest-growing programs included degrees in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and data analytics.

But as with anything, trending numbers don’t tell the whole story. Collegis advises institutions to think critically about which of these trending programs they can realistically offer. For example, a traditional liberal arts college may not have healthcare programs—to try to create and then scale them may not be worth it. There may also be increased demand for other topics in your institution’s geographical area that doesn’t show up on the above list.

Why the Future of Higher Education Matters.

Change is hard. It’s harder still in institutions that are caught between an old-school mentality and the newer realities of an ever-changing educational landscape. It could be tempting to read through all of this and think, “What’s the point of university or college at all? Why do we care?”

But we should care. In a podcast episode by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, adjunct lecturer and chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education Chris Gabrieli said that attending and completing college was associated with many positives.

“People are more likely to vote. People are more likely to be civically engaged. People are obviously far more likely to earn incomes commensurate with getting into the middle class, with owning a home, with not being dependent on social programs, such as Medicaid for their health, et cetera.”

Economic growth and reduction in reliance on social programs are worth pushing through the growing pains that inevitably arise whenever change is in the air. In the same way that we should strive to meet students where they are, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for institutions either. But by taking a thoughtful, strategic approach and by being willing to gently let go of outdated ideologies, we’re hopeful that higher education institutions will not just survive but thrive for years to come.

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Table of Contents

  1. What Does the Future of Higher Education Look Like?
  2. 5 Ways Universities and Colleges Can Prepare for the Future
  3. 1. Deploy Flexible Learning Options to Suit a More Diverse Student Body.
  4. 2. Rethink the Recruitment and Enrollment Journey.
  5. 3. Put a Greater Emphasis on Retention.
  6. 4. Be Proactive About Cybersecurity.
  7. 5. Consider the Current Crop of Teenagers.
  8. Why the Future of Higher Education Matters.