5 Trends Challenging Higher Education Leaders for Fall 2023

College leaders face financial and social headwinds as they navigate change in enrollment, business model, and new preferences for education.

It’s fair to say that the pandemic accelerated changes in colleges and universities that were already in motion. Enrollments have been in decline for some time, changing demographics precipitated demand for new courses of study and delivery, and college employees, like those in other fields, began to question their work-life balance during the pandemic.

The impact of the following trends is seismic in nature and is already shifting the balance from universities driven by faculty desires and needs to student-driven and responsive institutions that place the student experience as a priority. Here are five macro trends that every institution is currently facing.

  • Enrollment continues to decline. Since 2020, 1.23 million undergraduate students have disappeared from American colleges and universities, a 4% decline. 45% of young adults aged 16 to 24 are not enrolled in any kind of schooling.
  • The value of a college degree is increasingly questioned. Degrees continue to deliver a strong premium in the job market although public confidence in college is on the decline. Preparing children for college has plummeted from the 10th highest priority to the 47th according to 2023 study by Populace. The public wants to help students develop practical skills most of all.
  • The higher education business model is broken as institutions can no longer rely on rising tuition among students as the primary driver of revenue. While demand for traditional higher education among top-ranked institutions will likely continue, many colleges and universities need a new business model better aligned to the economic and social realities must prospective learners face. The cost/value is not there for adult learners who juggle parenthood, work, and responsibilities for children and aging parents.
  • The overall percentage of college and university employees looking to switch jobs is greater than that of those likely to stay on. More than three-quarters of higher ed employees think the sector is a less appealing place to work than it was a year ago. 75% of staff report increased pay as a driver for seeking new opportunities, with 42% of searches motivated by a desire for remote work arrangements. The C-suite has a revolving door with president turnover at an unprecedented rate.
  • Risk preparation and crisis response are now critical. The ability to respond to a global pandemic is only one of many potential risks colleges and universities face today from campus shootings to national disasters. The current environment demands institutions be more agile and deliberate about connection and integrating the various offices around campus in planning for, averting, and managing the aftermath of a crisis—to become more risk aware institutions.

As with business and technology in general, the rate of change continues to accelerate. These trends require a reorientation of priorities and economic factors that are systemic in nature. Failure to address them will have serious consequences for existing institutions.