Higher Education: A Look Ahead to 2026

A whopping 96% of college students say a high-quality digital experience is important to their campus satisfaction. Experts from Accenture and Workday recently partnered to explain what this means for the higher education industry’s future.

Long-standing demographic trends—accelerated by the pandemic—are transforming the student population at colleges. Enrollment has declined over the past decade, dropping 5.1% since fall 2019. 

According to a new paper by Accenture and Workday, “Higher Education: A View From 2026,” this trend will continue to 2026 and beyond, highlighting the need for institutions to expand beyond traditional college-age students and reach out to nontraditional learners. 

“The crunch will hit many institutions, underscoring the need for diversification in student populations—more transfers, more international students, more part-time adult learners—plus new models for learning opportunities,” says Shane Topping, Workday director of product marketing for higher education. 

By focusing on learner mindsets, colleges and universities can better address their student needs while removing barriers to success. 

To clarify these mindsets, Accenture surveyed more than 6,500 students and revealed six distinct learning outlooks. These segments span traditional-age college students, including academically oriented “campus enthusiasts,” “junior specialists” who want practical job experience, and “wayfinding intellectuals” interested in staying in academia. There are also older “evolving professionals” looking to expand interests and career options, “midcareer climbers” seeking specific credentials tied to advancement, and “trajectory transformers” trying to change roles or industries.

Enrollment has declined over the past decade, dropping 5.1% since fall 2019.

Even though each segment has unique attributes and needs that educational delivery should match, Accenture found that all six possess a mix of people who prefer in-person and online learning. That means that institutions must deliver all student services successfully across modalities.

At the same time, student expectations are also upending the higher education industry and forcing it to focus on the student experience, whether in the classroom, online, or in a hybrid model. Students want the digital delivery of services to match the same high level they have in other parts of their lives: personalized and available in real time, on any device, anywhere. 

“We found that 96% of students today consider an excellent digital experience important to their educational satisfaction, regardless of which learner mindset they fall into,” says Samantha Fisher, managing director and North America education practice lead at Accenture. “This is a much higher percentage than when we asked the question in 2017, which shows the pandemic upended the prevailing wisdom that in person is always best.”

Changes are coming, but are higher education institutions ready? Every institution must define what it stands for and how it will deliver specific value to students. This process of differentiation and improving efficiency is a critical step in both defining an institution’s value and beginning to permanently shift the way education is delivered.

The report shares four key imperatives that all learning institutions—from community colleges to public and private universities—can use to build a more seamless and robust student experience. 

  1. Understand future learners.
  2. Place the digital student experience front and center.
  3. Build cross-campus collaborations.
  4. Make data your most strategic asset.

To better understand the importance of these imperatives and how to proactively incorporate them into a personalized experience that your students need, read our paper, developed in partnership with Accenture: “Higher Education: A View From 2026.”

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