The Future of Higher Education: 5 Trends to Watch

Big trends will impact higher education over the next few years. From artificial intelligence and skills development to digital experiences and multi-college collaboration, higher ed leaders should prepare now for what’s next. 

With rapidly evolving education delivery models and student expectations, major changes are brewing within higher education.

Since 2019, total higher education enrollment has fallen by almost 7.5%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Many institutions are also grappling with reduced funding as they stare down a demographic crunch that threatens to shrink the potential student population for years to come. Performance-based funding dependent on measures such as credit attainment or degree completion also has colleges redefining student success so it’s more outcomes-based and equitable.

In the face of these challenges, institutions must operate more efficiently and adapt quickly to shifting realities—all while elevating the student experience. It’s a daunting proposition, but college and university administrators can succeed if they take a disciplined approach to accelerating their operational and digital transformation efforts.

Here, we look at five imperatives educators need to embrace to better respond to the dynamics of their changing world.

1. To Stay Competitive, Institutions Turn to Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Facing shrinking budgets, educational institutions are struggling to keep up with students’ growing expectations that their education is personalized, convenient, and omnipresent—and provides clear value before and after graduation. 

To better deliver on these expectations, institutions will need to collaborate with strategic partners as well as within their own departments, which are often woefully lacking in alignment. In fact, just 9% of higher education leaders say that their IT and finance functions are always on the same page, according to Workday’s latest global CxO indicator survey of senior leaders; this is the lowest percentage of any industry surveyed.

When higher ed C-suite leaders don’t work in tandem—and are left to cobble together data from disparate legacy systems still used by many higher education institutions—their teams fail to capture the real-time data and insights they need to meet business goals, hire the right talent, and engage and help all types of students. As a result, the data they pull is often already stale by the time the reports are complete.

Leaders, then, are left with only a rearview vantage point, unable to track student engagement in real time or model what-if scenarios to plan for potential changes. This makes them unable to quickly pivot to better serve students’ needs.

To generate the real-time insights required to keep up with today’s demands, Sean Gallagher, Northeastern University's executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy and executive professor of educational policy, says it will take forming interdisciplinary teams across all functions to revisit assumptions, gather as much data and evidence as possible, and make new forecasts.

Many states will see a 15% or greater decline in traditional college-age students between 2026 and 2029.

Creating these teams will require institutions to bring the right people together with the right skills. And rethink the future of work as a fluid compilation of skills to be leveraged as the world around us changes.

“Fundamental to delivering on this shift to a skills-based approach are technologies, such as AI and ML [artificial intelligence and machine learning], which can understand key attributes to help drive automation and provide insights and predictions that help to identify and align skills with jobs, quickly turning employee data into a strategic advantage, while helping businesses adapt to change,” said Workday Co-Founder, Co-CEO, and Chair Aneel Bhusri in a recent Workday article.

But even improved collaboration across an institution’s functions won’t fully solve higher education’s challenges. Uniting separate but similar institutions through shared decision-making, data, and technology is an additional option. This type of collaboration can deliver cost savings, system upgrades, and convenience by allowing students to take classes at multiple colleges.

A groundbreaking example of this type of voluntary system-sharing can be seen with the Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services (CHESS) in New Mexico. A partnership between five public colleges, CHESS has replaced individual institutions’ outdated administrative functions with a shared, cloud-based platform to manage finances, employees, and student services. By using one application and one set of student records, CHESS allows students easy access to increased class offerings across all five institutions, spurring faster degree completion.

“We have to innovate. We have to work together. We have to get past the competitive nature of our work. We have to partner on operational matters,” Kathy Ulibarri, CEO of CHESS, said at Workday Rising.

2. Leaders Prioritize Revenue Diversification to Thrive

On-campus degrees and research revenue account for more than 80% of higher education institutions’ revenue streams. That’s not good news considering that it leaves these organizations incredibly vulnerable to any decline in traditional student enrollment.

As a result, higher education leaders must think creatively about how to diversify revenue to better serve existing and future students, and ensure a financially viable and sustainable institution for future generations.

“At the end of the day, higher ed is a business,” said Roy Mathew, national practice leader for higher education at Deloitte, at Workday Rising. “When you speak to boards, presidents, chancellors, CFOs, CHROs, and CIOs—all of them are now challenged with the imperative of driving revenue streams. Tuitions can’t just keep going up forever. We have to think about growing new revenue streams, ultimately creating student pathways and maximizing the probability of students being successful.”

At the same time, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates that nearly 36 million Americans earned some college credits but never completed a degree. That means a large segment of the population lacks a college diploma, which is highly correlated with professional advancement and high-demand, high-salary roles. Higher learning institutions have an opportunity to capitalize on the expansive audience for degree-completion programs.

Institutions, then, need to pull back from trying to attract the same on-campus, young-adult students by creating an incessant flood of new major and program offerings. This method simply doesn’t work: Federal data shows that higher ed institutions added 41,446 degree or certificate programs between 2012 and 2018—a 21% increase—yet enrollment decline has only accelerated over the past decade.

Instead, higher education institutions should sunset programs that are underenrolled and devote their investments to modernizing operations and ramping up digital offerings. Doing so will attract new students of various ages interested in upskilling, reskilling, and flexibly finishing their degree or earning non-degree credentials.

3. As Student Populations Change, Institutions Redefine the Meaning of Student Success

Higher education enrollment has been on the decline for a decade and shows no signs of slowing. In fact, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a striking one-year drop of 4.1% from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022. And due to the “baby bust” created by the Great Recession in 2008, many states will see a 15% or greater decline in traditional college-age students between 2026 and 2029.

But rather than simply worrying about a looming enrollment cliff, higher education institutions will need to focus on setting up current students for success. After all, many are slipping through the cracks: Each year, 25% of first-year students leave college, and more than 1 in 3 students never complete a degree. Drop-out rates are especially high among nonwhite and non-Asian students and students over age 25.

Just 9% of higher education leaders say that their IT and finance functions are always on the same page.

To successfully reach these nontraditional students, administrators need to do more than simply expand their online learning opportunities.  

“There’s a very big difference between moving things online—facilitating Zoom meetings or recording lectures—and developing and delivering a rich, robust online learning experience that includes broader support services,” says Joellen Shendy, product strategy director, Workday Student.

As part of this experience, institutions need to be able to assess student and program success in real time so they can identify issues and intervene early, before a disengaged student stops attending class.

Creating robust online learning experiences for nontraditional students will not only address the skills crisis but will also renew the public’s faith in higher ed’s ability to offer solid ROI. As such, institutions must deliver a personalized learning journey, with options around educational forum, pace, individual goals, and satisfaction levels.

“We need to make sure we’re getting more people through college and completing key outcomes rather than just focusing on getting learners to college,” says Shane Topping, senior director for Higher Education, Workday.

4. Learning Institutions Level Up Their Digital Experience to Meet Students Where They Are

A 2017 Accenture survey of full-time college students in the United States found that 85% said a high-quality digital experience is important to their satisfaction with their campus. Then came the pandemic. By 2021, that number increased to 96%.

Today’s tweens and teens, who have never known a time when news, entertainment, and communication were not available around-the-clock and on-demand, will be in college in the blink of an eye—and they won’t tolerate a paper-based learning experience that hasn’t changed much since the ’90s. 

“Those are the folks coming our way,” said Miloš Topić, Ph.D., vice president of IT and chief digital officer of Grand Valley State University, at Workday Rising. “If we’re not prepared, they’re going to go seek other options. And the number of options is growing every single year.”

Building a great digital experience, then, is critical to recruiting students of all stripes by meeting them on their terms and their turf. A simple, intuitive system can, for example, guide first-generation students who may lack the support systems to navigate a complex college environment. Enhanced digital experiences can also help ESL students, those with disabilities or learning differences, and those struggling with their mental health connect with resources more easily.

The ability to optimize your people, business processes, and financial operations starts with the right technology, which includes an enterprise management cloud, designed with AI/ML at its core. 

“Harnessing the power of AI can lead to significant improvements in applications many of us use every day,” says Kelly Trindel, head of machine learning trust at Workday. “Just think of your own experiences with your favorite navigation service, streaming service, or online shopping site. AI greatly improves results and provides you with a more meaningful, personalized experience.”

Digital transformation that mirrors real-life experiences is also a salve for first-year anxieties shared by nearly all students.

“More than ever, students expect a campus experience that mimics their life—how they order food, access their residence, communicate with peers and engage with faculty and the administration,” says Michael Hofherr, general manager of Workday Student and former CIO of Ohio State University. “All of those interactions need to evolve, and at the core of that evolution is digital transformation.”

5. Embracing Change, Not Just Technology, Will Be Key to Digital Transformation Goals

Colleges know they have a digital transformation problem. In a recent Workday study, “Closing the Acceleration Gap: Toward Sustainable Digital Transformation,” 68% of higher ed organizations agreed that there’s a growing gap between where their business is and where it needs to be in order to compete. And just 5% of higher ed leaders say at least half of their daily operations are digitized—the lowest of any industry.

“We have to innovate. We have to work together. We have to get past the competitive nature of our work. We have to partner on operational matters.”

Kathy Ulibarri Chief Executive Officer Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services

These results are echoed by educational leaders in the trenches. “The reality is that our systems are legacy. They’re fragile. They’re highly customized. And we have to move to a more robust, agile system,” said Kristen Constant, Iowa State University’s chief information officer, at Workday Rising. “We have to improve effectiveness and efficiency to address all these concerns about how we as an institution are good stewards of public money, and we have to meet the expectations of students, faculty, and staff.”

Digital transformation is key to many areas of success, including attracting young talent. “We have to truly think about revolutionizing how we think about that experience as a student and not to forget the fact that faculty now that are coming up are going to start being true digital natives. Faculty only grew up in the digital world,” Roy Mathew, national practice leader for higher education at Deloitte, said at Workday Rising.

Transformation starts with getting the right data in the hands of the right people so they can make the right decisions at the right time. When leaders are equipped with a vast array of data and truly have a finger on the pulse of the entire institution, cross-functional teams can continuously plan and respond in real time to evolving challenges.

But more than two-thirds of higher education leaders say their organization’s data is somewhat or completely siloed.

To become a decision-ready organization, higher education leaders need to drive strategic plan performance with a reliable, single source of truth that unifies people, finance, and student data. It should continuously track institutional key performance indicators, such as attracting new sources of revenue or managing costs. 

ML, for example, can even power scenario planning and forecasts to improve the accuracy of predictions. Or it can be used to curate unique experiences for every user, such as guidance in career development, answers to human resources/payroll questions, and limitless personalized content, boosting productivity and saving time.

Higher ed desperately needs to modernize its technology infrastructure, but successful organizations will be those that embrace change, something that just 1 in 3 higher ed leaders say their organization enables them to do.

“The real challenge is leadership and ownership. Change is hard, breaking down the silos is hard, and the CIO can’t do it alone. There has to be a shared vision for modernizing a campus, investing in the future, and implementing a new way of doing business,” Hofherr says.

Regardless of your institutional profile or where you are on your transformation journey, Workday can help. Learn more.

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