Colleges and universities that stay current with student needs and the industries that will employ them are positioned to thrive in the coming years.

Evolving their course offerings, student services, messaging and recruiting will position institutions to thrive despite economic and demographic challenges. New survey data from Hanover Research gathered from hundreds of institutions, highlights new trends, including how to overcome challenges and seize opportunities in the new higher education landscape.

Trend 1:  Career-Focused Learning Flourishes in Modernized, Stackable Formats

Whether it’s credit for prior learning, microcredentials, or competency-based learning, institutions are working to accommodate students’ growing expectations for a direct pathway to employment. Programs that emphasize job readiness or career training provide schools with a way to expand enrollment by capitalizing demands for targeted skills and flexible scheduling.

At the Lloyd College of Health, Science, and Technology at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, administrators are reviewing STEM and healthcare courses to determine which programs to expand, maintain, or scale back. They are also monitoring emerging programs in health, life, and natural sciences to evaluate their fitness for the local region.

Trend 2:  Debt-Free Education Captures Attention

Cost is one of the determining factors as students consider where to enroll in college. Institutions are exploring “no-loan” policies, tuition guarantees, or other new options to alleviate the debt-burden for students and families. The average estimated expense for a full-time, in-state undergraduate at a public four-year college was $27,940 in 2022-2023. More institutions understand the importance of communicating all tuition assistance programs and cash aid they provide.

A new statewide college service program called Californians for All College Corps launched in 2022 to help 6500 students over two years to receive $10,000 for tuition and living expenses in return for 450 hours of service community work. Students work with organizations that focus on K–12 education, food insecurity, and climate change across the state. The initiative launched with 45 higher education partner schools, including community colleges. “Providing more pathways to a debt-free degree while empowering students to pursue service-oriented career paths is a reflection of our shared commitment to access, affordability, and public service,” said President Michael V. Drake of the University of California

Trend 3:  Institutions Rework Financial Models and Revenue Streams for Sustainability

Nine out of ten prospective students believe cost very or extremely important when selecting a college or university. The challenges of institutional finances means that leaders are rethinking their business models to maintain long-term solvency, and whether they should sunset or consolidate more expensive programs. Some of the efforts to boost income may include outside funding, new tuition models, and educational options outside the traditional college degree. Other streams of revenue could include seeking grants, fundraising, and self-funded continuing education courses.

Unity College in Maine focuses on environmental and sustainability programs and supplement revenue in ways that align with their institutional mission, such as:

  • Growing produce for campus use
  • Renting campus greenhouse space to local farmers
  • Selling produce, plants, gardening tools, its own ketchup, and hot sauce at its farm stand
  • Catering weddings and funerals
  • Renting overnight historic accommodations
  • Offering customized workforce training for mission-aligned businesses and employers.

Trend 4: Inclusion and Support Services Build Connection, Acceptance, and Success

Students report on mental health, academic readiness, and life skills challenges. Taking steps to reduce student anxiety and roadblocks to success can help foster a stronger sense of belonging and well-being. More than 60% of college students experienced at least one mental health problem during the 2020-2021 school year. More than 50% of students have felt singled out on their campus because of their identity. To ensure equitable success, student service should be culturally relevant, inclusive, affirming and delivered through multiple modalitiesVentura College in California realized it was not meeting the needs of their English as a Second Language (ESL) program. After an intensive round of interviews with all stakeholders, Ventura College made changes to better support their ESL students, including:

  • Hired a full-time bilingual support person in collaboration with ESL academic counselors
  • Established multiple ways to connect with staff, including walk-in appointments, offsite events, and phone and video calls.
  • Created a one-page application to be completed in English or Spanish
  • Paired ESL coursework with vocational training
  • Recognized “graduating” students with end-of-term celebrations and a certificate of achievement.

Trend 5:  Increased Marketing Spending Puts Pressure on Quantifiable Results

In 2019, colleges and universities spent $2.2 billion on advertising. 66% of higher education marketers are expected to establish the metrics on their efforts and tie performance, yield rates, and conversions to the marketing investment. Regular reporting to stakeholders ensures the promotion of the institution’s brand value and public reputation, while building engagement with prospective students and nurturing interest down the enrollment funnel.

Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts focused their marketing on increasing the public’s awareness of the college’s value proposition and to increase connection activities, such as visits, leads, inquiries, and social actions such as “likes.” The marketing team used hyper-targeted messaging, data-driven decision making, and assessment of outcomes. They continually monitor data analytics, including:

  • Website traffic
  • Social media visitor patterns
  • Form submission results
  • Email open rates
  • Link activity.

As Hanover Research worked with its partner institutions, it became clear that colleges and universities must move beyond traditional ideas about the college experience. To pursue sustainability, the five examples listed above are thinking creatively about the levers they can push to move forward in being more responsive to students’ interests and wellbeing. They also must find new strategies to ensure they will stay relevant into the future. The core instructional function of higher education has not changed, but there are new opportunities to create engaging and meaningful college experiences for today’s students.