5 Trends to Look for in the Future of Higher Education

a college student doing an online learning course
a college student doing an online learning course

Transformation is the name of the game when it comes to the future of higher education. As day-to-day life takes place increasingly online, education has to adapt to meet the needs of modern individuals and communities. From changes in what students are looking for to increased artificial intelligence usage at colleges and universities, the forthcoming trends in higher education are significant. 

With a solid grasp on the education trends of the recent past and an eye toward the future of higher education, educational leaders can shape and drive scholastic innovation


A Look Back at Higher Education in 2021

The extreme nature of the changes that educators and students faced during the 2020-2021 school year cannot be overstated. As colleges and universities started the first full school year after the COVID-19 pandemic hit American schools in March 2020, administrators, professors, and students started a year unlike any they’d ever experienced. 

By the time the spring of 2021 came around, higher education enrollment had dramatically declined by 3.5%, which represents 603,000 students. That is a change seven times larger than the .5% decrease in the spring of 2020. The fall of 2020, which was the first full semester during which students were making their college decisions as the pandemic was occurring, had seen a 2.5% decline. Postsecondary enrollment in fall 2021 dropped 2.6% from the fall 2020 level, resulting in a 5.8% drop since 2019.

For those who did enroll in college, online learning was a much larger part of the equation than it had been in the past. After experiencing remote learning during pandemic lockdowns, 49% of remote learners said they planned to enroll in online courses when in-person classes were an option again. 

The shift to distance learning affected faculty and administration as well. 33% of school administrators said they intended to continue with both remote and online course operations even after their campuses were fully opened, and 83% of administrators agreed that the next few years will bring about an increased need for online courses.

Career aspirations and employment goals were at the forefront of the minds of many online and remote students. Personalized experiences made possible by technology have helped prospective students achieve their goal of thinking about higher education through the lens of their future job prospects, salary potential, and upward mobility. 

With these changes in higher education in view, consider some of the trends to look for in the future of higher education.


Students and Faculty Will Expect Flexible, Online Learning Options

While the Covid-19 pandemic brought tremendous challenges to college students and higher education administrators, it also brought an increased awareness of the importance of flexibility in education. People who hadn’t thought they could fit college into their already busy lives began to see opportunities that could work for them. These changes led to a shift in expectations when it comes to what universities and colleges will offer going forward:

  • Students expect 50% of their post-pandemic courses to be online. 
  • 46% of higher education staff members anticipate more remote work in months to come.
  • 48% of higher education administrators report that their institutions are investing in new flexible learning models.

Relatedly, hybrid learning models — in which students fulfill some of their course requirements in a physical classroom — are increasingly desired and expected. In the fall of 2021, 33% of students reported that they preferred a hybrid approach to their college courses. That was 3% lower than the number of students who said they preferred an in-person only approach and 12% higher than those who preferred an online class only approach. 

Whether through entirely remote degree programs or hybrid learning options for students who live on campus, various forms of online learning experiences will stick around, evolve, and become increasingly integral components of higher education.


The Knowledge Economy Model Will Replace the Industrial Era Model

Colleges and universities have approached higher education like an assembly line for a long time. Arthur Levine and Scott Van Pelt at Inside Higher Education explain that the modern marketplace and culture are shifting from an assembly-line approach, which is a product of the industrial era, to an outcome-based approach, the result of a knowledge economy. 

Rather than prioritizing how long students attend a higher education institution, or the mechanisms by which they make their way through a degree program, the future of higher education will value outcomes above time and process.

“In the future,” Levine and Van Pelt write, “higher education will focus on the outcomes we want students to achieve -- what we want them to learn -- not how long we want them to be taught.”


Career Prospects Will Heavily Influence College Decisions

Students are expected to continue to prioritize career opportunities when they are deciding between degree programs and colleges or universities. A recent Salesforce report found that 49% of students say the most important factor they consider when choosing a college or university is future career prospects. 

This data links back to the outcome-based approach to higher education that is expected to continue to rise. As students continue to report finances as the primary roadblock to completing their degree programs, it’s no wonder that they would be thinking about earning potential and job security. Educational leaders can meet students where they are by offering career guidance and digital access to their institution’s alumni network. 

Levine and Van Pelt put it this way: “The increasing need for upskilling and reskilling caused by automation, the knowledge explosion, and the pandemic will tilt the balance toward more educational programs that are closely aligned with the labor market.”

a professor teaching a college course


Artificial Intelligence Usage in Higher Education Will Continue to Grow

From management systems to grading tools and recruitment chatbots to library services, artificial intelligence has been and will continue to be a large part of higher education. EdTech Magazine predicts that universities and colleges may have to go so far as rethinking their curriculum in order to best serve the next generation of students. 

Here are just some of the ways artificial intelligence is likely to participate in higher education:

  • Evaluating applicants’ traits and perceived motivation in order to make admissions decisions.
  • Conducting student assessments and providing feedback.
  • Responding to students’ simple online message board queries so that teaching assistants can focus on addressing more complex student needs and their own research.
  • Providing unique insights into student learning behaviors and correlating personalized teaching recommendations.

From the earliest admissions discussions to wrapping up assignments on a capstone project, artificial intelligence will play a role throughout the student experience.


Digital Platforms Will Be Vital Tools in Higher Education Innovation

The Salesforce report found that digital strategies ranging from virtual campus tours to hybrid courses were a worthwhile investment in the minds of many higher education administrators. 45% of higher education staff reported that their institutions were investing in a constituent management relationship (CRM) platform. 

Such platforms are critical when it comes to engaging the next generation of students and maintaining staff morale in higher education institutions. According to the Salesforce report, 59% of students and 53% of staff reported that their primary reason for gaps in trust with university leaders came down to a lack of consistent communication.

A CRM, as well as other digital platforms that support functions like data analytics and digital marketing, can make a huge difference in closing that communication gap and, consequently, building trust between leaders, staff, and students, which will likely lead to greater student success.


Create positive change as an educational leader with an EdD from Marymount University Online

Do you want to stand at the forefront of transformation in the field of higher education? Are you excited about the intersection of technology, student experience, and excellence in academics? If so, an EdD from Marymount University Online can help you achieve the career you desire. 

An EdD from Marymount will prepare you to lead and drive organizational innovation. Designed for working professionals and featuring a path to completion in less than three years, working professionals can pursue their doctoral degree while continuing to work and keep up with their personal responsibilities. 

Through courses in organizational change, leadership, ethics, social justice, and more, you will gain the skills and knowledge necessary to drive positive transformation that results in greater student and community outcomes. Our expert faculty and solutions-oriented approach to real-world issues affecting educational institutions and organizations will prepare you to create meaningful change that shapes the future of higher education.

Learn more about the EdD from Marymount University Online.