At the start of 2020, higher education institutions were bracing for a challenging decade. On the horizon were double-digit demographic swings, a looming economic downturn, steadily increasing demand for online education, shifting student and parent expectations, ever-changing technology and more.

Then came the COVID-19 outbreak. Now those pressures are intensifying. In this blog series, Samantha Fisher and I are taking a closer look at seven trends – and how higher ed can quickly unpack the challenges and seize the opportunities. These posts are part of a larger exploration of COVID-19’s impact across government, nonprofit and other mission-driven organizations.

covid19 us high ed trends

Here are the seven trends that COVID-19 is accelerating in higher education:
1. An enrollment rollercoaster.

Institutions were already grappling with a host of enrollment challenges. The COVID-19 outbreak is compounding those challenges as both current and prospective students rethink whether, when and where they should attend. By all estimates, enrollment for fall is expected to be down. However, the laser focus that most institutions have on this fall’s enrollment may be short sighted. How can institutions mitigate declines in fall enrollment while preparing for the inevitable upswing in demand some time in 2021?

2. A surge in demand for online adoption.

Leading up to COVID-19, only 4 percent of institutions were serving 55 percent of online students through scaled online programs. Nearly half of institutions had no online programs at all. That reality was upended in the space of a few weeks as everyone moved to remote learning. Though not always perfectly implemented, the switch to remote learning has delivered a rapid education – for faculty and students alike – in the technology and design needed for successful online learning. Even if many will be relieved to return to in-classroom learning, the question remains: After the crisis abates, will the lines between “online” and “in-person” be forever blurred?

3. Widespread financial instability.

Increased competition, burgeoning debt and growing compliance costs have created fiscal challenges for many schools. Stimulus funding is but a drop in the bucket of what institutions need to cover their costs associated with COVID-19. Some experts predict that up to 20 percent of institutions are at risk for closure. How can institutions reallocate available funding to sustain and improve mission-critical services?

4. A fluid, frictionless and engaging student experience.

From lazy rivers and climbing walls to modern dorms and cafeteria sushi, many four-year institutions have relied on physical facilities and amenities to foster student community. Now, in order to differentiate, schools must find ways to attract, engage and retain students – digitally. How will institutions know which digital tools and approaches really work – and implement them quickly?

5. IT as a critical mission partner.

With campuses deserted, IT has solidified its place as a core collaborator in delivering the mission. It is IT that has enabled staff to work remotely and classes to continue. As institutions prepare for a possible virtual fall semester, edtech can now help strengthen academic delivery. And with the demise of traditional enrollment assumptions, IT has an opportunity to step up to support digital marketing, customer relationship management (CRM) and analytics. How can IT be most effectively deployed to help institutions thrive in the new normal?

6. Migration to an elastic workforce.

After students and faculty rushed off campus, staff weren’t far behind. Now institutions are learning that successful remote work takes more than technology. It also requires a culture that empowers people to do their jobs remotely and to build the skills they need in this new world of work. How might institutions enable their workforce to flex up and down to meet fluctuations in demand?

7. Radical business model transformation.

For the past decade, downward pressure on tuition and rising operating costs have fueled conversations about radically rethinking higher ed business models. That conversation just got louder – and more urgent. What business models are scalable, cost effective and accessible enough to meet the needs of this decade and beyond?

In short, every institution of higher education must find ways to act quickly to survive the pandemic – while pivoting to thrive in the new, post-COVID normal. Samantha and I will explore the impact and implications of these trends in greater detail in upcoming posts. In the meantime, let’s stay connected via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Jonathan Fry

Managing Director – Consulting, Education Lead

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