5 higher ed trends to watch in 2016

Competency-based education and predictive analytics are poised for major growth

As 2015 winds to a close, along with the major higher education innovation and controversy that came with it, we look ahead to 2016 and what college and university administrators should expect from the industry and government regulation.

The explosion of competency-based education development that we saw in 2014 is going to reach many new classrooms in 2016. Administrators will find new ways to use predictive analytics to improve student outcomes and a range of other metrics on campus. Financial strain in the industry, though down overall, is expected to result in a rise in the number of closures and mergers. Accreditation reform, much-discussed this year, may actually be decided in 2016. And, competition from alternative providers will continue to challenge traditional higher ed.

Read on for deeper analysis on how these five key trends will impact colleges and universities in the new year.

Competency-based education

With a small number of direct assessment competency-based degree programs operating with the blessing of the U.S. Department of Education and hundreds of institutions considering how they can incorporate self-paced, competency based education into their offerings, 2016 is sure to bring continued innovation in this area.

The regulatory landscape may be prompting some schools to slow their momentum as the Department of Education and accreditors adapt and align their processes and expectations, especially considering a recent rebuke from the inspector general over the Higher Learning Commission’s approval process. But plenty of schools are set to charge ahead. The University of Wisconsin Extension offers one example. An early leader in direct-assessment CBE programs, UW-Extension now has approval to grant its own degrees and plans to accelerate the pace of new offerings.

Predictive analytics

The stakes are higher than ever for colleges and universities to prove they can help their students succeed on their path to a degree. Big data, long used by researchers on higher education campuses, is now being used by administrators to develop predictive tools that allow faculty and staff to target student interventions.

A number of campuses, including Purdue, have early warning systems that alert students when they are at risk of poor outcomes. Penn State is improving student advising with new predictive software and Ivy Tech is taking the concept even further, using big data to track faculty performance and financial aid fraud, among other things.

The Caliper Analytics Interoperability Standard is poised to expand access to data, and in usable formats, for colleges and universities that use third-party tools like those for student engagement. As more vendors commit to the standard, the stage will be set for higher education institutions to do more with the data, improve services for students, and, ultimately, increase retention and graduation rates.

Mergers and closures

Moody’s Investors Service marked an improved outlook for the higher education sector this year, moving it from “negative” to “stable” for the first time since January 2013. The outlook for four-year colleges is looking rosier than it has since 2009 on average, but Moody’s also announced this year it expects the number of annual closures and mergers among higher education institutions to increase. The numbers are still small — closures are expected to quicken from about five per year from 2004-2014 to 15 per year by 2017 and the two or three mergers per year is expected to grow to double in frequency.

Colleges and universities concerned about their long-term outlook may spend 2016 exploring their alternatives, whether it be merging with a complementary institution or forging some type of partnership that cuts down on costs or raises the profile of the schools to help them better compete.

This year saw the closure of the last of the Corinthian Colleges schools, and a number of campuses owned by for-profit Education Management Corporation and Career Education Corporation. Falling enrollment across higher ed continues to be concentrated in the for-profit sector. Nonprofits were not left out of closure announcements in 2015, however. The most-discussed among these, however, was one announced by Sweet Briar College leaders and then stopped by a judge.

Accreditation reform

Accreditors have had a tough year and 2016 is not likely to bring relief. The Higher Education Act is on the table for renewal and accreditation reform is a top priority of legislators and the Department of Education. The Obama administration has already used its executive privilege to enact some changes, urging Congress to do its part. Arne Duncan has called accreditors “watchdogs that don’t bite” and Sen. Marco Rubio likened the system to a cartel that blocks innovation.

Nontraditional degree and certificate program providers could see expanded access to federal financial aid dollars in 2016, based on changes that come with HEA reauthorization. One concern among would-be reformers, however, is about the direction new regulation could take. There is an increasing focus on monetary return on investment of higher education when it comes to assessing value. Association of American Colleges & Universities President Carol Geary Schneider is advocating for higher education providers and their accreditors to come to a level of consensus over student learning outcomes to push a more holistic approach to higher education accountability. The outcome of this effort will be on full display in 2016.

Competition from alternative programs

The higher education landscape is ever-changing as digital technology continues to offer prospective students more choices when they consider post-secondary options. The number of students enrolling in coding bootcamps is exploding as officials on all sides tout the importance of job training and the skills gap in computer science fields. The Educational Quality Through Innovation Partnerships (EQUIP) program will give alternative providers a chance to offer federal financial aid to students, a fact that worries Bloc COO Clint Schmidt, who sees coding bootcamps going down the path of bad actors in for-profit education, which have been accused of enrolling students as a way to get easy money.

Four-year colleges, especially less selective public institutions, may also see increased competition from community colleges that benefit from Promise programs, which give students two years tuition-free. If these schools see substantially fewer freshman coming straight from high school and more transfers, their budgets could strain under the higher cost of small classes for upperclassmen.

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