The pressures on colleges as 2019 opens are numerous. They include — but are no means limited to — historically low state financing, competition over shrinking pools of potential students, slowed growth in international student enrollment, and a push from nearly all stakeholders for proof of return on their investments, often in the form of workforce-ready graduates.
Those challenges could bring financial struggles for many colleges while also inspiring experiments, innovation, and new ventures and partnerships. Looking back at 2018 and ahead to the new year, we’ve outlined nine trends expected to shape 2019 as higher ed leaders respond to an always changing, and often challenging, playing field.
Capital campaigns will get more ambitious
Colleges have been turning ever more to private donors because of declining state funding and market limits on tuition hikes. Last year, The University of Michigan completed a record $5 billion fundraising campaign, led by 550 development staff members and 1,600 fundraising volunteers.
It wasn't alone. Among other massive fundraising efforts, the University of Washington has a $5 billion campaign underway, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is working toward $4.25 billion and the University of Florida is aiming for $3 billion.
Private colleges, too, have wrapped up record-breaking campaigns. Harvard University recently completed a five-year, $9.6 billion campaign, making it the largest college fundraising effort to date. John Hopkins nabbed the largest single private donation reported in higher education when former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg pledged $1.8 billion to his alma mater in November. In all, The Chronicle of Higher Education lists 32 private gifts of $50 million or more announced from July 2017 to June 2018.
Many of those big gifts will come strings
While some donations can be used at a university's discretion, many are given as part of an agreed-to plan. As one example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison landed a $100 million investment — one of its largest gifts ever — from electronics maker Foxconn. It calls for the creation of an interdisciplinary research initiative based about 100 miles from Madison, near the future home of a Foxconn plant. UW-Madison must match Foxconn's gift to be assured the full amount from the company.
Colleges don't always advertise the agreements they make with donors. But sometimes the arrangements come out anyway. Students at George Mason University successfully sued the school for the release of documents that showed entities controlled by Charles and David Koch were "given a seat on a committee to pick candidates for a professorship that they funded," The New York Times reported in May.
Colleges will feel pressure to prove graduates are job-ready
In a September policy paper, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities said large research institutions are taking on the responsibility of workforce development and fostering entrepreneurship — long a priority for community colleges and technical programs but less explicitly so for larger institutions. Crucial to the task are federal partnerships, as well as support for emerging fields like advanced manufacturing and investment in entrepreneurship and innovation, according to the organization.
Helping students learn new skills becomes all the more important as the economy and jobs change. According to some projections, emerging technologies will displace 30% of workers over the next decade. As workers face the lifelong demand for new skills, more colleges are looking at offering shorter-term credentials, either in place of or embedded in traditional degree programs. Others are partnering directly with industry to design career-specific programming for their students.
The college presidency will be a revolving door
College presidents are spending less time in office. That may be unavoidable, as the issues facing today’s top executives are plenty: shrinking state funds, campus protests, free speech battles, fundraising imperatives and sexual misconduct scandals are just a few.
Their average tenure dropped from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016, according to data from the American Council on Education's (ACE) latest American College President Study. At the same time, involuntary presidential departures have been increasing at a faster rate than voluntary ones, according to research from Southern Methodist University cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Economic strain following the Great Recession drove the trend, but financial impropriety, fissures with governing boards, political controversy and dissatisfaction also played a role.
The changing nature of the position is also drawing more college presidents from nontraditional paths. A Virginia Commonwealth University survey of leaders found that 40.5% never held a tenure-track position in higher ed, up from 33% from a previous study. ACE, meanwhile, found 15% of college presidents in 2016 came from outside higher education altogether.
New credentials will flood the market
There are roughly 650,000 credentials — including traditional degrees, certificates and other programs — currently on offer in the U.S., according to Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency around credentials. At a panel event in December, Cheney and others noted students don’t always know whether employers will accept a given credential or which programs lead to better outcomes.
In many cases, colleges are working with outside partners to design new programs that address employers' skills needs. For example, Northeastern offers credit for in-house digital badges from IBM and to those who have completed a Google IT Support Professional certificate. Others, including George Mason University, are partnering with Education Design Lab to develop a blended program to teach students soft skills like intercultural fluency and critical thinking.
Non-degree opportunities will become especially important as colleges increasingly cater to adult learners, for whom benchmark credentials can help with retention and the value of their investment in a degree.
For-profits will seek new business models
December showed the for-profit sector's troubles are not over. Education Corporation of America (ECA) became the latest major for-profit operator to close abruptly, leaving 20,000 students scrambling to find transfer options or discharge debt. Less than two weeks later, Missouri-based Vatterott Educational Centers (whose deal to sell itself to ECA fell through earlier last year) followed suit. These events happened under an Education Department whose deregulatory agenda is explicitly more sympathetic to for-profits' business models. Regulatory environment aside, poor student outcomes have led to negative publicity that has made some prospective students more skeptical about attending a for-profit.
Dropping the for-profit tag is one way to lighten regulation and brighten their reputation. Roughly a dozen for-profits in recent years have changed or are in the process of changing their status to become nonprofit colleges, Education Dive reported in December. Others, such as the parent companies of Strayer University and Capella University, have merged. Kaplan, meanwhile, sold itself in a $1 acquisition by Purdue University. Still others are transitioning into online education service providers.
OPMs will play a big role as colleges expand online
In July, The Economist warned traditional universities may have survived the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) but "risk being outwitted by OPMs." Online program managers (OPMs) are not doing it by beating colleges at their own game — namely, educating students — but instead by getting colleges to pay-to-play in the digital space. Indeed, more colleges are turning to for-profit OPMs for help launching degree and other learning programs. In those arrangements, colleges avoid massive investments in upfront infrastructure but OPMs typically charge fees or take a cut of tuition revenue. (Looking at those arrangements, some have warned that OPMs' financial pursuits must not supersede or muddy academic priorities.)
Education technology consultant Phil Hill wrote last May on the blog e-Literate that the OPM market is large and growing — with revenue between $1.5 and $2.5 billion — but is still "not without chaos" as the sector grows. The number of OPMs in operation has tripled over the last decade, leading some analysts to assume consolidation is coming, Inside Higher Ed reported in June. Meanwhile, firms and universities keep experimenting, such as through partnerships like that with coworking space provider WeWork. And then there's Purdue's outright acquisition of Kaplan, which was in part to build out its online learning platforms.
Colleges will hone data use to improve outcomes
Colleges are using data and analytics in more ways as they modernize and manage imperatives to show returns on student and state investments. But it's no simple matter for a university to collect and analyze information and act on the results. A 2018 study found multiple stakeholder groups on campuses had overlapping responsibilities in tracking student outcomes.
And just because student data exists doesn't mean everyone on campus knows it's there. That makes data governance critical. "You have to change the nature of the dialogue [to one] where ground rule No. 1 is that it's the institution's data," John Campbell, vice provost at West Virginia University, said during a panel discussion at the annual Educause conference this past fall.
Along with effective governance, ACE President Ted Mitchell said at Educause that effective data collection and analysis is question-driven, strategic, experimental, iterative, part of all levels of decision making and "everybody's business."
AR and VR experiments will continue, but scale will remain elusive
Virtual and augmented reality is already creating new opportunities and solutions for teaching and learning. AR and VR tools can provide students with experiences that would be otherwise too expensive or even impossible to replicate in the real world, D. Christopher Brooks, director of research at the Educause Center for Analysis and Research, said at Educause.
At Hamilton College, for instance, students can learn about the human body through virtual reality simulations of organs. And at Penn State University, researchers built an augmented reality program that allows student teachers to engage with simulated students in a virtual classroom environment. But launching new products can cost time and money and, as with online learning, there is still much tinkering, investing and measuring of outcomes ahead.