The Future of Higher Education: Choppy Waters or an Ocean of Opportunity?

After decades of growth, colleges and universities find themselves in a period of transformation that challenges the status quo and forces leaders to embrace change in order to thrive.

While declining enrollment and escalating costs contribute to an uncertain future for many institutions, some have already found opportunity in these challenges. Here are two of the changes facing higher education today, and the proactive responses that some colleges and universities are adopting to remain well-positioned while driving student value.
Digital Disruptors
Technology is transforming the way students learn. Online learning allows large institutions like Harvard University and MIT to reach a much broader population today with a lower education cost than ever before. MIT’s MicroMasters program has already enrolled nearly half a million students in 25 different curriculums across four continents—in just three years. Harvard’s edX programs enjoy find similar success by attracting the markets and demographics historically held by smaller private colleges and universities.
Decreasing Return on Investment
Tuition and textbook costs have nearly tripled in the past two decades according to research from the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank located in Washington, D.C. Overall inflation during the same time period is just over 50%. The return on investment when entering the job market is harder and harder to identify. Not only is the return harder to find, but the number of people ages 25-34 who have at least Bachelor’s degree is higher than ever. This saturation has driven the standard for entry level professional jobs even higher without creating a higher number of available high-paying jobs.
These economic realities are driving a demand for less expensive higher education. Institutions are trying to optimize themselves and lower operating costs by turning around or eliminating unprofitable programs, and looking for new ways to optimize campus spaces.
Finding the Way Forward
The answers to these questions are not one-size-fits-all, but all start with developing a deep understanding of the mission and strategy of the college or university. Some have doubled down on the social aspect of the college environment. A world-class education is becoming increasingly accessible in an online environment, but can’t replicate the social experiences of a college campus—lasting friendships, learning independence, and the development of a strong professional network. These institutions embrace community and connection in everything from dining halls designed to encourage students to stay long after meals are over, to student housing that invests more in community than private space.
Other colleges and universities are turning to international student populations. This increased attention on attracting international students to their campuses has been largely successful but requires different things of campus buildings and communities. One of these new demands are the unique social and cultural norms that these students are used to having in their housing.
Choppy Waters or an Ocean of Opportunity?
In short, this is an exciting time for Higher Education. What are choppy waters for some are an ocean of opportunity for others. The only common point is that the landscape is changing, and the success of each college and university hinges upon a holistic outlook on the future, and a commitment to shape campuses, communities, and facilities to achieve that vision.

Nathan Woods, RA
Design Collaborative