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The future of higher education

2021-06-16

By: Kaz Weida

While the world faces unprecedented challenges and rapidly evolving technology, the future of higher education, in particular, appears to be headed for a precipice. The culmination of widespread online learning, significant enrollment decline, and increasing concerns about student loan debt have disrupted traditional models of learning and raised important questions about the future of education.

In the midst of this chaotic sea change, educators see an opportunity for colleges and universities to better evolve to embrace the needs of students, communities, and society at large. Understanding the changing landscape of education can help these institutions adapt and position themselves for a successful transition into the future of education.

What does the future of higher education look like?

Seismic shifts in the way learning is delivered have the potential to reshape the education industry. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Barnes & Noble Education study indicated 70% of college students surveyed said they wanted “less rigid” learning experiences. 

“The pandemic did not change the path for higher education, but it did change the speed at which we’re traveling on that path. Within the next 10 years, we will see a transformation of the student experience — from admissions through graduation — that will ultimately create a better, more inclusive and smarter world.” Michael Huseby, CEO and Chairman of Barnes & Noble Education

Let’s take a closer look at what the future of higher education holds and what it will mean both for the student experience, the educators who support them, and the institutions that deliver learning.

College enrollment decline means changing student demographics

The education industry has been sounding the alarm about enrollment decline for a few years now, but disruption of attendance due to the pandemic has both amplified and accelerated the problem. After hitting a peak in 2011, college enrollment has been steadily falling for the past decade. In private colleges like Harvard, 20% of college students chose to defer enrollment last year due to the pandemic and unanticipated economic challenges.

Some enrollment decline is inevitable due to shifting demographics and a smaller pool of high school graduates. But this is a numbers problem that challenges colleges and universities to think outside the box and recruit nontraditional students. Adult learners, international students and other underserved populations could fill the future halls of higher education. However, educational institutions need to make significant changes to how they recruit and support students. And colleges and universities will have to retool how they deliver and fund learning to convince underserved and first-generation students to invest in a degree.

The role of technology and online learning in the future of education 

Remote learning is here to stay, but conversations surrounding the role of technology in the future of higher education can become contentious. While most colleges and universities have some sort of online program, there is widespread debate about whether distance learning provides the same educational value as brick-and-mortar classes.

While most institutions will continue to embrace all things internet, the clamor and cry for better digital student experiences is clear. In the College 2030 Report from Barnes & Noble, 82% of faculty felt they understood how students learn, but less than half of students surveyed agreed with that statement. There is also a disconnect regarding the value of online learning, with 94% of students saying it should cost less than in-person classes, while 43% of faculty disagreed. 

The future of higher education will be more affordable and accessible

Ongoing concern about the burden of student loan debt and the value of a college degree has pushed the issue of affordability and access to higher education front and center. Students and families are demanding college experiences provide a better value, but there are lots of questions about how to deliver on that expectation.

Nevertheless, college degrees are increasingly considered a necessary part of successful careers, and more employers are demanding them for entry-level jobs. This phenomenon, referred to as “degree inflation,” is likely to accelerate in the coming years as increasing automation means less manual labor and more positions requiring higher-level technology or communication skills.

What changing expectations mean for the future of education 

It’s clear that expectations around what the student experience should look like are driving change in higher education. While forecasting the direction these forces will push colleges and universities is tricky, it’s worthwhile to consider how these trends might shape the future college experience.

Hybrid models of education will become the norm

For many decades, the formula for a college experience was a familiar one. Four-year residential colleges were the norm and catered to a young student population fresh out of high school. Part-time and adult students were the domain of community colleges and other low-cost public universities.

The college experience of the future won’t fit this paradigm, and that’s a good thing. A diversifying college student population means higher education will invest in blended models of learning that offer the best of both worlds. Hybrid educational experiences with both in-person and online options better meet the needs of the underserved students and ultimately offer everyone better access and value.

Expect a focus on return on investment (ROI)

Return on investment isn’t just a business buzzword anymore. Students and families are viewing the decision to attend college as an investment, and they want educational institutions to be transparent about affordability, student loan debt and future job prospects.

In short, when shopping for a college, students are increasingly savvy about ROI. As consumers of higher education, they are demanding more value from their college experience. Education institutions will find ways to build more bang for the buck into degree programs with options like corporate partnerships, subsidized internships, study abroad opportunities, and career and job placement assistance or networking communities for alumni.

A culture of accountability is on the horizon for colleges and universities

The consensus among employers is clear. A growing number of colleges and universities don’t confer degrees that translate into meaningful career or employability skills. On-the-job training in areas like communication and leadership often fills some gaps, but this skills divide is a source of growing frustration for both employers and employees.

Expect a culture of accountability to grow not only around the knowledge colleges deliver but also around the role they play in producing more competent, confident and well-rounded graduates. To deliver on this promise, higher education will need to find better ways to connect students with real-world opportunities for growth and advancement.

College degrees will increasingly deliver more than career skills

Whether virtual, commuter or residential, college campuses provide much more than housing and healthcare for students. They provide community and connection. Grappling with the impacts of societal issues such as racial equality and economic disenfranchisement is increasingly the domain of educational institutions.

In the future, colleges and universities will look beyond career readiness into the ways in which they encourage digital citizenship, foster emotional intelligence, and build community leadership.

The role of university branding in the future of education

University branding can play a role not only in addressing today’s college enrollment decline but also in preparing institutions to meet the future of higher education head-on. But building a stronger brand is about more than a recognizable logo. It’s about producing consistent, high-quality content across all your marketing channels.

Here are a few tips to help your school transform its higher education marketing and embrace a bigger, brighter and more inclusive future for both students and educators.

  • Think about tone

Take a close look at your messaging on social media, blogs, brochures and emails. What do the visual aspects of that content say about your college? Think not just about what you’re saying but how you’re saying it. If the messaging isn’t consistent, it may be time to invest in a brand templating platform like Lucidpress.

  • Put it all in one place

Consistent, high-quality branded assets are fantastic tools as long as your marketing teams know where to find them. Centralize your resources and make sure everyone who engages with prospective students and all your stakeholders have access to up-to-date marketing materials.

  • Optimize campaigns

Launching successful marketing campaigns requires planning to ensure consistent messaging across all your channels. You should also evaluate past campaigns to glean insights about how to improve and hone your content to encourage engagement. Think carefully about your audience and how to reach them where they spend most of their time.


The future of higher education may seem like uncharted territory at the moment, but it’s an exciting time full of possibilities for students, educators and administrators alike. Embracing technology and finding ways to expand access and affordability to education will help guide institutions through these challenging times and help create opportunities for us all.

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Kaz Weida

Kaz Weida is a freelance journalist and photographer who is passionate about crafting content that helps entrepreneurs and businesses of all sizes tackle challenges. When not at her keyboard, Kaz can be found in the kitchen indulging in a little craft cocktail inspiration.

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