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InsideTrack’s yearly predictions for where higher ed is headed

Time to break out the tea leaves, Ouija board and crystal ball as we look ahead to the year 2023 in higher education. With the pandemic in the rearview mirror and the demographic cliff looming on the horizon, what are the issues, topics and trends that will be making news — and making waves — in the year ahead?

Trend 1: Student well-being is front and center

Statistics from a 2022 Healthy Minds study show that students’ mental health has steadily declined over the last decade. During the 2020-2021 school year, more than 60 percent of students met the criteria for one or more mental health problems, such as major depression and anxiety disorder — an increase of 50 percent from 2013. What’s more, students of color are the least likely to access treatment. And suicide is now the second most common reason for death among college students. These statistics — and the personal anguish they represent — are staggering and alarming. Clearly, more support is needed.

As a student support professional, the first thing you can do is also the simplest: listen. Listen to your students. Reach out to your students to find out what their needs are. One group of schools sent out a student survey asking about support gaps. Another school created a QR code that let students answer a short set of questions and be connected to a school counselor. Students say that not only do they not have survey fatigue, but they want to be heard and make their views known. Yet too often, they feel their feedback falls on deaf ears. Schools need to show that they understand the struggles students are facing and create actionable plans to improve the student experience, citing inclusivity and belonging as key factors to their well-being.

Pro-Tip: When reaching out to students, especially in matters related to their well-being, make sure your communication is clear, consistent and caring — not formal or corporate.

Trend 2:  Shifting campus demographics signal the need to better accommodate non-traditional students

Remember a time not so long ago when the only path to college was to graduate from high school and move directly into higher ed at age 18? The times, they are a changin’. And with that change comes the need to better support non-traditional students. But what does non-traditional mean in 2023? And does this label need a reboot?

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 40 percent of all students attending college today are over the age of 25. Seventy percent of them work. Many of them attend school part-time, with that segment growing faster than that of full-time students. Graduate-level enrollment is outpacing undergraduate enrollment. And by the end of this year, high school graduates who list their ethnicity as Caucasian/white will be in the minority for the first time ever. Conversely, the numbers of students of color, low-income students, LQBTQ+ students, student parents, and first-generation students are all increasing. The way these students learn is also changing dramatically. On-campus courses have been joined by online classes, hybrid classes, short-term credentials, microcredentials and certificate programs.

As a result, it’s important to adjust your approach to support and accommodate the needs of all learners. Most colleges and universities focus on whether or not incoming students are “college-ready.” It’s time to flip the script and work toward building a mindset and a student support system that is “student-ready” — a subtle difference, but one that can make a huge difference to learners who have historically been underrepresented and underserved. It’s also important to use disaggregated data and holistic supports to help address real differences in your student population’s concerns and needs. In the end, the goal is to continually work toward closing equity gaps so all students can succeed.

Trend 3: Career is king

If 2023 could be labeled “the year of” anything in higher ed, it would likely be “career.” Faced with expensive college price tags, the prospect of hefty student loans and a future of uncertainty in the job market, students today want to know — upfront — that the degree they’re investing in will pay off in the end — with a well-paying job in their field of study. Given that the investment in college is so big (in terms of time, energy and money), students are expecting all this hard work to translate into career readiness or advancement.

To this end, more and more students are selecting schools based on practicality over prestige. Which schools have the best programs for the career category that student is interested in? Which schools offer the best return on investment? And which schools can connect their students with internships, apprenticeships and other on-the-job, real-world training that put classroom coursework and theory into practice? Schools need to be able to emphatically say “we do!” to all of the above. For students considering college, “begin with the end in mind” is the pathway to success.

Pro-Tip: Career prep isn’t something you start the semester before a senior in college graduates. It needs to be baked in and made part of every student support outreach from before enrollment through graduation and beyond.

Trend 4:  Re-enrollment moves to the head of the class

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than 39 million Americans have some college, but no credential or degree. That means that nearly 20 percent of all American adults 18+ have enrolled in college, paid for credits, put in the work and started their educational journey, but for whatever reason, they stopped out and didn’t finish — a trend that has been rising for more than a decade. In a report from Sallie Mae and Ipsos, 14 percent of the students who stopped out did so because of mental health issues. Others cited reasons ranging from finances, family obligations, and work to issues with belonging and fitting in on their campus.

In the past, colleges often ignored these disengaged students, believing they weren’t cut out to make it at their institution or deeming that bringing them back would be too much work. This left a huge, untapped enrollment pool of these some college/no degree students.

Thankfully, this is changing and schools are investing in bringing stopped-out students back, while states are realizing the role re-enrollment can play in helping them reach their attainment goals. Given the looming demographic cliff brought on by years of reduced birth rates — and a projected 20 percent drop in prospective college students that will last for more than a decade — this is a shift that can help colleges and universities keep their classes filled and their communities upskilling. The challenge is how to get them to want to come back. Having left school before — often for negative reasons — bringing stopouts back is no easy task.

Helping stopped-out learners starts with reconnecting them to their reasons for wanting to attend school in the first place. Often, it’s to change their trajectory — for themselves or their family — by earning their degree or certification to ultimately raise their standard of living. They see education as the path to a better life. Outreach and extra support are integral to helping these students navigate back to school and overcome their original barriers. In some cases, institutions can consider waiving fees or offering credit for work experience as a way to overcome financial aid holds and academic issues to help ease the transition back to school.

But even more hinges on successfully re-enrolling stopped-out learners. Statistically, people who leave college before finishing earn less than those who complete their bachelor’s degree. They’re more likely to face unemployment. And they’re roughly three times more likely to default on their student loans — loans which continue on even though they stopped out. The big-picture economic ramifications are immense as well, as college-educated workers are now in high demand to fill critical skilled jobs. In response, several states have set re-enrollment attainment goals as a way to meet growing workforce needs and fuel both personal and economic growth. Clearly, re-enrollment is an issue whose time has come.

Trend 5:  Working to close the skills gap

A record-breaking number of workers have voluntarily quit their jobs since the Great Resignation began in 2021. Employers now face not only the challenge of offering better opportunities than their competitors, but with remote work becoming more of a norm, they’re now competing with businesses from across the country for a smaller candidate pool. In short, there are far more job openings than there are people to fill them. And of the people who might fill them, most don’t have the required skill set for the job at hand.

The challenge, then, becomes one of teaching the skills that remain relevant in a rapidly changing work world. For many, that still means earning a two- or four-year degree. But for millions of others, it means credentials, certificates and microcredentials as a way to upskill, re-skill and attain the necessary skills required for specific jobs in specific fields — advancing their careers in the process.Community colleges, especially, are a vital path to economic mobility for millions of Americans. They’re also economic powerhouses for their local, state and regional economies, serving as an educational conduit between worker and employer. So how can they help to close the skills gap?

One approach is providing a way to maximize credit for prior learning (CPL) — also known as prior learning assessment (PLA) — as a way to enroll, retain and graduate community college students. Another is leaning into work-based learning — everything from apprenticeship programs and bootcamps to programs that lead to third-party credentials in high-demand areas and laddering short programs to help learners advance. Colleges are also partnering with key employers in their area to provide specific in-demand skills — such as health care and manufacturing.

And states are beginning to embrace career and technical education (CTE) that starts in high school and goes through community college. According to the Association for Career & Technical Education (ACTE), 77 percent of employers from in-demand industries hired an employee because of the knowledge and skills they had gained from their CTE experience. What’s more, individuals with associate degrees in CTE fields can earn up to $2.8 million in earnings over their lifetime — the same amount as people with a bachelor’s degree. With an estimated shortage of 6.5 million skilled workers in key industries over the next decade, closing the skills gap has never been more important.

Trend 6:  Revisiting an old friend- soft skills

It’s no surprise that employers today are looking for candidates with the technical skills for the job at hand. But they’re also looking for people who possess noncognitive skills, also known as soft skills — attributes such as critical thinking, problem solving, work ethic, growth mindset, positive attitude, adaptability, clear communication, team orientation, time management, active listening, and leadership.

Soft skills are the skills that enable someone to fit in at their workplace and work well with others. These skills are so important that they’re often the reason an employee is let go (if their soft skills aren’t up to par) or promoted. A report from America Succeeds in partnership with Emsi Burning Glass (now Lightcast) shows that seven of the top 10 most requested skills in job postings are, you guessed it, soft skills.

What employers value most are the soft skills a prospective employee brings to the table. Is the candidate reliable? Can they demonstrate examples of analytical thinking? Are they a good listener... a strong communicator... an adaptable team builder? These are the skills employers seek — and they’re skills that can translate to any job in any field, regardless of major.

At a time when automation and other factors are sending increasing numbers of workers back into the job hunt, soft skills provide a boost not only when it comes to hiring, but for career development and satisfaction as well. And for the employer looking to gain a competitive edge when selecting new members to their team, it’s the soft skills that are proving to be most telling of future success.

Pro–Tip: InsideTrack coaching leans heavily into soft skills. The key elements of our core methodology — knowledge, skills and beliefs — are designed to strengthen and enhance each student’s soft skills, giving them the tools they need to navigate academic and career situations. Reach out to us to learn more.

Trend 7:  Demonstrate measurable DEI results

The demographic makeup of college and university students in 2023 is more diverse than ever before. Because of this, it’s imperative for schools to deepen their understanding of intersecting identities and lived experiences of their students and staff members, as well as recognize systemic inequalities that may be harmful to the people they’re aiming to serve. Everyone from top administrators to student-facing support staff needs to work together to continually improve diversity and create a sense of belonging on campus where everyone feels at home and free to be their true selves. This means creating safe and nurturing spaces for learning for students who are historically underrepresented and underserved.

While these are important and necessary first steps, the commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion needs to go beyond value statements and talking points. In order for DEI to truly be woven into the fabric of your institution, you need to be able to measure and demonstrate tangible results toward pre-determined DEI goals — such as working to identify, attract, retain and graduate a diverse student body, and advancing a climate that fosters inclusion. From there, you need to be able to examine the data and develop meaningful ways to measure progress — such as demographic metrics, tracking disaggregated demographic data, and surveying students and staff to gauge their feelings and perceptions on the DEI climate at your school.

Talking the DEI talk is one thing. But being able to measurably demonstrate that you’re walking the walk is crucial in order to understand and address discrimination and inequity — for students, staff and faculty.

Trend 8:  The politics of student loan forgiveness

Few recent topics in higher ed have drawn more attention — and more controversy — than the Biden Administration’s plan for student loan forgiveness. Some feel it goes too far. Others feel it doesn’t go far enough. But here’s where we’re at... and where things are headed.

This past August, the Biden Administration announced a new one-time student loan forgiveness plan, under which more than 40 million borrowers would be eligible to cancel up to $20,000 of federal student loan debt, delivering on President Biden’s promise to cancel $10,000 in student debt for low and middle-income borrowers. The program, however, was put on pause in mid-November when the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals granted an injunction blocking the forgiveness program from being put into action. This prompted the administration to request Supreme Court intervention.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments on the case in February 2023, with a decision following later in the year. As a result, the Biden Administration has further extended its student loan payment pause until June, or until the Supreme Court reaches a decision after hearing oral arguments. That pause, which had been set to end on January 1, 2023, will now last until June 30.

As of late November, nearly 26 million borrowers applied for the new relief program, and a recent estimate from the Biden Administration shows that 16 million borrowers have been approved for the program. In November, the Administration sent its first wave of emails letting borrowers know that they were eligible for the program. But in December, a correctional email explained that for some of these borrowers, the first email was incorrect and they hadn’t yet been approved for the loan forgiveness program — leaving millions of borrowers in a state of confusion about where their applications stand.

Equity comes into play here too, as many economists note that higher education debt forgiveness disproportionally benefits middle- to upper-class college graduates. An analysis by the Brookings Institution found that households in the nation’s top 40 percent of earners owe nearly 60 percent of all education debt. That said, an economic paper published by the Roosevelt Institute shows that the total percentage of Black households that would benefit would be greater than white households as the relative gains for the net worth in those households are far larger. The research also showed that the greatest marginal gains come from canceling the smallest debts — wiping out $20,000, for example, would end student debt for half of all households with loans. And the Department of Education has warned of a “historically large increase” in loan defaults without debt forgiveness. Clearly, the ramifications of any student loan forgiveness are huge.

Trend 9:  Big upheavals in college rankings

For years, prospective students and their parents have dug through college rankings with a fine-toothed comb, looking to see where the schools they’re considering fall on the list. These “exclusive” college and university rankings from US News & World Report, The Princeton Review and Forbes Magazine, among others, have become a stalwart of college recruiting and a source of pride for both prospective students and alums. After all, who doesn’t want to say they go to one of the top colleges in the country?

Yet for some time now, there’s been behind-the-scenes talk about the accuracy and relevance of these lists — bringing up issues of exclusivity, fairness and the lack of tying the rankings to how well the college delivers student outcomes. But it looks like things are rapidly changing, on multiple fronts.

In a recent essay in the New York Times, Colin Driver, former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a former president of Reed College, talks about how many programs — including top-tier law schools at Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, Columbia, Stanford and Michigan — have announced that they will no longer participate in the yearly U.S. News & World Report rankings, with other schools likely to follow.

What’s more, new ranking systems from venture philanthropy organization New Profit and national think tank Third Way focus on social mobility. In the case of Third Way, for example, they define value based on how well schools serve their low-income students, in addition to the proportion of low- and moderate-income students a school serves. Their Economic Mobility Index groups schools into one of five tiers based on how much economic mobility they provide their graduates.

And the American Council on Education is working with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching on the next version of the Carnegie Classifications for Institutions of Higher Education. These revised classifications, launching this year, aim to better reflect how colleges and universities improve their students’ social and economic mobility. This new version will also factor in how effective institutions are at serving diverse, inclusive student populations.

Much as the student demographics at college campuses and online continue to evolve, it appears that change is also on the horizon for methods used to track how well institutions are doing at serving, supporting and preparing these students for their future careers.

Trend 10:  Student support staff hit the wall

Long before the word “pandemic” became part of the daily vocabulary, student support staff at colleges and universities across the country were overworked and understaffed. With budgets perennially stretched thin, staff members were used to doing more with less — because they care deeply about the students they support. Then came COVID-19, and in addition to their already overbooked work load, they found themselves also responsible for creating a system of remote student support on the fly, literally overnight.

Some people quit for health concerns. Others needed to tend to kids at home or had parents needing assistance. Those who remained somehow picked up the slack and carried on. But now, nearly three years later, the burnout has become overwhelming and student support professionals are quitting in droves. And when they leave, it immediately impacts the students they support.

A report by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources asked non-faculty higher ed employees a variety of questions, including likelihood of looking for other employment opportunities in the near future, work performed beyond normal hours and duties, and well-being and satisfaction with the job environment. Data from nearly 4,000 workers showed some surprising results. Approximately two-thirds of full-time higher ed employees put in more hours each week than what is considered full time — with 10 percent of those employees working 16 hours or more of additional hours each week. On the flip side, 62.2 percent are satisfied with their jobs, likely due to the meaningful nature of their work. Areas where staff feel dissatisfied at work include pay, opportunities for advancement and career development, and being recognized for their contributions.

One bright spot in the report is that despite feeling overworked and underpaid, the majority of student support staff who say they are “somewhat to very likely to look for a new job” (57.2 percent) enjoy working in higher ed and remain open to job opportunities in that field. This means efforts to retain these important employees could yield positive results — creating long-term stability and continuity in your student support efforts.

Pro–Tip: If you’re one of the many feeling overwhelmed and overworked, check out our System of Care video series, created to bring self-care to student supporters.

So there you have it. Our crystal-ball look at the issues, topics, changes and challenges that we predict will make higher ed news in the year ahead. If you want to see how these trends evolve or just keep up with higher ed insights like this on a monthly basis, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.

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