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Higher Education
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InsideTrack’s yearly predictions for where higher ed is headed 

Spin the wheel, pick a number and drop the pachinko balls, it’s time to take a look at the trends on tap for higher education in 2024. With institutions across the country facing waves of change as they strive to best support their students, what are the issues, topics and trends that will be making headlines and rocking the boat throughout the year ahead? 

Trend 1.
Linking education to career paths

More than ever, students (and their families) want to know that the high cost of a college education is worth it, with the guarantee of an in-demand career following close behind graduation day. 

In order for students to be better prepared to enter the job market and hit the ground running in their chosen career, it’s crucial to make sure the curriculum in courses related to their field of study teaches both the broad and specific skills they’ll need in that field. As always, more education leads to better prospects for earnings and employment. Yet for many businesses, the feeling is that too often, degrees are mostly rewards for dollars spent and time put in at college. 

Companies need employees who are skilled, knowledgeable and ready to work, ensuring crucial positions are filled and the nation has a high-quality workforce. A report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce notes that despite the upheaval in the job market since 2020, including the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression (caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) followed by the quickest recovery in history, one workforce trend has remained constant: the increasing need for workers to have higher levels of education in order to succeed in an ever-evolving modern economy. 

Another way of connecting education and career that’s seeing a resurgence is in the area of internships and apprenticeships and the importance of helping individuals build social capital. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of apprentices in both the public and private sectors rose 64 percent between 2012 and 2021 — with 27,385 registered active apprenticeship programs across the nation in 2021. After a downturn during the pandemic, internships are also flourishing as a way to provide real-world, on-the-job training in key fields to college students as part of their curriculum.

And finally, schools are beginning to develop ways of measuring the success rate for graduates of different programs as they enter the workforce. Much like how law schools post their bar passage rate — their equivalent of successful student outcome after three years of post-graduate schooling — colleges and universities are attempting to do the same through statistics showing the percentage of graduates in a given field who work in that field within a designated time frame from graduation.

Adding InsideTrack coaching at every step along your support program can help boost completion rates and prepare learners with the skills they need to thrive in their career. Learn more

Trend 2.
Making sense of the AI explosion

By now it’s clear that the transformative power of AI has come to college campuses. Everyone agrees the technology is powerful, but no one agrees on much else… yet. A recent survey by BestColleges revealed that 56% of college students have used artificial intelligence technology to complete assignments. Concerns over this rapidly growing technology are many: plagiarism, inaccurate information, cheating on exams, and students not learning how to write their own papers or do their own work. But the exploding popularity of AI makes it impossible for colleges and universities to ignore. As a result, most schools are developing campus-wide AI strategies — both for students and for faculty. 

Chapman University, for example, has pulled together a best practices sheet using information provided from schools at the forefront of AI usage (Harvard, Stanford, UCLA and Arizona State among them), with official AI policies, as well as guidance for instructors and guidance for students. According to a report from Hanover Research and Inside Higher Ed, the biggest AI issue for many schools centers around the reliability and ethical implications of AI in an educational setting as generative AI systems like ChatGPT can lack context and accuracy. The study cites “establishing clear guidelines” as a crucial step toward harnessing the power of this burgeoning technology, and cautions that rather than implementing bans, institutions should offer guidelines and training to allow faculty to determine whether and how they integrate AI into their classrooms and coursework.

Highlighting the positive, the study lists 10 AI benefits in higher education — benefits that can encourage deeper understanding of the material over rote memorization, foster critical thinking and enhance problem-solving skills. Potential benefits include:

  • Personalized learning
  • Interactive learning
  • Feedback and assessment
  • Educational accessibility
  • Academic guidance
  • Academic integrity
  • Efficient study tools
  • Real-time query resolution
  • Preparation for future careers
  • Data-driven insights

The flip side of the coin is that there are, of course, concerns — including the opportunity for misuse in a variety of scenarios. While AI does indeed hold promise for enhancing learning experiences, it’s imperative to address the concerns. The Hanover/Inside Higher Ed study cites six key areas of potential challenges and inherent risks. This includes:

  • Lack of transparency
  • Accuracy
  • Bias
  • Intellectual property and copyright 
  • Cybersecurity and fraud
  • Sustainability

So where does this leave us? Now that the initial dystopian brouhaha is receding, many positive uses for the technology are coming to light. Forbes, for example, says that when it comes to teaching new and complex topics, AI offers “the ability to act like an infinitely patient grandmother, never rushing or giving up and going on to the next thing.” Institutions are noting that AI can be used as a powerful classroom aid to make lessons more interactive. And faculty members say the technology can help generate personalized lesson plans and save time on administrative tasks. And this is only the beginning…

Trend 3.
Prioritizing mental health on campus

Think the mental health crisis among college students is easing now that the height of the pandemic is over? Think again. Rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation on college campuses have never been higher. According to NEA Today, the majority of college students meet the criteria for at least one mental health problem. And while the rates of mental health problems are the same among students of all races, students of color are less likely to get treatment. 

In a 2023 study from Healthy Minds that surveyed more than 90,000 students across 133 U.S. campuses, 44 percent of students reported symptoms of depression, 37 percent said they experienced anxiety, and 15 percent said they were considering suicide — the highest number in the 15-year history of the survey. 

Students today are taking on more responsibility than ever before. But for many, the stress level has become overwhelming. In addition to the lectures, coursework and study time required by school, students are often also working (full- or part-time), taking care of children, providing caregiving for parents, and dealing with a variety of other commitments. They are spread thin — and it’s increasingly taking a toll on their mental health.

To add to the problem, counseling centers are overwhelmed, with students often waiting weeks or even months to get an appointment. What’s more, a shortage of mental health professionals, the cost of paying for services and the perceived stigma associated with seeking help for mental health are all barriers that are heightened with an influx of students seeking support. 

Brett R. Harris, PhD at the University of Albany, and her colleagues developed a set of recommendations on ways to increase college student access to and use of mental health services. This includes:

  • Increasing the conversation around mental health 
  • Making mental health promotion and suicide prevention a campus-wide effort
  • Involving students, faculty and staff in the development and implementation of mental health campaigns, services, resources and supports
  • Integrating training into academics and student life
  • Making information about services and supports readily available and well communicated
  • Assessing the needs of all students at the beginning of the semester via online surveys
  • Collaborating with outside organizations to help expand upon limited resources

With budgets flat (or shrinking) and demand for services growing exponentially, colleges and universities across the country are training faculty, staff and peer leaders to help bridge the gap. A recent article in Time Magazine explores how colleges are getting creative to provide increased mental health services to their students.

All InsideTrack success coaching programs include an escalation option that connects learners in crisis situations beyond the classroom to our dedicated Crisis Support Services team. Using a specially developed crisis intervention model, these highly trained specialists help learners deal with everything from food and housing insecurity to domestic violence, health challenges and suicidal ideation. Learn more

Trend 4.
Getting creative to support equity

With the Supreme Court striking down affirmative action last year, institutions nationwide are rethinking and reimagining their approach to equity and their ability to foster a diverse student body. As spring acceptance letters go out to the first class recruited in the post-affirmative action age, what are the implications? And what are schools doing to ensure they create equal opportunities for all students? At InsideTrack, our mission is centered on equity, transforming lives and organizations while creating social change. To that end, we are actively following the innovative and creative ways schools are continuing to make diversity a key component in their recruitment efforts.

The nonprofit Urban Institute explores the future of college admissions without affirmative action.  Here are a few alternatives schools are already enacting:

  • Using class-based admissions. This method gives greater weight to applicants from less affluent socioeconomic backgrounds — those who have not had the same resources and educational opportunities as wealthier students.
  • Implementing targeted recruitment. Providing increased recruitment efforts — often coupled with financial aid — encourages students of color with similar qualifications as their white counterparts to apply at more selective schools.
  • Pressure on legacy admissions. Many highly selective schools admit more legacy students than Black and Latinx applicants combined. A study from Opportunity Insights found that legacy applicants from wealthy families were five times more likely than other students to gain admission to an Ivy League or Ivy-caliber school. Legacy applicants from less prosperous families were three times as likely to be admitted. Ending legacy admissions could help level the playing field.
  • Continuing test-free and test-optional admission policies. It’s a well-established fact that standardized tests for college admissions benefit wealthy white students the most. Removing this barrier by eliminating tests or making them optional could help schools get more students of color to apply and gain admittance.

One thing to note is that we expect that DEI programs and policies will continue to be politicized and will likely intensify during the 2024 election in November.

Trend 5.
Questioning the ROI of a four-year degree

Statistics from the Education Data Initiative show that the average cost of college in the United States is $36,436 per year— a cost that has more than doubled in the 21st century. With college costs continuing to rise, people are questioning whether the cost of a four-year degree is still worth it. Many in the public feel that higher education is struggling to meet the changing needs of individuals or the nation as a whole. In a time characterized by rapidly changing technology, more skills-based hiring and rising costs, how will higher ed leaders adapt? We believe that champions across higher education will continue to address this core challenge.

Increasingly, when talk turns to college tuition, the focus is on the return on investment (ROI) — an issue that’s only growing as students fear attending school will leave them saddled with debt for years to come. Highlights from a 2023 Wall Street Journal-National Opinion Research Center poll show that roughly 56 percent of respondents said college graduates leave school without necessary job skills burdened by high amounts of debt — a number representing a new low in higher education confidence. The research also found that the age group with the greatest skepticism for college degrees comes from the youngest age bracket, adults ages 18 to 34. The public perception is that while job needs have changed dramatically and continue to rapidly evolve, higher ed is slow to catch up to this trend and needs to shift coursework, majors and mindset in order to honestly be able to emphasize (and show) the value of a four-year degree. 

Opinions are one thing. But what do the numbers actually say? According to a report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a college degree still provides value for about 93 percent of students who graduate. Their analysis shows that for the majority of students — especially those attending a public college or university — earning a college degree puts them in a better financial situation than their peers who did not attend college. The report goes on to say that approximately 2,400 schools, responsible for enrollment of 18 million undergrads nationwide, reach a minimum level of value that makes the cost of college worth the investment. 

Going one step further, the Postsecondary Value Commission uses public data to estimate the number of colleges that provide a minimum economic return. The goal of this diverse group of college leaders, policymakers, researchers, advocates and students is to answer the question, “What is college worth?” Data from the University of Texas System shows that 15 years after graduation, most students who earn degrees achieve economic mobility and median earnings in their field of study, while those who didn’t attend college or complete their degree struggle to do so. 

Beyond the numbers, the Postsecondary Value Commission also provides a list of actionable steps for institutions, as well as for state and federal policymakers and for students and families. Colleges and universities, for example, can create clearer academic pathways and credit transfer policies. They can also better align institutional aid resources to focus on students with the greatest financial need. Students and families, on the other hand, can ask questions about average completion rate and time-to-credential, average expected earnings, and debt-to-earnings ratio for graduates.

Trend 6.
Paving the path to success for adult learners

Numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show that adults over the age of 25 represent roughly 35 percent of higher education enrollment — and those nearly six-and-a-half million learners have different needs than their straight-out-of-high-school traditional student counterparts. Adult learners are often more likely to pursue their education online. They’re more likely to be caring for children. And they seek out schools that offer flexible class times to make programs more accessible. Yet it’s become increasingly clear that existing higher ed structures and systems are just not well-suited to properly serving adult learners — something that’s now beginning to change.

The Oregon Student Child Care Grant Program helps parents enrolled in college to obtain safe, dependable care. This long-term grant can be used at any nonprofit public or private college or university in the state. Through this opportunity, children are well cared for, allowing parents to attend school, complete coursework and have time to study. As long as the student parent completes the necessary credit hours each year and maintains satisfactory academic progress as defined by the school, the grant is good for up to six years or until the student graduates, whichever comes first.

In North Carolina, the Belk Center for Community College Leadership and Research handbook showcases real-time, on-the-ground information to provide actionable insights on what’s working to bring adult learners back to college to complete their programs. This includes everything from making sure your teams are cross-trained and eager to lean into new methods of support, to practicing over-communication, allowing adult learners to work ahead, and keeping care at the center of the work. Direct coaching, as well as coaching training and development, have played a key role in the ongoing success of this multi-layered initiative.

Efforts like these, and many others, play a critical role in not only helping adult learners achieve their goals, but also in bringing some of the 40 million learners with some college, no credential back to school to complete their programs. Taking a holistic view of the adult learner's needs is a must. 

Large-scale Reconnect to Complete initiatives help states and institutions support learners who have some college, but no credential to return to finish their schooling. Find out how different programs across the country are using coaching to help learners re-enroll and complete. Learn more.

Trend 7.
Putting staff and faculty burnout on the front burner

First identified as an occupational issue in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization finally included “burnout” in its International Classification of Diseases, describing it as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” But what, specifically, are the root causes of burnout? Researchers Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University attribute burnout to one or more of six main causes:

  • Unsustainable workload
  • Perceived lack of control
  • Insufficient rewards for efforts
  • Lack of a supportive community
  • Lack of fairness
  • Mismatched values and skills

For faculty and staff at the nation’s colleges and universities, the burnout is real — and it’s been growing steadily worse. For years, the mantra has been “do more with less” — less time, less funding, less pay. Then came COVID-19 and an unprecedented, highly stressful global pandemic. And while solutions offered often include things like exercise, yoga, stress relief workshops and better sleep habits, these are self-care stopgaps that put the onus of burnout on the faculty and staff, rather than addressing the institutional causes behind the stress. And as burnout among academics has continued to grow unchecked, the reality now is that many in the field are leaving the world of higher education for employment in other sectors. 

In “The Great Resignation Update,” a study from employee well-being organization Limeade, the number one reason job changers left their previous employers was burnout, cited by 40% of survey respondents. "Burnout is especially insidious for employers because it affects your most engaged, highest-performing employees," said Jessi Cast, a researcher with Limeade. "You can't burn out if you don't care in the first place." This rings especially true for college staff and faculty, people who dedicate their careers to serving students for the common good. 

Employee burnout on college campuses needs to be addressed in concrete and meaningful ways. Identifying career paths and providing student support staff with additional training, for example, can lead to greater empowerment as well as retention benefits. A report from the American Council on Education explores a variety of ways that schools can address burnout through cultural change — including building jobs around the strengths of an employee, limiting communication during non-working hours, offering competitive pay (including cost of living adjustments), and reclassifying positions to create a less bottom-heavy organization.

Trend 8.
Understanding financial aid obstacles in the midst of FAFSA overhaul

From years of coaching college students, we know that finances are a major obstacle — and receiving grants, scholarships and student loans for college all starts with submitting the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). The existing form has long been criticized for being so complicated. According to USA Today, the new form, initially scheduled to debut in October of 2023, was overhauled to be much shorter (36 questions vs. 108), to allow users to transfer tax data directly from the IRS, and to use new formulas designed to grant more aid to more students. Unfortunately, not releasing the new form until December 31 has left students and schools in the lurch for upcoming terms.

What’s more, the Washington Post reports that the Education Department failed to update guidelines used to calculate financial aid eligibility. Congress directed the department to raise the amount of income protected across all categories — but that didn’t happen. Though the error has been flagged, the Education Department says it’s too late to make the change for this year. As a result, students will receive less scholarship and grant money for the 2024-2025 school year. Experts say that dependent students and their families will see anywhere from $6,000 to more than $10,000 of additional income factored into their calculations when it shouldn’t be, thus reducing their eligibility for financial aid. 

What’s more, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) projects that approximately 2.1 million students who could be eligible for Pell Grants under the new law may miss out because the inflation adjustment wasn’t activated. This same index is also used to determine eligibility for work-study and subsidized loans, and by states and institutions to award scholarship and grant monies. 

The timing of the delayed roll-out adds stress to already overwhelmed financial aid offices — and confusion to students and their families. In recent years, the FAFSA has been available online on October 1. But bumping that date to December 31 shortens the time that students have to complete the form and meet state priority filing deadlines. 

This greatly compressed time-frame could result in students missing out on much-needed aid. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) cites completing the FAFSA as one of the best predictors of whether a high school senior will go to college — with those who do being 84% more likely to immediately enroll. This same organization warned that the tighter timelines for form completion coupled with less time for schools to process and determine aid amounts “could result in lower FAFSA completion and college enrollment than in previous years.”

Do the learners you support understand the financial aid process? To help you answer this question, we’ve compiled a robust list of 10 things your students should know about financial aid — along with helpful tips on how you can support them. Learn more.

Trend 9.
Making a case for liberal arts

It’s the quintessential higher ed Catch-22: While traditional “liberal arts” majors are on the chopping block at schools across the country, the 2023 Most In-Demand Skills List from LinkedIn shows that the soft skills students gain from liberal arts courses fill more than half the slots on this yearly list. So what does the future hold for liberal arts education? And how does this factor into job and career success post-graduation?

According to an article in the New York Times, economists have argued for years over whether a liberal arts degree is worth the price of a college education. To that end, The Hechinger Report notes that several public institutions — including Iowa State University, North Dakota State University, the University of Alaska and the University of Kansas — have each announced or proposed cuts to liberal arts programs, largely in the humanities. 

Which brings us to Mississippi. Per the Times article, Shad White, the Mississippi state auditor, released a report suggesting that the state should invest more in college degree programs that could “improve the value they provide to both taxpayers and graduates.” White cites placing more focus on engineering and business programs, and less on liberal arts majors like women’s studies and literature. The reasoning? “Those graduates not only earn less, but they are also less likely to stay in Mississippi.” 

This shift has been happening for decades. In the 1970s, for example, education, history and social sciences were the most popular majors. Today, business is the most popular degree at 19 percent of undergraduate degrees, with social sciences now at just eight percent. In the NY Times article, Jeffrey Cohen, the dean of humanities at Arizona State University, says he finds this shift short-sighted, explaining that liberal arts are not only a pathway toward a job, but toward a lifetime of career reinvention. “Our students are living in a time when the career that they’re trained for is not likely to be the career that they’re going to be following 10 years later.” And studying the humanities teaches students how to be nimble.

Ironically, hiring managers and corporate HR staff say that finding prospective employees with the right mix of soft skills — also known as essential or employability skills — is extremely valuable in today’s constantly shifting job market. These essential skills include everything from time management, motivation, communication and leadership skills to reliability, adaptability, resilience, and being able to work on a team. A Dell Technologies report, in partnership with Institute for the Future, asked experts from around the world to weigh in on a variety of education and career topics. Some 56 percent say that schools need to teach how to learn rather than what to learn to better prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet. And that’s precisely what liberal arts classes do.

Trend 10.
Focusing on more meaningful metrics

For years, institutions have used metrics such as enrollment and completion rates to measure success. But what about outcomes that are more meaningful to students? 

  • Did you actually learn from the courses you took? 
  • Did you gain adequate skills? 
  • Did the coursework you completed connect to your future career? 
  • Do you feel prepared for a career in your chosen field?  

An analysis performed by Strada Education Network explores how incorporating alumni perceptions into the mix helps increase the understanding of success beyond the basic measurement of degree completion. Findings from this report represent one of the first times where economic and personal fulfillment outcomes are integrated into the metrics to better express the full benefits of post-secondary education. Among the key findings:

  • Students’ education goals encompass learning, career and personal growth. More than 9 in 10 alumni reported strong learning outcomes.
  • At least three-quarters of alumni experienced one of these three post-graduation outcomes: an earnings benefit, feeling their education was worth the cost, or achieving their goals. Half realized all three outcomes. Yet women, first-generation students and alumni of color were less likely to experience the benefits.
  • Graduates say their professors and courses were very valuable to them, but note that the experiences and support connecting education to career opportunities were somewhat lacking.
  • Alumni who reported quality experiences connecting their education to career preparation as students earned more money and were significantly more likely to agree that their education was worth the cost and helped them achieve their goals.
  • Alumni who believe they developed in-demand professional skills in school are more likely to believe their education helped them achieve their goals.

Even though this is one of the first-of-its-kind in-depth studies, ramifications from the results are already being felt. Policymakers and funders, for example, can invest in systems that more consistently and comprehensively measure graduation outcomes. And college and university leaders can use this as a springboard to measure outcomes beyond completion, tapping into the insights uncovered to guide institutional improvements. 

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 and subscribe to our newsletter, the InsideTrack Advancer.

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