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Five trends that offer opportunities for higher ed

By , - Last modified: March 7, 2019 at 3:24 PM

Higher education institutions face many pressures in 2019: historically low state financing, increased competition over diminishing sources of potential students, reduced growth in international student enrollment, and stakeholders ' demands for accountability and proof of return on their investments.

A strategic way to look at these challenges is to view them as opportunities that may inspire research, innovation, new ventures and partnerships. Here are five trends expected to shape 2019.

Increased accountability

Costs associated with a four-year college education continue to rise and there is a strong demand for accountability about the return on that investment. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities recently stated that large research institutions are taking on responsibility for workforce development and fostering entrepreneurship. Community colleges and technical schools already have these as priorities.

Workers today face a lifelong demand for new skills, presenting opportunity for higher education. Colleges and universities can go beyond traditional degree programs and partner with industries to design career-specific programming.

The exponential growth of technology is creating another challenge for today’s workforce: 30 percent of workers over the next decade could be displaced. College graduates need skills related to new technologies and to the demands of future jobs. Traditional academic learning is no longer enough to prepare graduates to secure employment that will provide a positive return on their college investment.

More credentials

Scott Cheney, executive director of Credential Engine, a nonprofit, states that there are roughly 650,000 credentials, including traditional degrees, certificates and other programs, offered in the U.S. However, students do not always know whether their prospective employers will accept a given credential or which programs lead to better outcomes.

This trend creates an opportunity for colleges to work with outside partners to design new programs that address employers' needs. For example, Northeastern University offers credit for in-house digital badges from IBM. 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 for adult learners become more important because the benchmark credentials they gain will help with job retention and the value of their investment in a degree.

New business models

The for-profit sector has big challenges. Education Corp. of America, a for-profit operator, closed abruptly, leaving 20,000 students scrambling to find transfer options or discharge debt. Overall, poor student outcomes have led to negative publicity about for-profit higher education and prospective students now are more skeptical about the sector.

Education Dive reported that about a dozen for-profits in recent years have changed or are in the process of changing their status to become nonprofit colleges. Others, such as the parent companies of Strayer University and Capella University, have merged. Kaplan, meanwhile, sold itself in a $1 acquisition to Purdue University. Still others are transitioning into online education.

Shorter tenure at the top

College presidents are spending less time in office, in part because of issues such as: shrinking state funds, campus protests, free speech battles, fundraising imperatives and sexual misconduct scandals.

Their average tenure dropped from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016, according to data from a recent study by the American Council on Education. At the same time, involuntary presidential exits have been increasing more quickly than voluntary ones, according to research from Southern Methodist University and cited by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The changing nature of the position is presenting an opportunity to draw college presidents from nontraditional paths. A Virginia Commonwealth University survey found that 40.5 percent of college presidents never held a tenure-track position in higher education, up from 33 percent in a previous study. And ACE found 15 percent of college presidents in 2016 came from outside higher education altogether.

More ambitious fundraising

Colleges are turning more often to private donors because of declining state funding and market limits on tuition hikes. Last year, private colleges wrapped up record-breaking campaigns. The Chronicle of Higher Education lists 32 private gifts of $50 million or more announced from July 2017 to June 2018.

Some donations can be used at a university's discretion. However, there are more opportunities now for donations to be given as part of an agreed-upon plan, with some conditions attached.

Higher education leaders will be successful by reviewing these trends and then developing an action plan to leverage obstacles into opportunities and problems into possibilities in 2019.

Glenn Ebersole, is a professional engineer and business development manager at CVM Professional and CVMNEXT Construction in King of Prussia. He can be reached at gebersole@cvmnext.com or 610-964-2800, ext. 155.

Editor's note: This article has been modified from its original version to correct the spelling of Scott Cheney.

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