Current Trends in Higher Education: Three Changes Making a Difference Today

Higher education leaders are facing multiple challenges – and opportunities – in an ever-evolving professional discipline. Changes to how students learn, what they expect, and where they come from are three important factors trending today. Understanding what these changes mean to the bigger picture can help provide the groundwork for strategic growth at your institution of higher learning.


As invasive as technology is in our lives as a whole, it is no surprise that the field of higher education is responding with innovations of its own. Online learning, while not a new trend, continues to advance in sophistication and opportunity, with over 70 percent of institutions offering some form of distance learning (Hanover Research, “2016 Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Enrollment, and Technology”).

Online education technologies – such as collaborative multimedia instruction – are now common in the traditional classroom as well. Today’s students expect to be immersed and engaged in their academic experience, with technology serving as a vehicle for personalized exploration and discovery. From guest lectures via Skype to interactive smart boards to “ramification” of learning challenges, the educational landscape is more technology dependent than ever before.


A lot has been made of the crushing levels of student debt, which was estimated at more than $1.2 trillion in 2015 according to CNBC. Meanwhile, employment rates for college graduates continue to stagnate. Understandably, the new watchword for students seeking to pursue higher education is “return on investment.” This trend puts the onus on colleges and universities to present a credible value proposition built on key differentiators.

Educational marketing has surged in response to increased competition for students with strong demands from what they expect from a college degree. While the best-known (and most costly) academic institutions can still rest on their laurels, hundreds of others must elevate their brand and enhance how they deliver their messages of success. This includes sharing graduation rates, innovative program news, research studies, profiles of accomplished faculty and alumni, and the intrinsic values of history, tradition and fellowship.


Studies by the Boston Consulting Group show significant increases in the number of international students at American colleges and universities. The increase is most pronounced at elite, top-tier schools. However, many public universities are making up for cuts in state funding by recruiting from the global student population. Schools with online programs are also depending on foreign enrollments as a way to increase revenues. This is particularly true among adult learners who want 24/7 access unrestricted by time zones and geographic borders.

Trend-setting colleges are actually expanding with physical locations overseas, in places like China and Qatar, where they can better compete on the international level. Globalization – whether physical, virtual or both – represents a major change for higher education leaders who must rethink their strategies to better attract a wider diversity of students, in the United States and abroad.

Savvy higher education leaders with a finger on the pulse of the industry have seen these developments emerge over time. Now that these trends are in full motion, the question is “what’s next?” For those emerging leaders working toward a Doctor of Education, this question will be at the forefront of learning and practice in the years to come.


CNBC – The high economic and social costs of student loan debt

BCG – Five Trends to Watch in Higher Education

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