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4 Higher Ed Paradigm Shifts (and What It Takes to Deal with Them)

A persistent highlight of the annual Summer Seminar is the high level of interactivity generated by dynamic thought leaders presenting market intelligence to an equally talented audience of senior leaders at private colleges and universities, who thoroughly enjoy asking relevant questions that help foster even more market-smart insights. This year’s conference, which included interactive exercises, was no exception. For example, the word cloud below highlights the one-word responses that higher education enrollment managers, marketers, and other senior executives thought best describe the current state of their job as they reflected on today’s marketplace.

These sentiments indicate the consternation that seems so prevalent across the higher education industry, and particularly among private, independent institutions. The Summer Seminar presenters proceeded to point out why “business as usual” will not suffice in dealing with marketplace changes like the following:

1) Demographic projections show enrollment tanking around 2025.

Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, shared findings from his probability-weighted demand forecasts that look beyond migration patterns and fertility rates to also factor in race/ethnicity, parental education, and family income when projecting future college enrollments. One type of student can be 10 times more likely to attend a four-year college than another type of student. So given which demographic segments will grow where (Hispanics in the South, for example, as Mark Hugo Lopez of Pew Research Center reported), regional colleges and universities are on track to experience drastic enrollment declines between 2025 and 2030. “This is such a paradigm shift that to overcome it you can’t simply do what you’ve been doing, just better,” said Grawe.

2) Colleges no longer get the benefit of the doubt. 

Robert Kelchen, author of Higher Education Accountability, reviewed ways that federal and state governments, accreditors, internal constituents, and the private sector are serving as watchdogs and noted that “the era of trusting colleges to do the right thing is over, regardless of who has political power.” He added that in today’s marketplace “regular substantive interaction is necessary—even online” because colleges must demonstrate their value in order to maintain support. NAICU’s government relations liaison Sarah Flanagan also suggested that colleges “highlight the positives”—such as their economic contributions, innovations, and student success metrics—to their legislators.

3) Micro-moments matter. 

As Marketoonist (marketer/cartoonist) Tom Fishburne pointed out, “People’s immediate need trumps brand loyalty,” so delivering optimal experiences is key. He added, “Playing it safe today is risky. It is important to navigate the precipices of the marketplace with style and substance.” Liz Gross, author of The Higher Ed Social Listening Handbook, further noted that “reputations can be made and destroyed overnight” thanks to the power of the crowd in online social media. She advised using social listening tools not just as a digital strategy, but also for the purpose of everything from crisis management to influencer marketing to brand development. She noted that “real-time understanding” is a necessity in today’s dynamic marketplace.

4) Students are customers buying post-graduation results.

Brandon Busteed discussed Gallup’s finding that the biggest driver of whether a graduate gives their college high marks for quality and worth is if their courses turned out to be relevant to their job and life. College regrets were most frequently about the cost of the education (and not learning ideal job-related skills). He recommended that colleges “remove friction between the student and what they seek to do,” noting that the published price tag is often a “brick wall” and not an “open tent” for fostering conversations with prospects and families. He strongly encouraged everyone to focus on the stUX (student user experience) to help address the “pinch points” that are getting in the way of achieving student satisfaction. Former Bowdoin College career planning director Timothy Diehl, who is now principal of NewDiehl Consulting, agreed. He noted that career planning has historically been a stepchild on college and university campuses, but colleges must temper their timidity today and be bold. Many students (and influencer parents) are often asking the basic question, “If I go here, can I get there?” He advised helping students see possibilities by removing roadblocks to their thinking about opportunities like internships. Since career planning represents the bridge to where students want to go, Diehl said, then “we owe students the chance to access these things with no barriers.”

These marketplace shifts require college administrators to alter their normal practices, open their minds, and innovate.

Expenses Exceeding Revenue

Less-wealthy small privates faced the most strain as net tuition revenue per student decreased at about 1/4 of all privates. (Moody’s via IHE)

Practicality Prevails

63% of high school students say their career plans affect their choice of which college to attend, and 81% seek skills training. (College Savings Foundation)

Teens’ Top Online Platforms

Only 51% of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 use Facebook, notably lower than YouTube’s, Instagram’s, or Snapchat’s market shares. (Pew Internet)


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No question, discussing and discerning are frequent patterns of campus and board behavior, and these contemplations should be a catalyst for motivating campus cultures to do something. But often there’s not a lot of will to take a risk that truly differentiates the institution. This hesitance was demonstrated in another interactive exercise that asked Summer Seminar participants to complete the sentence, “I wish my college would ….” The most frequent type of response focused on the need for change—more of it, and faster too.

Actually, the marketplace today is empowering campus communities to become more “edupreneurial” as it forces recognition of the truism that talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words. Now is the time to innovate beyond business as usual.