5 Trends Facing Higher Education Leaders: A Brief Look at the Data

A key component of the AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance is to prepare participants to be data-informed leaders. Participants learn about a range of ways in which universities are becoming smarter in using data, ranging from the use of predictive analytics to support student success to understanding external pressures confronting academia. Below is a databased snapshot of five trends higher education leaders will need to address now or in the future.

  1. Looming Demographic Cliff. The traditional pipeline of college students (i.e., high school graduates) will plummet in 2026. No, this is not some sort of crazy prediction. The fact is that the number of people in the United States having babies significantly declined following the great recession of 2008. Fast forward 18 years and that drop in the birth rate results in a drop in the number of students graduating high school. Many parts of the Northeast and Midwest already are experiencing a shrinking educational pipeline due to shifting demographics and the pending baby bust will only accelerate the decline.
  2. Increasing Diversity. The higher education student population is more diverse than ever. Using data from the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 19.6 million students enrolled in a degree granting college. Female students comprised 56% of the student population, an increase of 10% from 2006 and students of color represented 45.2% in 2016, up from 29.6% twenty years earlier. Looking forward, while high school graduating classes will likely be shrinking, those coming through the pipeline are predicted to be more diverse.  The decline in the number of White high school students will be offset by “swift growth” in Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander graduates.
  3. Students are Swirling. When one considers the “college experience,” we might often think about a recent high-school graduate pursuing a four-year degree. This might be augmented to think about spending two years at a community college then transferring to a four-year institution. However, recent data shows that students are increasingly mobile, moving (or swirling) among multiple institutions. There were 8 million first-time students starting college in the U.S. in the fall of 2011. Within six years, 38% (more than 1 million of them) continued their studies at a different institution. Students starting at four-year and two-year institutions were almost equally as likely to transfer; however, while half of transfers from two-year institutions went to a four-year institution, 60% of four-year starters who transferred moved to a two-year college.
  4. Declining Numbers of International Students in the U.S. The United States has long been the leading destination for students studying abroad; however, its share of the market has been declining gradually for about twenty years. At the same time, the total number of students studying outside of their home country has more than doubled resulting in net gains in the total number of international students entering the U.S. – now totaling approximately 1.2 million a year. However, the U.S. has now experienced two years of decline in terms of the number of new international students coming to the country, with community colleges among the hardest hit. The reason is a combination of increased competition from other countries, changing global perceptions of the U.S. acceptance of international visitors, and increases in denials of student visas.
  5. Changing Fiscal Realities. Nearly 40 years ago, Howard Bowen used the revenue theory of cost to explain higher education budgeting – colleges and universities will spend every dollar they take in – resulting in ever increasing costs. During the same period of time, the price of tuition began to be seen by the public as an indicator of quality – so raising tuition not only brought in more money it could increase demand. The Great Recession reset fiscal assumptions in the U.S., including for higher education, which many college leaders are still coming to grips with. In the 10 years since the Great Recession, public perceptions about the value of higher education have shifted, in part because of political discourse and in part because of the student debt crisis. States have become more reluctant to provide base-funding for public institutions. Parents and families are focusing on the return on their investment in tuition. Students are increasingly swirling through higher education moving credits among institutions, rather than pursuing their entire degree at one institution. At the same time, elected officials across the country are looking at free-tuition programs, like those already in place in Tennessee and New York.

Are you prepared to lead your institution through these changes?

By Dr. Jason Lane, Interim Dean, School of Education, University at Albany (SUNY); Faculty, AGB Institute for Leadership & Governance

Posted on 09.01.2019