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Latest Trends Impacting Marketing and Higher Education
from Director of UPCEA's Center for Research and Strategy, Jim Fong

A Look into the Future through the Lens of the Winter Olympics

The Olympics was created to foster global peace through competition. It has, over the years, adapted to changes in societal interest and needs. While the original Olympics was held nearly 3,000 years ago, the modern games are just over a century old. During this relatively short period of time, the games have changed in many ways. The events have changed, as have the venues, media coverage, and amenities that support them. With the Winter Olympics currently in full bloom, gone are the snowshoeing and dog sled races, having been replaced by wizardry and death-defying stunts of snowboarding and aerial events.

Like the Olympics, higher education must also change, more than just moving degrees online. The degree will not go away, but like ice skating, it cannot be the only sport. It can remain the centerpiece or foundation, but needs strength, excitement, and modernization around it. Ice skating at the Winter Games is over a century old and is the longest standing Winter Olympics event. While colleges and universities have a centuries-old legacy in Europe, Harvard and William and Mary were the first in the U.S. followed by Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Brown. One could argue that the degree was the foundation for our economy and a majority of careers in our society. Enthusiasts and scholars of Olympic history might say that the foundation of the Winter Olympics is events such as figure skating, skiing or hockey, but change has been afoot with snowboarding, curling, and aerial events.

The degree must be supported by other forms of education. There are too many societal signs pointing toward change:

  • MOOC enrollment has nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic. In 2021, it reached 220 million learners compared to 120 million in 2019 (Class Central 2021). During the same time, the U.S. saw enrollment declines in most community and state colleges. Historically, when the economy was in a recession, adults returned to college. This did not happen in 2020 or 2021. While many adults were huddled in isolation due to the pandemic, the promise of short-term higher wages made it difficult for many to return to college. The substitute of less expensive or easier to access education that is valued by employers in the form of a badge or certificate was attractive as a potential substitute for a degree.


  • The Winter Olympics also have given us a snapshot of how powerful technology can be in terms of impacting the future of work. We saw a glimpse of synchronized drone technology at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, but the 2021 Beijing Olympics has showcased robotics and automation in full force. To see eye-popping evidence of automation on display, one only has to Google “robotics,” “Winter Olympics” and “meals” and see food service fully automated from the initial order to creation in the kitchen to piping-hot delivery via conveyors and elevators to plexiglass-enclosed personal dining areas often referenced as “bubbles.” With limited human interaction, the dining areas are immediately cleaned and sanitized after the athlete or visitor finishes their meal. The vision of mass automation puts at risk many jobs of the future, as what has been displayed in Beijing has the potential to replace millions employed in the U.S. food and restaurant industry.


  • There also robots reminding visitors to wear a mask. Through various protocols and programming, robots can identify spectators, athletes and others in public areas not wearing masks and inform them that they must do so. This simple function has the potential to replace concierges in the workforce, but also even security or some early-stage law enforcement, such as issuing warnings, traffic violations, security or checkpoint monitoring, and early identification of crime.


The Great Resignation has also shown many shortages that have high automation potential, including retail, trucking and transportation, food processing, and manufacturing. Employers will find non-human solutions as long as they are long-term profitable or have an intangible yet positive benefit.

The Winter Olympics also has given us other glimpses of the future that will impact jobs and have a bearing on the future of education. Beyond drones and food production and delivery to the table, security and smart identification systems have been deployed where athletes, guests, visitors, media and workers are tracked to allow proper access and entry into facilities. While this level of security would challenge the values of many Americans, the need for them at this event has been years in the planning. Physical money was also discouraged in favor of a digital wallet. Smart beds were also furnished for many athletes, as was full coverage 5G, all of which are powered by sustainable energy sources, including hydrogen cell buses.

So, the question remains… Can a U.S. degree support the change that is already upon us as well as what a fast-approaching economy has planned? If higher education doesn’t change by offering more nimble, quality, and attractive options to the degree, such as new or alternative credentials offered online and professionally marketed, then it may find itself far from medal contention in a global economy thriving on technological advancements.  


Jim Fong, UPCEA

Lead consultant Jim Fong, the founding director of UPCEA’s Center for Research and Strategy, has extensive background in marketing at Penn State, as well as experience in private industry. Jim brings a rich understanding of the dynamics driving today’s higher education leaders, providing research-driven strategy and positioning. Jim often presents at UPCEA’s regional and national conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.

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