The Impact of the New Adult Learner – Trends in Higher Education in 2023
A decade ago, the buzz phrase was the Internet of Things or IoT. Cell phones had limited power and apps were just starting to bridge the internet with mobile devices. Uber had only recently launched (2010). Online banking was in its early stages of acceptance and electric cars were almost non-existent. Facebook was a third of its size and TikTok hadn’t even been born (it launched in 2017). Colleges in the U.S. enrolled just over 20 million students with about three-quarters being exclusively on-campus. Most recent enrollment data show that number to be closer to 16 million today, many of whom are taking courses in a variety of formats: face-to-face, online and hybrid.1 The world was very different a decade ago.
While we may not necessarily see it at the individual consumer level, there are major signs of a rapidly advancing new economy, one that is becoming increasingly more dependent on automation and technology. This will have a significant impact on society and what we see as today’s daily norms. While our attention is focused on comfortably emerging from a pandemic, major disruptors to the workforce are on the horizon. One such example can be found at the ever-popular Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. While much of the shiny objects at this year’s show centered around robotics, AI and entertainment, the shocker for me was advancements that Caterpillar Corporation had made around farming, mining, and managing the supply chain. Its equipment can operate autonomously or via remote control where progress, location, and diagnostics are tracked remotely. While humans are needed to develop and maintain this technology, fewer individuals are required in what were previously high labor activities (planting, seeding, maintaining, harvesting, delivering, etc.), often with significant health and safety risks.
Technology and automation are increasingly impacting what was a high human-involved workforce. While science and technology sectors are growing, there are signs in some industries that automation is accelerating at a faster rate than that where previously displaced workers can re-enter and contribute. Despite low unemployment rates in the U.S., there are workplace shortages. As can be seen with the Great Resignation of 2020 and 2021, employers are weighing the risks and costs associated with a human workforce against automated replacement. For example, the retention of workers in the retail and food service industry has caused a greater acceleration to more automated processes, evidences by the opening of fully automated McDonald’s restaurants in Texas2 and a greater dependence on kiosks and self-checkouts at Walmart and other retailers. As a result, in the short term, millions of displaced workers will shift to new industries or remain unemployed. For higher education, the dream of a 120-credit degree may be a bridge too far for many given their financial instability and lack of disposable income.
While much of higher education often ignores workers in retail and the food industry as high potential candidates for continuing or traditional education, other industries more connected or dependent on colleges and universities are also likely to suffer in a potential recession. In addition to a lack of front line workers in retail and food, manufacturing may also face similar shortages and robotics will likely gain as a result. Recent U.S. legislation and supply chain fragility have incentivized businesses to manufacture closer to home, shifting away from low-cost overseas manufacturing. However, the net number of new jobs created is difficult to forecast given trade-offs between human capital and labor availability and potential cost efficiencies created through automation. While institutions of higher education are poised to prepare programmers, managers, scientists and technology workers for the future through associate’s, bachelor’s or graduate degrees, are they able to adapt to more immediate short-term needs such as in transportation, customer service, social media, coding and other fields?
With some industries declining and others growing, are colleges and universities preparing for reskilling and transitioning? Demographics and politics indicate an increasing shift from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources. Younger adults are demanding healthier products, thus impacting health and nutrition sectors.3 This has caused disruption in both the alcohol (as young people are consuming less alcohol4) and protein-based food industries. While they have a greater understanding of nutrition and health, they have put additional pressure on the mental health industry, becoming a generation more dependent on professional mental health and counseling services. As a side note, they’ve also disrupted and fueled the “petconomy5,” nearly doubling its size over the past decade.6 While there have been clear and obvious shifts prior to and as a result of the pandemic, higher education seems to have only wiggled or comfortably shifted, as opposed to responding with the same urgency and immediacy as other industries. One could also argue that the higher education industry, like retail and food, is in decline regarding its revenues and staffing. This does not have to continue along this trajectory if higher education adapts at the same rate as other industries in transition. Higher education can reinvent itself and grow, becoming the major player in workforce reskilling, as well as attracting a large segment of the 39 million adults in the U.S. who have college credit but lack a degree (yet still may have college debt).7
It will take time, but higher education will need to reinvent itself. It will need to innovate and establish new norms, otherwise it will experience contraction. I believe that it will reinvent or at least re-engineer itself. In the long-run, higher education will be shaped more by employers, which means working more collaboratively on competencies and content needs, as well as offering more modular and flexible education. Recent studies by UPCEA, in collaboration with Collegis Education (soon to be published) and InsideTrack show a greater expectation of employers at the decision-making table.8 The research also supports a growing acceptance of more modular and flexible educational credentials, such as badges and certificates.
What can be expected for 2023 (and beyond):
- More financial pressures centrally at institutions will fuel more external revenue-generating activities, such as offering more fully online degrees, creation of microcredentials, and professional and continuing education expansion, among others. A recent report by Higher Ed Dive showed a number of institutions merging (Presidio Graduate School with University of Redlands9, Marymount California University with St. Leo University, etc.), as well as some shuttering their doors (Holy Name University, Cazenovia College, Bloomfield College, Chatfield College, Lincoln College, San Francisco Art Institute, etc.).10 As a result, greater operational efficiencies will be sought, but also new or expanded revenue streams will be explored. Institutions that have offered online and continuing education programs (often as a service or for supplemental income) will be required to do more. They will be tasked to find new students, re-engage lost students, create profitable new degrees and develop a microcredential capability.
- More younger students will enroll directly into fully online degrees. A 2019 survey of 5,000 students from 20 institutions conducted by UPCEA and InsideTrack showed that 2% of learners were 18 to 22 years of age and enrolled in a fully online degree program. In 2021, this number increased to nearly 5%. As reported by Inside HigherEd (October 2022), Southern New Hampshire University and Western Governors University reported increased online enrollments coming from the 18-to-24 year old segment.11 Many market factors, such as cost of housing, campus fees and commuting, as well as being able to shop more broadly across an expanded number of providers, are likely to fuel this phenomenon in the near future. Psychological factors, such as being closer to one’s support network or the desire to stay closer to home to care for loved ones, may also contribute to younger fully online enrollments.
“We are seeing a noticeable jump in the number of 18- to 22-year-old students enrolling in fully online programs. In the past 5 years, there has been a 104% increase in the number of incoming undergraduates who are traditional college age students but enrolled in Oregon State Ecampus’ online programs. There are probably numerous reasons for this increase such as many students of this generation’s comfort and preference for online learning, and desire to stay closer to home and save money.”
-Lisa Templeton, Associate Provost, Oregon State University, Ecampus
- When it comes to new programs, institutions will focus more on pathways, as opposed to one-off opportunistic programs. They will develop a portfolio of degrees and programs that creates pathways to very discrete professions. Gone are the days of a standalone degree with no pathway in or out. Institutions will need to build off their strengths in new program development and strengthen their academic portfolios. For example, if an institution is known for its data science, analytics, and statistics programs, not only should it have bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate programs, but also offer an associate’s degree or partner with a community college. If the market values it, they should also develop noncredit, undergraduate and graduate certificates that one could take as standalone credentials to enhance their existing degree. They could also use them to build toward a degree that would have otherwise been out of reach. In addition, smaller modules that don’t carry credit but earn badges or continuing education units (CEUs) that could be applied toward a degree or certificate would help to fill knowledge and skill voids created by a rapidly moving economy where degrees are unable to.
- Degree completion and welcoming the disengaged student will become more and more important. In the past, when students left an institution because of grades, family matters or finances, the cavalier attitude of “they weren’t cut out for XYZ College” was often the case, believing that the disengaged student was someone else’s problem or opportunity. Given today’s more competitive landscape for students, the declining number of 18 to 22 year-olds, and precarious financial institutional situations, more colleges and universities will strengthen their approaches to minimize these losses, as well as capture lost students from other colleges. UPCEA and StraighterLine research shows that students who leave for particular reasons can be attracted back to college, but with different tactics and approaches.12 To offset financial pressures due to previously mentioned factors, the nation’s colleges and universities can tap into the market that measures over 39 million adults with some college and no degree.13 Capturing a small percentage of this market can make the difference for many struggling institutions.
- Stackability will become more acceptable, although it is likely to take longer than a year. While we continue to struggle with loans and loan forgiveness and who qualifies for loans, consumers will continue to assess their personal financial risks and investment as they relate to education and employability. While awareness is growing, the new adult learner places considerable value on the stackable education model.14 As a result, we will see more stackability as a “cake and eat it too” strategy. Institutions which had resisted innovating beyond the degree may see certificates and microcredentials that carry value to the degree as a compromise. Faculty who were previously entrenched in the belief that it was the degree or nothing may see institutional vulnerabilities that may suggest change is in order. These may also be the same faculty who questioned the quality of online education and considered it inferior to classroom-based instruction.
- Earning or preparing for industry certification on the way toward a degree. While the notion of noncredit-to-credit transfer will continue to challenge higher education institutions, more will review their existing programs for natural alignment with industry certifications with the easiest applications being in technology.15 It’s another “cake and eat it too” scenario or compromise, but within the curriculum. Many colleges and universities are offering degrees in cybersecurity, computer science and finance and many of them are placing greater emphasis on either industry certification preparation or actually earning it on the way toward the degree. Ivy Tech Community College and Western Governors University’s websites highlight that their cybersecurity program curriculums are aligned to better prepare students for industry certification.
- Badging will continue to advance, but with a slow adoption rate. While the concept of earning a badge for achieving a skill or competency fits the mindset of young adults, as well as those in industries where this is an accepted practice (e.g., technology), adoption will continue at a slow pace, just as it did in 2021 and 2022. One reason is what appears to be a greater willingness toward building in certificates and stackability that support a degree. Addressing this opportunity first may be more palatable for institutions new to badging. Another hurdle is the mindset that badges don’t carry the same quality often associated with participation medals, such as youth scouting activities. However, long-term planning for badging will continue for many institutions as it carries the potential of what a “credit” did for degree-based credentials, but with skills or competency-based initiatives.
- Challenges/changes to the accreditation process. This will take a long time. Accreditation has meant quality for students and the institution. It also means that institutions can access federal funds and student aid. One could argue that the criteria and process that accredits an institution are out-of-date, especially given the emergence and normality of online and professional education. The impact for the institutions that offer vibrant professional, continuing and online (PCO) programs and degrees could be significant, as criteria could finally be incorporated to include the adult learner and the voice and needs of the employer. Institutions are not necessarily locked into one accreditor and could potentially shop for a more progressive and flexible accrediting body, one that embraces innovation over accreditors whose criteria may be deemed as excessive or even notoriously picky.
- Improved efficiencies that impact revenues or reduce costs will be in focus. Gone are the days of increasing tuition to make up for forecasted deficits, budget cuts, or enrollment declines. In tandem with new revenue generation, many institutions are going to seek out efficiencies, which could include greater or improved partnerships with online program management companies and other providers, even with additional congressional scrutiny, which in turn, could shift non-core services externally. For many institutions, these relationships play a critical role in offsetting potential deficits, although lawmakers want greater transparency and proof of performance, as well as benefit to the student. While no new policies have been enacted, it is likely that greater oversight and accountability will be established by the Department of Education.
- Marketing and enrollment management processes will improve in 2023. While outsource relationships with OPM providers will be under the microscope in 2023, internal efficiencies will need to improve. In the past, if an inquirer contacted the institution about a program or degree, it was assumed that conversion to applicant and then to student was high or within acceptable bounds; after all, the institution held the cards. In a new landscape for education, the consumer has more choices. Today’s young adult is also exceedingly more complex than in previous generations, leveraging technology in their inquiry and leaning on influencers such as their family, close friends or social media celebrities in their decisions. As a result, institutions are going to need to review their processes and most likely, gut and redesign them to center on the new learner. Transactional marketing will be replaced with relational enrollment management. Precision and science will influence how, when and who engages the inquirer of the future.
- Staffing the progressive professional, continuing and online education unit of the future will also be a challenge in 2023 and beyond. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, community colleges are reporting staff losses as a result of the pandemic and difficulties attracting talent.16 With institutions emerging into a sense of normalcy and lifting hiring freezes, many are finding filling positions difficult. A snap poll conducted by UPCEA during the pandemic showed 38% of respondents said it has been extremely (15%) or very difficult (23%) to fill open positions post-pandemic. Positions that institutions have struggled to fill include instructional designers, program managers, and technical positions, among others As a result, some institutions are relaxing on-premise work requirements and offering sought after employees more flexible work environments. Many jobs are also being categorized as fully remote. After these benefits have been offered, there’s no other choice but to increase salary for these critical and vacant positions. The end result will be a domino effect within the sector as leaders will be more tempted to jump from their existing job with its pre-inflation salary to a higher inflation-corrected opening that offers greater flexibility. In addition, corporate providers in the education sector may also raid colleges and universities of premier talent at a higher pace given their ability to respond more quickly to change, as well as access alternative sources of funding.
We are seeing the transformation of higher education in real-time, driven in part by economics, technology, demographics and a change in societal norms. Higher education could have been more prepared for this a decade ago, but the pain of declining enrollments was gradual, often just a percentage or two annually. As a result of the pandemic, consumers have increased buying power and more choices, as do employers. Higher education will need to innovate on multiple fronts in order to thrive. 2023 and the years that follow will be reshaping and rebuilding years for higher education where job mobility and success will be defined not just by the degree but by the components that could build toward the degree. While one single year is not enough, 2023 will be a year of building stackability and flexibility for the future. It will be a year that we compromise between the degree and the badge. Stackability and non-degree credentials, such as credit certificate in data visualization or the noncredit cybersecurity boot camp certificate that feeds into a degree program, will be the compromise between the higher education, employers and students of the future.
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 conferences, sharing vital information with attendees.
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