The Pulse of Higher Ed

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from UPCEA’s Research and Consulting Experts

Turning the Tables: Three Game-Changing Business Strategies for Thriving in Today’s Higher Education Landscape

A person (Monica Fletcher) smiles at the camera

By Monica Fletcher

Institutions of higher education are encountering significant threats: The demographic cliff looms, the value perception of a four-year degree is declining along with traditional student enrollments; and the competitive credential-granting landscape is expanding to include business-based learning from entities such as Google and skill and experience-validating credentials from organizations such as The Project Management Institute. For those colleges and universities that adopt innovative business strategies focused on seizing current market opportunities, designing strategic operations, and cultivating the capabilities to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, opportunities to thrive are boundless. This post delves into three overarching strategies – each with three examples – that institutions can use to navigate the current higher education landscape. 

1. Capitalizing on Current Market Opportunities

As traditional learner enrollments decline and competition intensifies, it is crucial for colleges and universities to identify and capitalize on current market opportunities. This involves understanding shifting demographics, correctly identifying the knowledge and skill needs for emerging industries, and adjusting to the unique needs of today’s learners. 

Expand Online and Adult Education 

Market opportunity lies in the growing demand for online and adult education programs. According to Forbes, 39 million1 adults have some college credits but no degree. Institutions can target this population by offering flexible, accelerated, and affordable programs designed for working professionals and adult learners. Additionally, expanding online offerings to include stackable credentialing along the learner’s degree journey allows institutions to appeal to a wider market than offering degrees alone. 

Align Programs with Industry Demand 

Institutions need to ensure that their program offerings align with current and projected career opportunities. This may sound easy and obvious, but as you read this you are likely thinking of programs that are long overdue for sunsetting at your institution. Underperforming programs divert resources that would otherwise be deployed to under-resourced and well aligned-to-market programs or to new programs in high-demand fields. Universities and colleges must be proactive in identifying emerging industries and tailoring their curricula to meet the needs of employers, thereby improving the employability of their graduates.  

Embrace Diversity and Inclusion 

A welcoming and inclusive learning environment is deserved by all, yet there are documented roadblocks and challenges that institutions need to address to take the lead in serving traditionally underrepresented populations such as first-generation students from diverse ethnic backgrounds. To lead, institutions can develop targeted recruitment strategies, employ bilingual admissions officers, and offer scholarships tailored to these populations. By broadening outreach and fostering a more inclusive and diverse campus experience (online or in-person), institutions can address a societal need for improving access to higher education while remaining competitive in a challenging market. 


2. Developing Strategic Operations

In an increasingly competitive higher education landscape, universities that take a strategic approach to operations will have an advantage over their competition. Developing strategic operations means taking a long view of learner needs and establishing systems that can support those needs by leveraging data and analytics for decision-making and seeking opportunities to realize economies of scale.  

Evaluate Opportunities for Merger and Acquisition Activity 

As institutions rethink the size of their physical footprint, look for ways to consolidate operations, redesign processes for learner-centered systems, and seek to expand program offerings, merger and acquisition activity will continue to grow. According to Higher Ed Drive, the first five months of 2023 have seen 11 college closings or mergers across the US, a higher count in five months than in the total number of closings or mergers for each of the three most recent years2. The challenges of cultural integration, differences in governance structures, financial considerations, and stakeholder sentiment are a few essential factors that need to be carefully addressed to ensure that merger or acquisition activity achieves its strategic goals. 

Ensure That Operations Support Online and Stackable Credentials 

Reorienting institutional processes to serve lifelong learners is an operational challenge for institutions that have built systems around traditional learners from previous generations. Today, many institutions struggle with costly inefficiencies by trying to fit new approaches to credentialing and student services into the confines of legacy operations. Successful online programs and stackable credential pathways require optimized administrative processes, such as admissions, financial aid, and student services, that can provide swift responses to prospective learners and confer credentials in shorter timeframes compared to degrees. 

Leverage Technology and Data Analytics for Decision Making 

Many institutions are challenged to collect and organize data into meaningful analytics. According to UPCEA’s 2023 State of Continuing Education Report, nearly half (46%) of intuitions in the survey struggled to access real-time enrollment data for continuing education programs3. By harnessing the power of data, universities can make informed decisions about program offerings, resource allocation, and student success initiatives. Moreover, adopting institution-wide digital tools and platforms can streamline administrative processes and improve collaboration among faculty, staff, and students. 


3. Cultivating a Culture of Adaptability

As the higher education landscape continues to evolve, institutions must build agility, diversify revenue streams, strengthen brand awareness, foster innovation, and prioritize student success in order to maintain a competitive edge. 

Explore Opportunities for a Global Strategy  

A global strategy allows institutions to diversify and grow revenue streams by expanding market reach through partnerships and collaborations, tapping into larger pools of prospective learners, and enhancing reputation and prestige on a global scale. Additionally, a global strategy may have the added benefit of attracting domestic learners who value the opportunity to engage in culturally diverse educational experiences. By cultivating a global presence, institutions can expand market reach that diversifies revenue streams, and build brand awareness on the world stage. 

Foster Innovation and Entrepreneurship 

To stay relevant and competitive, institutions must foster a culture of growth by encouraging innovative and entrepreneurial thinking. Institutions can support a culture of growth by providing access to program performance data and market trends, facilitating opportunities for cross-discipline collaborations, and developing robust systems and processes that allow for the thorough vetting of proposed programs and reevaluation of existing programs.  

Prioritize Student Success and Outcomes 

Ultimately, the success of any higher education institution lies in its ability to deliver positive outcomes for its learners. To ensure long-term sustainability, institutions must prioritize learner success by offering relevant, high-quality programs, providing comprehensive support services, and tracking student progress to identify areas for improvement. Learners are the customers in higher education, and the learners’ voices and behaviors offer robust insights for how institutions can serve them as their educational needs evolve. 

Though institutions are now or will soon be facing significant challenges, these threats can be mitigated by leaders who act with a sense of urgency to capitalize on new market opportunities, develop strategic operations, and cultivate a culture of adaptability.  


Monica Fletcher is the Director of Portfolio Strategy and Operations for UPCEA Research and Consulting.






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