5 Higher Education Trends to Watch

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The higher education industry has experienced several shifts over the past few years. COVID-19, changing demographics and a renewed skepticism over the value of a degree have shifted expectations and messaging from education institutions of all sizes. Experts wonder whether undergraduate enrollment has peaked, leading to increased competition among colleges as young adults pursue training and employment by other means.

We’re watching the five most important trends in higher education to help college and university marketers prepare for what’s next.

students on a college campus walk through the old buildings

In Brief: Higher Education Industry Outlook

The broadly-scoped higher education industry includes a wide array of community colleges, universities and alternative education institutions that offer a mix of on-campus, remote and self-guided programs. Across the board, the cost of higher education is rising. The average cost of college has doubled since 2000 and has increased 2% annually since 2013.

High costs of attendance and more attractive employment opportunities right out of high school have long since made a dent in enrollment. Undergraduate enrollment peaked during the 2010-11 school year with 18.1 million students and has declined every academic year since, hitting 15 million in 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic and red-hot labor market accelerated the decline, with enrollment dropping 4% since 2020 – a loss of roughly 1.23 million scholars.

Despite a steady decline in enrollments, rapidly increasing tuition has more than bridged the gap. The higher education industry is expected to grow at a 7.18% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) through 2030.

CASE STUDY: Managing Higher Education Paid Media for Boston College

Five Education Industry Trends You Can’t Ignore

The COVID-19 pandemic was perhaps the most seismic shift in higher education since the GI Bill. Like many industries, the global pandemic didn’t change the future as much as it accelerated existing patterns.

1. Men Aren’t Going to College

The ratio of female-to-male college enrollment tipped in the 1980s, but the gender gap on college campuses has widened ever since. In 2022, female students represented 56% of total undergrads in the US, and that trend is expected to continue for at least another decade.

Marketing Take: Questioning demographic norms is more important than ever, especially in traditionally male-dominated programs and fields. Marketers should constantly evaluate audiences and adjust messaging to address gender, race and socioeconomic barriers.

2. Boomerang Students

In the US, more than 39 million adults have completed some college course without graduating, representing nearly 1 in 5 adults over 18. These “returning” students represent a high-value population of recruiting prospects, but getting them back to the classroom hasn’t been easy. Historic gains in US wage growth since 2020 have made the workforce a more attractive alternative than expensive tuition fees, but that may only be a short-term benefit. Research shows that college graduates earn an average of $1.2 million more in their lifetime than non-graduates and are half as likely to be unemployed.

Marketing Take: Education barriers for non-traditional adults differ greatly from recent high school graduates. Consider using surveys to segment email marketing campaigns to address the unique needs of returning students.

3. Mismanaged Revenue

The fundamental higher education business model is focused on faculty, not students. The preference or availability of professors often dictates courses, programs and even day-to-day schedules. Big-name colleges are both the worst offenders and the least impacted by the negatives associated with this structure; this model limits class availability, reduces one-on-one- time between students and professors, limits diverse program offeringss by school and tends to see investment follow faculty preferences, not market demand.

The result also impacts the bottom line. One of the most damaging higher education trends is basing costs on inflation and competition rather than on which programs are both profitable and in demand. This cost-revenue misalignment makes certain programs unprofitable while most cost-effective courses don’t receive appropriate investment. In 2021, roughly 60% of public universities and 75% of private colleges reported a net revenue decline.

Marketing Take: Invest paid marketing budget to support enrollment in the most profitable programs and courses. Work with college or university staff to conduct in-depth cost analysis and use those findings to inform marketing priorities whenever possible.

4. The Value Debate

While colleges and universities evaluate their bottom lines, American families are looking at higher education’s return on investment. In short, a college education isn’t the priority it was for previous generations. Preparing students for college ranked 47th on a recent K-12 education survey; it used to be 10th. Even individuals who earned a bachelor’s degree aren’t satisfied, with 1 in 3 saying their education wasn’t worth the cost.

Marketing Take: Marketers should provide transparent cost analyses alongside financial resources. When students have accurate cost expectations, they tend to make better decisions. In the long run, this improves student retention and satisfaction.

5. Administrative Recruitment

Attracting and retaining students isn’t the only challenge. One of the most notable higher education marketing trends is a focus on recruitment and talent acquisition. When colleges and universities went fully remote, campus administrators and staff began working at home, with little enthusiasm for coming back. A recent poll found that nearly two-thirds of higher education employees are more likely to leave their jobs than stay. The exodus is focused on two priorities:

  1. 75% of staff say increased pay is motivating their job search
  2. 42% are leaving to have more flexible or remote work arrangements

Perhaps most alarming is how admittedly unprepared many institutions are to attract talent proactively. A survey of higher education professionals found that only 22% believe they are “very effectively” recruiting and filling staff and faculty positions.

Marketing Take: Higher education marketing teams should support human resources’ recruiting as much as is feasible. Marketers bring platform experience, creativity and data to inform more effective recruiting campaigns.

Reshape Your Marketing with Oneupweb

We don’t just track the top trends in higher education; we shape them. For over 25 years, Oneupweb has partnered with colleges and universities to provide a bespoke mix of digital marketing services and expertise. From research and consulting to national campaigns, our fully integrated team leverages specialized skills and a collaborative approach to deliver results. See why we always earn top marks; get in touch or call (231) 922-9977 today.

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