10 Trends in Higher Education to Watch in 2020

  • Reporting Insights

In 2019, higher education grappled with declining enrollments, financial uncertainties and unique localized challenges. But the year is over and as we look at trends in higher education for 2020, it helps to remember a quote from Charles Darwin:

“The species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

With that said, here are a few things to keep an eye on (and embrace!) in the coming year:

Finance Trends

10. Alternate Funding Options Will Be Needed

Higher education is field that has always been heavily reliant on federal funding. The exact number can vary by state, but Digital Marketing Institute reports that state schools in Illinois depend on the government for 33% of their operating budget.

With declining enrollments all across the country, many states are implementing budget cuts for public colleges and universities, which means schools everywhere will need to explore new financing avenues.

One option is to expand faculty research programs. Research facilities can attract businesses that are open to funding research and development projects, while also getting attention from prospective faculty and students. With competition in higher education at an all-time high, a state-of-the-art research center can also serve as an institution’s best differentiator.

9. Fundraising Campaigns Will Be Reassessed

There’s good news and bad news. Inside Higher Ed reports that donation amounts from alumni are reaching record highs, but the number of donors are on a straight decline. So, more money is coming in, but it’s coming from fewer alumni.

Unfortunately, there’s only a small pool of Michael Bloomberg-level donators who are able to give a substantial amount of money to their alma mater. Think about it: If you’re a recent college graduate working an entry-level job with $50,000 of student loan debt, are you going to go out of your way to donate to your alma mater?

To get ahead, Inside Higher Ed notes that more and more institutions are starting multi-year fundraising campaigns that are focused on large goals, as opposed to prioritizing fundraising efforts on small donations. In a survey of 600 higher education fundraisers, 81% were in the middle of or about to start a capital campaign, while 49 institutions were engaged in billion-dollar fundraising campaigns.

8. A Healthy Economy Will Affect Enrollments

For community colleges specifically, enrollments tend to increase during times of economic uncertainty.

Take the recession of 2007 to 2009 as an example. There was a 33% increase in enrollment at two-year colleges between 2006 and 2011 — otherwise known as the years when unemployment was high, and the U.S. economy was low.

In 2010, 29% of all college students were enrolled in a community college. However, this fell to 25% by 2015 (when the recession was over), which was lower than the pre-recession average of 26%.

In 2019, the economy was healthy and many community colleges (and even universities) saw a decline in enrollments. While the state of the economy is outside the control of college leadership, following market trends and institutional patterns can help avoid any surprises.

Administration Trends

7. College Leadership Will Change

The American College President Study found that the average tenure for college presidents dropped from 8.5 years in 2006 to 6.5 years in 2016. This decline could have a lot to do with our previous note on declining enrollments, as well as funding issues that many higher education institutions across the country are facing.

The demographics of college presidents are also changing, although at a much slower pace than in other industries. In 2016, females made up 30% of college presidents while minorities made up 17%. Both of these numbers are only a 4% increase from 2011. White males in their early 60s still hold the majority of these positions, but with declining tenure averages, we could see some more drastic shifts in the near future.

Program Trends

6. Guided Pathways Will Become More Prevalent

Most community colleges in the US are designed to offer a ton of program options with limited support or guidance for students — a structure known as the “cafeteria model.” But without the proper guidance, this model doesn’t maximize the possibility of student success.

Referring to the cafeteria model, Achieving the Dream states, “the result has been that students nationwide have floundered in community colleges, racking up huge amounts of credit and debt, burning through financial aid, and often having very little to show for it.”

Guided Pathways is a strategic approach to community college curriculum planning with the goal of improving student success. By creating more structured program maps and guiding students through their choices, institutions can help students avoid many of the aforementioned setbacks.

For example, the program map for a full-time biology student would outline the required courses and the order in which they should be taken. This could mean taking precalculus and BIO 101 in the same semester, before taking on higher-level courses.

You can see how data analytics helps institutions develop their own Guided Pathways plan here.

5. Competency-Based Education Will Continue Slow & Steady Growth

Technology is changing the ways and rates in which people learn. With that, there is continued interest from colleges to implement competency-based education programs.

Competency-based education is a way for students to learn at their own pace. According to Walden University, students in competency-based programs master individual skills and knowledge areas (competencies) at a pace that works best for them, as opposed to enrolling in predetermined courses that require a specific amount of time to complete.

The U.S. Department of Education is on board, stating, “This type of learning leads to better student engagement because the content is relevant to each student and tailored to their unique needs. It also leads to better student outcomes because the pace of learning is customized to each student.”

The number of competency-based programs is expected to increase in the next five years, and 83% of institutions with programs already in place are already expecting them to grow across campus.

4. More MicroMasters Programs Will Pop Up

Online courses have satiated much of the need for more flexible, accessible higher education options, but MicroMasters programs are taking it even further.

MicroMasters programs are graduate-level courses offered by top universities and are designed to help people advance in their careers. As online versions of master’s degree programs, these courses take a deep dive into specific career topics, which can then be recognized and rewarded by employers. Students also receive credits directly from the institution, which can then be used to pursue a master’s degree.

There are already a wide range of colleges and universities offering MicroMasters programs: MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Georgia Tech and the University System of Maryland being just a few of the top names.

These programs expand degree access and affordability to students, while also helping institutions get more students in the door. For example, Boston University offers a MicroMasters degree in Digital Product Management, which includes five graduate-level courses and can be completed in just eight months for $1,995. This is a much more affordable option for students who are looking to further their education but don’t want to take out a massive amount of student loans.

3. Online Education Will Keep Thriving

Arguably the biggest improvement to higher education, online learning has transformed the way we think of going to school. In fact, 1/3 of higher education students now take at least one class online.

You might be asking yourself how online programs could possibly get any more convenient. Well, many reputable institutions are exploring new avenues for online education. Here are two examples:

  1. Arizona State University now allows students to take their first year of college completely online with some added benefits through their Global Freshman Academy. The program has a “try before you buy” rule that lets students pay for their courses at the end of the term, but only if they’re happy with their grade and want the academic credit.
  2. Acknowledging the ever-growing cost of education, the University of Pennsylvania has partnered with the online learning platform Coursera to offer a master’s degree in computer and information technology for 1/3 of the cost of their on-campus degree. That’s an Ivy League graduate degree, available fully online, for a fraction of the normal cost!

Technology Trends

2. Virtual Reality Will Continue to Grow as an Educational Tool

Virtual reality (VR) technology isn’t just the latest craze in the video game world. Education Dive reports that VR is used in 46% of colleges, making it the latest and greatest educational tool.

Educators are always looking for new pedagogical approaches to increase student engagement in an on-campus and online environment, so the adoption of this technology makes total sense. In fact, a study from the University of Warwick found that students “had a higher positive emotional response to the VR learning method” compared to textbook and video methods.

In college settings, VR devices can be used for everything from creating virtual lab facilities for chemical experiments to simulating medical procedures. K-12 schools are also adding VR strategies to their lesson plans, which means students will likely enter the post-secondary world with an expectation that the technology will be readily available.

1. Institutions Will Continue Using Data to Their Benefit

Of course, we only know about the above information because of data. Universities, colleges and community colleges are relying more and more on data to get a better understanding of where their institution stands and how it can move forward. This is especially important during a time when declining enrollments are an increasing concern.

The power of data for the higher education industry is tremendous. From student demographics like race and gender to course success and disproportionate impact rates, everything you need to know about your institution is fully accessible through data sets. Why are enrollments declining for ENG 101? Why is a specific cohort struggling in MAT 103? By using data to identify trends, you can easily gain the context you need to identify a wide range of problems and strategize solutions.

However, managing all this data is no easy feat. To take advantage of this information, colleges and universities need to adopt an efficient method to collect, store and utilize data. With so many disparate sets of information across various departments, thousands of students and hundreds of employees, the best tool is a higher education analytics software program. With the right program, your data can be automatically organized into a single platform to provide visual insights into your institution’s success.


Through 2020 and beyond, Precision Campus is prepared to equip your institution with sophisticated data analytics capabilities to help you stay ahead of the trends. Contact us to learn more or sign up for free here.

Need help finding data analytics software?

7 Tips to Help You Find the Right Higher Education Data Analytics Software

Our guide will help you find software that offers everything you need:

- Affordable pricing
- Streamlined onboarding process
- Reporting and capabilities your institution needs
Get the eBook