Higher Education Predictions for 2019

Since 2006, I have been asked by some groups, newsletter editors, bloggers, magazine publishers, etc., to make predictions about what will face Higher Education in the upcoming year. This year is no exception. I’m in talks right now with an organization trying to put on a Webinar in early January about this very subject. (More to come.)


But as we head into 2019, there seems to be an interesting tone around what is trending. That isn’t necessarily new as every year sees the positive vision buttressed against a decidedly more negative view of the future. But it’s hard not to see the negative outweighing the positive by a large margin these days. Sure, we have the “baggage” of decades past, but the last year seems to have been particularly corrosive to the brand, culture, and outlook of higher education. From #MeToo finding its way into the upper echelon of the sector to sexual assaults between students spilling into the spotlight; from the Harvard lawsuit to athletic deaths to racial tensions to humanities under fire to institutions closings or mergers…. 2018 has been a tough year.

In fact, as a trend watcher and voracious reader of higher education in the media, the normal drum beats from the past decade of whether college is “worth the cost”, issues like grade inflation, student success issues, and the lot have taken a back seat to social justice and political issues more than I can ever remember.

But there were some strong and positive things that happened in 2018. Things that may set the stage for even greater success in 2019. Let’s see where the trends seem to be pointing for 2019:

Recruitment gets a face lift. To say that enrollments will continue to dwindle is not a prediction. It’s simply math. There will be fewer and fewer high school graduates up until (at least) 2026 when higher ed will see a significant drop due to the 2008 financial crisis. As well, numbers of what used to be known as “non-traditional” students (a term that doesn’t really apply to what is now the norm) has plateau’d while International students seem to have been scared away in significant numbers by the political climate of the USA, seeing a lot of universities in Europe, Australia, and even Asia taking up the slack readily. But as Jeffrey Selingo points out, students are still unlikely to get on a plane or drive several hours to go to college. So how have schools dealt with that effectively? Virtual recruitment has gotten better and better and in 2019 might be considered revolutionary in terms of prospective student targeting and recruitment.

Following the lead of virtual recruiters in the workplace, higher education has taken to systems that allow recruitment to look far more social, include a lot more text / instant messaging options, be far less dependent on email or phone calls (which Gen Z students seem to dislike), and are available on any device. From mass texting options like Signalvine.com to mass video conference events on Zoom to one-stop-shop systems like Campus.app, recruiters are seeing a bevy of new tools which allow them to connect with students previously off their radar.

MOOCs are back. The Massively Open Online Course craze of a decade ago saw a lot of companies go bust just as they saw a lot of educators jump onto a bandwagon that didn’t seem to have wheels. I am proud to say that I was one of the few who predicted it was a “flash in the pan” from 2009-2013. However, I was also quick to point out that the modality should not be discounted as a total bust. There was (and is) a ton of promise in the idea behind MOOCs and I suggested that some would not take their eye off of the ball, likely figuring out how to create a far better, more realistic experience. That is exactly what happened.

Look at the power of the ASU MOOC from the Global Freshman Academy offering. The idea is simple: take a class for (almost) free and if you pass, you gain entrance to the program. No worry about GPA, recommendations, etc. Worried about the “rigor” factor? That issue has also diminished significantly. Look at Georgia Tech’s Online Master’s in Computer Science courses. These MOOC-esque courses (not following the old model, but blazing a trail with a new one) are making money while turning heads at their rigor and impact.

There will continue to be a rise in Chief Diversity Officers. When I left for Florida back in 2013, the “hot” job across higher education was Chief Innovation Officer. What started as less than 50, soon spread to see a few thousand jobs akin to that title. That trend in 2019 will continue to be around diversity.

As noted above, there are a number of issues impacting the university experience today and many of them are issues specific to working with people. Those issues are a product of our national identity to some extent. The YouTube video inserted here may be controversial to some, but I hope you’ll stick with me for a minute. It is a clip of Jon Stewart on the CBS Morning show. Yes, I know that some claim Mr. Stewart to be a left-wing, liberal, but in my perspective, this man who actually voted for Bush Sr, is a thoughtful, moderate, takes-on-all-sides comedian who blasted whatever administration happened to be in power at the time. I respect that a great deal. So with that lens in mind, I suggest that Stewart effectively describes why a Chief Diversity Officer matters: “America is an anomaly…a lot of people think a multi-ethnic, multicultural Democracy is impossible…America’s not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something that no one’s ever created. That’s what is exceptional about America and…this ain’t easy.”

So, as the train continues barreling down the tracks, there you have three predictions of things to come. There are more of course. Some will be easy to spot and others will not. There are the “sexy” choices people will pick up on to get blogs read or articles published, but chat-bots and artificial intelligence are likely going to see incremental gains this year. Higher education is not the place where those capabilities will take off and until that happens in another sector, they will dance around the fringes.

But good things are out there, if you look. I hope you take note of them as they happen. Because negative, biting, painful social and political stories across higher education is also likely a trend that will continue. Sigh.

Good luck and good learning in the new year my friends.

Dr. Jeff D. Borden
Executive Director