Like so much else in our jarringly fast-shifting society, the future of higher education over the next decade can perhaps be summed up in a familiar two-part refrain: big changes are coming, but no one seems to know exactly where they will lead.
And the admission office—the engine for a college, its public face and the starting point for a young person’s unique and often life-changing experience—will need to adjust, often rapidly. Experts say the change will occur in a variety of ways—from the use of sophisticated new tools to recruit and evaluate students within shifting pools of prospects, to the ways admission officials understand and promote new creative approaches to learning, and explain the heightened “value” of a degree and new methods of paying for it.
At NACAC, the leadership is always assessing what could be coming, for better or worse, so the organization and the profession are prepared for change. With almost 30 years at NACAC’s helm, CEO Joyce Smith has always looked ahead. And she knows big transformations are coming and wonders how the definition of admission will change.
“Today, many question the value of a college degree and the price colleges charge to achieve it—we know it’s worth it, and spreading that news is our current goal. But in 2030, we wonder what types of jobs will take precedence and as such, what will the educational demands require students to seek. My guess is that in another 13 years, there may be few changes in K-12 educational institutions, but our needs as a society will be different. Students may be seeking skill-building or training certification, or a degree based on competencies achieved. If these trainings don’t require a prior assessment of knowledge, why require admission?” Smith said.
Perhaps the biggest structural changes will come in the number of students attending—and where they will come from.
Peace Bransberger, senior research analyst at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, said there will be fewer high school graduates in total, and they will have less means to pay for school. There will have been nearly a 5 percent decline nationwide by 2020 in high school graduates since 2013, according to her projections, and major shifts to the south and west, trends that will continue.
She said that while nearly 70 percent of the high school graduates were white in the early 2000s, that number had decreased to 60 percent by 2015 and projections suggest whites will make up about half of the graduating population by 2030.
All of it will require different recruitment strategies.
“How do we start to address this?” she asked. “It’s not doom and gloom, but I think we are going to have to serve different populations differently, and not all be looking at the same 50 students. As things stand now and for quite for some time into the future, the student populations are running counter to the ways admission operate on the whole, and that’s going to mean we have to change.”
Amy Reitz, general manager of Intersect, an admission matching program at Hobsons, also said shifting demographics will be a key issue for admission staffs, and thinks they will have to broaden their reach. Naviance is one of Hobsons’ products.
“Population growth is happening in states and among demographics that have had traditionally lower college-going rates,” she said.
“Admission offices will need to focus on new recruitment and admission practices for students from currently underrepresented populations to stem enrollment declines.”
A survey of admission officials released a few months ago showed that new student enrollment targets were met by only 34 percent of colleges by May 1, down from 37 percent in 2016 and 40 percent in 2015 by that same date.
The survey also said that many admission offices were stepping up recruitment in rural areas and increasingly targeting underrepresented groups and older students, but, in contrast, they also said that they were expecting to focus on students with the capacity to pay.
“Colleges are somewhat seat-dependent, yet they need to attract higher income students, said Bransberger. “A lot of things are in contradiction.”
NACAC CEO Smith noted that a better grasp of national and global demographics will be key in planning new strategies. “As we think about admission, we need to ensure our professionals shine a light on the changing demographics, global influences, on the competition among educational institutions in and outside of the US,” she said.
And more importantly, she added, “We need to have tools in place to measure success not just for our institutions, but for students’ postsecondary educational experience.”
Other experts have suggested that a bigger concern is the number of students who will look elsewhere for education and training.
Perhaps the loudest voice has been Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen, who has projected that half the colleges in the country will be bankrupt in 10 years, though several other experts have disputed that thinking, including some who think little will change.
“I have no crystal ball, but I am willing to stick my neck out and make a prediction. Universities of the future will be much like those of today,” one top college officials said in a recent magazine article where university leaders worldwide expressed wide-ranging views about the future of higher education.
But that view, too, is in the minority, and many experts say schools must change to thrive.
“The K-12 pipeline and postsecondary education market will demand changes to university pedagogy, delivery media, and marketing,” said Bill Conley, Bucknell’s vice president for enrollment management.
Smith said that institutions need to find their own balance between what’s working now, and experimenting with fulfilling burgeoning student needs. She predicts the shift creating more options, rather than completely abandoning old learning styles for new.
“I believe there still will be traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms requiring some version of admission assessment for competitive or selective institutions. But there will be fewer educational institutions open for business. Perhaps the name of our profession will change from ‘admission officers’ to ‘transition officers’ or something that suggests engaging students beyond a test result, an application, or an essay. The term ‘holistic’ assessment may have a whole new meaning in 13 years,” she said.
So how might the information an admission official review a prospective student in 2030 be different from today?
The material provided in the application process, experts say, will likely continue to become more flexible and offer a wider view of the student. There may be a greater emphasis on competency—along with a focus on other personal qualities.
In the last few years, we’ve already seen changes to The Common Application and the emergence of MyCoalition with its planning and application tools and ZeeMee, which is accepted by 200 colleges and lets students provide new and varied information. The list of colleges becoming test optional also has continued to grow and the tests themselves are certain to change.
Some experts say the high school transcript may be revised too if a trend continues toward schools de-emphasizing grades and test scores. But Bill Conley, vice president for enrollment management at Bucknell University (PA), foresees only subtle changes to what high schools report about their students.
“At 30,000 or so high schools we already have nearly that many unique transcript forms, so the notion of a significant movement to a standardized transcript—grade or competency based—in the next 10 years is pretty radical. However, I do anticipate that there will be discreet movements to craft a format that will blend performance with competency-based assessments.”
The Institute for Character and Admission is a relatively new organization that is focusing on increasing character and non-academic qualities as part of the equation in admission.
“Very often in college admission we look at success as generating applications, meeting enrollment goals, and diversifying the student body; but really our success ought not to be measured just in numbers, but in quality of students we are bringing in and the people we are graduating,” said Bob Massa, senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University (NJ) and one of the founders of the institute.
Its members include researchers, representatives from leading universities, and education organizations and members from ACT, The College Board, and the Educational Testing Service.
Massa admitted that in a time when colleges are competing for a smaller number of students in a tighter market it will be hard to encourage consideration of these qualities, but he thinks schools will see their value.
He said such “holistic” admission criteria consider core academic skills but are “augmented by demonstrated evidence of critical thinking skills, collaborative problem-solving, and information technology skills” He said the institute is also encouraging “self knowledge and how one makes decisions related to academic and career interests.”
Conley also thinks such issues will get more attention. “I strongly believe that non-academic, character-related qualities will matter more going forward and will have a systemic place in the review process,” he said. “As in most things, technology will probably provide the answer to how those factors will be uniformly measured.”
Demand for Data
These changes will require more precise marketing and recruiting efforts with better information, and more tracking of students with customer relations management-style systems that collect data about each “touch” or contact with a prospect.
Reitz said schools increasingly will be looking at more advanced data analysis and a “greater reliance on return on investment and multi-touch attribution,” which allows admission offices to see which specific contact with a prospect had the most value.
“Too many institutions rely solely on first-source as a metric for measuring the effectiveness of prospect search efforts, when 95 percent of search students never apply,” she said. “Evaluating which interactions along the way make the biggest impact on enrollment will be key to investing in the right strategies.”
She warned that planning models must take into account new pools of students, and that evaluation of draw rates and more sophisticated use of school websites and social media will be critical. Others suggest that data on retention and why students leave school will be increasingly important.
Customer relations management style programs will provide increasing connections for students beyond recruitment, experts say, potentially helping them finish school with academic and emotional support—and even as they graduate and seek jobs or potentially can help their alma maters with recruitment or financial backing.
A 2014 study, Trends in Higher Education Marketing, Recruitment, and Technology, however, found that the most effective marketing tools were still face-to-face meetings with prospects, at open houses and campus visits—and experts say those traditional tools will endure.
NACAC’s Smith isn’t surprised to hear this. Having been an admission counselor herself, she knows that the counseling element of admission requires person-to-person contact.
“Technology is a tool, not a replacement for a trained professional in admission counseling,” she said. “Listening and translating need may be something technology can help us with, but nothing can replace a person who understands the student and family concerns, the institutional opportunities or requirements and can easily bring all of this together with empathy and understanding.”
“Future populations of those seeking education beyond secondary school will continue to require human intervention—counseling, clarifying, reviewing, or explaining the postsecondary educational opportunities students of the future will be seeking. There will still be an important value in face-to-face engagement,” she said.
Brick and Mortar—and Wifi
William O’Neil, chairman of the board for the International Facility Management Association, who specializes in management of college campuses, said admission officials have been key in encouraging new campus development, and he said they must continue to lobby for attractive new facilities they can show off.
He and other experts say college belt-tightening might slow the pace of new construction, but he warns admission officials to keep up the pressure for new cutting-edge facilities and maintenance of existing buildings and grounds if they want their schools to attract students.
“It may be more important than ever to show off the whole experience a student can have,” he said.
He also said that the “facility” will increasingly revolve around the technology, and admission offices should understand it and be able to communicate about their school’s tech as it gets more sophisticated and students expect more.
He also believes smaller communities will be the focus, with dining facilities, fitness centers, and tech hubs serving more intimate groups of students. “More schools might develop facilities for students who are blending their education with courses at the college, online, and from other sources, and for more group work or project-based exercises,” he said.
He also said that new technology related to security, including face recognition equipment and high-tech communications networks aimed at safety are constantly being developed and upgraded, and will be a priority for parents.
College libraries are perhaps changing the most, such as University of California, Berkeley, which got rid of 135,000 books to create space for students to collaborate, study—even nap. Technology will continue to diminish the need for books and printed reference material.
The Value Chatter
Conley and other experts note that colleges will increasingly have to convince prospects and their parents that college generally—and their school in particular—is worth the expense.
“The liberal arts model of education continues to be under scrutiny, if not outright assault in some quarters,” he said. “The most selective private colleges in the country will probably be able to demonstrate a positive return on investment for the $100,000 per year it will cost to attend by about 2027, but the less selective schools at similar price points are like not to be viewed as necessary for workforce success.”
Reitz also said colleges will have to prove their value. “Parents and students are concerned about the cost of education and are increasingly asking if college is worth it,” she said. “With a declining high school graduate population, convincing prospective students of the value of higher education, and not just that of your institution, will become more critical.”
University of Pennsylvania business management professor Peter Cappelli was one of the early advocates for a closer look at college value.
Author of the best-selling book Will College Pay Off?: A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You’ll Ever Make, he believes colleges should make value their focus, but not become too mired in just providing job-prep skills. He and other experts say schools should make certain their degrees pay off and also thoroughly promote convincing data on college value, including the potential for acquisition of softer skills and broader knowledge.
“There is no guarantee of a payoff from very practical, work-based degrees. Liberal arts can enrich your life and provide lessons that extend beyond any individual job,” he said. “There are centuries of experience providing support for that notion. A sophisticated college will say that they know there is life beyond the first job and that they are preparing graduates for a lifetime.”
Experts note, too, that increasingly employers want workers with a college degree and with non-job-specific skills, such as leadership and an ability to communicate well, solve problems, and work on a team.
Prospective students are increasingly looking at information that spells out college value in a number of ways and know their postsecondary education should creatively and actively “focus on skills, not semesters.”
In that vein, colleges may change to follow patterns being established by schools like Minerva, a school where those skills are a priority and where students often work independently, but study and live together in seven cities during their college stay.
“Minerva equips students with the cognitive tools they need to succeed in the world after graduation, building the core competencies of critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication, and effective interaction,” said founder Ben Nelson in a new book on the institution, calling it a “grand and sweeping idea and a blueprint for transforming higher education.”
Another new direction higher education is taking is at Southern New Hampshire University’s College for America, which was started in 2013 and was the first university to get approval from the federal government to offer degrees based on competency rather than seat time. It had 200 students its first year and is projected to have more than 5,000 this year.
“They’re not just learning math in the abstract, they’re learning how to use charts or graphs to convey information, or how to negotiate with others to resolve a conflict,” Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at SNHU, told Fast Company magazine in an article considering higher education’s future. The magazine reported that 350 other colleges were initiating similar programs.
Meanwhile, in the college classroom, admission staff members should be aware that professors are increasingly turning to flipped learning and project-based learning, which some high school students are seeing more often in their schools and will be expecting in college, rather than lectures to hundreds. (See: How Will They Learn?)
How Will They Learn?
One of the big question marks about the future of colleges is the issue of online learning, and admission offices may be enrolling students into a flexible environment that includes it in a variety of ways.
Flipped learning is being used often in K-12 classrooms, and some students perform much better using a system that allows them to take in lectures at home and work with the teacher later in class. It obviously works well with large classes or introductory courses and supports greater use of project-based learning. A 2014 study found use of both was growing.
“Professors realize that lecturing to groups of students isn’t captivating them nor meeting their needs,” said Jon Bergmann, one of the developers of the concept. “They are discovering the power of using flipped learning to accelerate their classes from passive to active spaces of learning, and high school graduates will expect it.”
When it comes to moving courses entirely online, most schools have a presence though only a few have expansive e-offerings—Purdue with its purchase of the big online education player Kaplan and Arizona State University, which has 30,000 students working on 150 online degrees through its online education division.
Peter Smith, a former US congressman who held top positions with public and private universities and is author of an upcoming book on the future of higher education related to technology, notes that colleges have not been successful with comprehensive online programs, but he believes they must move in that direction to survive and it will affect admission.
“I think Purdue’s move is brilliant. They are getting a presence online through someone who knows how to do it.”
Mitch Daniels, the outspoken president of Purdue, hopes that schools will offer some combination of online and face-to-face instruction. “None of us know how fast or in what direction online higher education will evolve, but we know its role will grow,” he told education writers at a conference recently.
In one of the most popular books discussing the future of higher education, College Unbound, education writer Jeff Selingo details what some experts think is on the horizon. Selingo sees a “swirl model,” where students will take courses on multiple platforms including online, at community colleges and at traditional four-year institutions.
The other consideration about “value” is cost, and schools have begun addressing it. Purdue has heavily promoted the fact that it has held costs at 2012 levels, and Drew University (NJ), is prominently displaying on its homepage information about its rollback of tuition and fees by 20 percent, along with other stories about the value of its degrees.
“List price and net price are both going to play a very important role in the future, and I worry about some colleges’ ability to approach that issue when recruiting students,” said Massa, Drew’s senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning.
The Inside Higher Education survey showed admission officials know students are very concerned about debt—and see those worries growing. Eight-in-10 admission directors report increasingly losing prospects to debt worries, including 89 percent at private colleges and 71 percent at public schools.
There is, of course, political debate about making college more affordable—or even free, though those ideas get mixed reviews from some admission experts.
Oregon is considering a system that would allow students to attend public college debt-free, but then pay into a fund to support others, and an increasing number of schools are developing a “no loan” policy that might grow in the future, experts say.
There also are new instruments for financing being developed, such as income-share agreements (ISAs), which pay tuition for students who, based on their career path, agree to pay back a percentage of their future income for a specific period. They are generally interest-free and capped at some level, and students who earn less than, say, $20,000, aren’t expected to repay anything. The Back-A-Boiler program from Purdue has gotten a lot of attention, and according to Purdue spokesman Brian Zink has continued to grow and be well-received.
At a tech conference recently, Beth Akers, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute and an advocate for ISAs, said if students are well informed about their options in such arrangements the instruments will continue to grow in popularity. And Zakiya Smith, strategy director of the Lumina Foundation, former education policy adviser for President Obama, and former NACAC board director, told Atlantic magazine that ISA’s could be a popular way for schools to interest prospects.
“These college-backed ISAs have the brand of the college behind them, and it’s the college saying ‘We believe in our programs, we believe in our education, and we believe you’ll be better for it as a cohort,’” she told the Atlantic. “It’s essentially colleges putting their money where their mouth is.”
Jim Paterson is a writer and former school counselor living in Lewes, Delaware.
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