Home Current Events From the Experts: More Higher Ed Predictions for 2021
From the Experts: More Higher Ed Predictions for 2021

From the Experts: More Higher Ed Predictions for 2021


Google the term “Higher Ed predictions 2021,” and Google’s search engine indicates that there are about 398,000,000 results. Fortunately, Google attempts to put the most relevant search results on the first page, and 10 appears to be the number that can fit in Google’s listing format. I decided to summarize a few of the ones that surfaced on page one of my search.

The first article that appeared on my search was Laura Ascione’s “16 predictions for higher-ed edtech in 2021” from eCampus News. I’m not sure if this article is considered the most preeminent or if Google listed it first because I wrote a similar article a week ago. Ascione asked edtech execs, stakeholders, and experts to share some of their thoughts for 2021. Their predictions are:

  • In 2021, college students must lean on their technology experience and participate in virtual career fairs and networking events to form the connections that will help them navigate an unprecedented job market.
  • Chatbots will be critical to student engagement.
  • More textbook resources will be free, and we will pay only for tools that really improve learning outcomes.
  • Cloud-first technology strategies will become an even greater priority. Very large technology projects, such as replacing the Student Information System or Learning Management System, will be delayed as institutions try to squeeze extra life out of legacy applications but smaller, high-value projects deemed essential to learning delivery, strategic planning, and managing university operations will grab wallet share.
  • Micro-credentialing will gain even more traction in 2021. Students need faster, affordable and flexible higher-ed options they can turn around and immediately use in the workplace.
  • School administrators will be held to a higher level of accountability and transparency.
  • The implementation of education software solutions that provide ease of payment acceptance and simplify back-office tasks will accelerate.
  • Innovations in technology such as digital signage software and content management will play a major role in 2021.
  • Institutions will seek digital solutions for student services assistance to keep students engaged and improve retention.
  • Higher ed will build a more effective, robust online learning experience. Effective online learning is about more than posting assignments and Zoom lectures.
  • Demand will increase for workshops and seminars that showcase the range of benefits of Flexible Hybrid Electronics technology.
  • Remote student recruitment will become the new normal.
  • Institutions will collaborate in new ways to put students and their needs first over what limited capacity they might have locally.
  • Investments will increase in new tools and technologies that make lectures and lessons engaging for students wherever they are physically located.
  • Hybrid learning models will be the new normal.
  • Institutions will see short- to mid-term financial instability. The instability will require a flexible and agile infrastructure that allows them to scale up or down as necessary.

Pointing out the length of time that she has been predicting trends, Marguerite Dennis writes for University World News that all of her predictions from two white papers in 2005 and 2014 have come to pass. She predicts for 2021 and beyond that:

  • Students, faculty, and staff will travel with Digital Health passports, verifying their COVID-19 test results.
  • Students will enroll in colleges and universities with well-established health protocols.
  • Students will attend school year-round in some combination of online and in-person instruction.
  • Credit-bearing gap year programs will increase worldwide.
  • Students will be admitted year-round and will be notified of admissions decisions as soon as their applications are complete.
  • An increasing proportion of higher education enrollments will come from company-sponsored, short-term certificate programs and boot camps.
  • Enrollments in Google Career Certificates and Microsoft’s global skills initiative, among others, will increase.
  • Vision planning will co-exist with and complement strategic planning.
  • Higher education institutions will hire chief innovation officers charged with implementing vision plans.
  • Consumer behavior will be incorporated into all future strategic plans.
  • Career counseling will begin before enrollment and extend throughout enrollment and after graduation. Colleges and universities will embrace a 10-year acceptance, matriculation, and graduation plan for students.
  • Graduation counselors will map out all of the multi-year courses necessary for graduation prior to a student’s matriculation.
  • Financial aid and debt counselors will provide estimates of costs and debt prior to enrollment.
  • Transcripts will list competencies earned in courses along with grades.
  • Students will graduate having done at least one internship.
  • Antiquated higher education business models will be replaced with differential pricing structures.
  • Virtual recruitment and admitted student events will supplement in-person interactions.
  • Some colleges and universities will cease operations. Others will merge.
  • International student mobility will become more localized, within regions and continents.
  • Geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China will impact future international student enrollments.

In EdSurge, Michael Horn summarized the opinions of three college presidents and executives at large companies and stated that trends accelerated during the pandemic will continue in 2021. These trends are:

  • Prepare for more people to work and learn remotely with technology.
  • Disruptive educational offerings will reign supreme. To be specific, more affordable, flexible online programs catering to adult learners will thrive.
  • Breaking the false dichotomy between short-term credentials and full degrees, short-term programs will increase in popularity.

Inside Higher Ed’s staff summarized their projections in an article called “The In-and-Out List, 2021.” What will be “in” includes:

  • Secretary of Education Miquel Cardona, a graduate of public schools and colleges
  • Wellness Days instead of Spring Break
  • On-campus COVID testing and guaranteeing
  • Single-occupancy dorm rooms
  • Campuses reckoning with their racial histories
  • Zoom waiting rooms
  • Grad schools freezing Ph.D. admissions
  • International education on the offensive
  • Testing center closures
  • Realizing tenure does not protect jobs
  • Thinking COVID-19 doesn’t hurt wealthy colleges
  • Community colleges struggling to attract students
  • Students opting to stay home
  • Colleges not even pretending to treat athletes the same as all students
  • Black college success during COVID-19
  • Recruiting international students domestically
  • College fears for future of affirmative action when Supreme Court looks again
  • Zoom dating

For each of these predictions, Insider Higher Ed links to an article written about that specific trend.

Brennan Barnard provides “2021 College Admission Predictions” in a blog article contributed to Forbes. Surveying a few college presidents and admissions directors, he offers the following predictions:

  • Standardized tests will continue to be optional.
  • All but the most selective colleges will hedge their bets and open the doors to admission wider.
  • Families that can demonstrate an ability and willingness to pay will be coveted.
  • Community college enrollment will rebound in the fall of 2021.
  • Many colleges will embrace virtual admissions tours.
  • Place-based education will be in high demand.
  • Low-income student applications will continue to lag.
  • Students will gravitate toward schools located in or near urban centers.
  • The most popular programs of interest will be healthcare, political science, economics, computer science, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
  • The economic hangover from 2020 will mean students of limited means will flood lower cost online programs so they can live at home, work, and better afford their education.
  • With no standardized tests, admissions decisions will focus on curriculum and quality of high school programs.

Teresa de Onis and Matt Loecke penned “Top 10 Higher Ed Predictions for 2021” for the Apogee blog. Their 2021 predictions are:

  • Blended learning will take center stage.
  • IT will become a critical contributor to the ramp of online teach and learn.
  • A new cabinet-level Chief Online Officer or Vice-Provost of Tech-Enabled Teaching position will be created on campuses.
  • Generation Z will demand integrated career development and placement with academics.
  • Enrollment of non-traditional students will increase.
  • Higher ed will respond to historically not doing enough for underrepresented and marginalized students.
  • Esports will grow in popularity.
  • Higher ed will increase support for student mental health.
  • The Biden administration will provide some form of student debt relief.
  • Higher education will rightsize. The year 2021 and beyond will see more shared programs among public systems, reconfigured programs, campus mergers (public), acquisitions (private), and closures.

College Confidential’s Dave Berry provided three predictions for 2021. His predictions include:

  • College life will not return to normal. The reduction of activities on campus due to COVID will continue to negatively impact enrollment. Colleges that were on the brink prior to the pandemic will close.
  • New, more practical degree programs will appear. Four-year colleges will expand the number of programs that offer vocational-technical-related credentials to students in areas like multimedia, web development, computer network architect, and advanced computer programming.
  • College costs will begin to fall. Market forces, augmented by the pandemic, will do their thing to higher education. The expected outcome is an increase in enrollment.

Penn’s Graduate School of Education (where I earned my doctoral degree) published a list of six trends outlined by Professor Bob Zemsky:

  • College leaders might get real about the business model.
  • Tenured faculty will face a squeeze.
  • The traditional curriculum could be transformed by challenging students in ways that fit their learning style.
  • The three-year degree could be adopted.
  • Sports will dominate the headlines…for all the wrong reasons.
  • Campus leaders will not be calling all of the shots…the local health department may be.

In a Part 1 and Part 2 article series, Eduventures’ Chief Research Officer, Richard Garrett, predicts the following trends:

  • Expect a fall 2021 enrollment recovery, especially at four-year schools. Graduate enrollment will continue to grow but community colleges may take another year to rebound if students prioritize getting back to work over going back to school.
  • Pandemic-driven cuts – and pockets of innovation – will end the “new program” arms race. Far too many degrees have been added compared to enrollment increases over the past decade.
  • A few energized public flagship universities will announce game-changing online learning strategies for traditional-aged undergraduates. As financial pressures on state higher ed budgets increase, a few savvy flagships will recognize that online offerings at scale are more affordable than on-campus offerings.
  • For-profit higher education is small and quiescent enough not to warrant another regulatory surge. The remaining for-profits have worked hard to carve out in-demand niches and demonstrate value. Expect stricter rules on non-profit conversions and a less forgiving 90-10 rule. As far as online program management (OPM) providers, expect limited expansion due to their inability to work with schools to lower prices.

Depending on your perspective, some of these prognosticators were “in the weeds” with their projections and some may have been “cruising at 10,000 feet.” I was not surprised by any of the predictions. The only one that may be a super stretch to consider for 2021 is Bob Zemsky’s prediction about the three-year undergraduate degree.

For years, Professor Zemsky has said it’s time for a three-year degree in the U.S. I think it makes sense and support the idea, but unless an institution with substantial market sway and credibility with accreditors makes the leap, I think it is unlikely to happen for a while. Other predictions about the market demand increasing for shorter and more vocational-oriented credentials are not new, and the market appears to be heading that way.

Higher education is a regulated business, however, and today, the administration changed in the White House. If President Biden is successful in providing much-needed funding for higher ed institutions (his platform calls for additional funding to public higher education and certain minority serving institutions), don’t expect as many closures or consolidations in 2021 (they’ll eventually occur, but a bailout may reduce the pace).

I’m not sure that we will see much support for innovation in higher education, based on the preliminary releases of the Biden administration’s higher education agenda. It’s likely that some of the unregulated innovations like boot camps and OPMs could fall under increased regulatory scrutiny.

Observing which predictions come true and which fall by the wayside is enabled by the passage of time. One of Scott Galloway’s observations in his book, Post Corona, was that the pandemic had accelerated the trend toward technology acceptance in many industries, including higher ed. Perhaps Professor Galloway’s statement that the disruptability index for higher education is off the charts and Professor Zemsky’s statement that college leaders may get real about the business model is an indicator that major changes in higher ed will finally occur. Time will tell.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.



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