Tracking Key Education Trends on a Late Summer Day

177372935By Jeffrey McCafferty, Associate Vice President, Strategic Planning at the American Public University System

Late summer and early autumn is one of my favorite times to visit New York City. The weather is warm, people are bustling, and there is a sense of starting anew as summer vacations have concluded and all are back to work.

Part of my annual sojourn to the city in the past several Septembers has included attending the Annual Back to School Education Conference hosted by financial services provider BMO Capital Markets. The conference, which just celebrated its 14th year, brings together many of the leading industry voices from education technology companies, services providers, investors, industry consultants, training organizations, publishers, and higher education institutions both domestic and international.

As someone whose job includes tracking and putting context around industry trends to inform institutional strategy, planning, and decision-making; I find the conference serves as an important barometer to gauge the current and future industry narrative.

In 2013, the key trends were:

  • Analytics – While the rise of big data and analytics has crossed many industries, the interest from academics has focused on improving student learning and outcomes, both as a matter of student success and retention, and in the case of public institutions, to meet performance funding goals set by their legislatures.
  • Adaptive and Personalized – Aligned directly to analytics is adaptive and personalized learning used to help predict student success and enrollment patterns, create real-time interventions where the student can quickly obtain necessary help, and enable the instructor to readily track student progress more closely, which can benefit all students, particularly those requiring remediation.
  • Competency – Competency-based education (CBE), a staple for decades in corporate training programs, is gaining popularity in higher education. The confluence of increasing use of online education, growing demands from employers for graduates with competencies aligned to their needs, and a willingness at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) to decouple education funding from seat-time has opened the door for wider use of CBE. Yet as of September 2013, only a few institutions had developed competency-based programs despite many having expressed interest in such programs.

A year later, all three of these trends continue to be major foci for higher education change initiatives. The demands for institutions to use analytics to be more efficient and to promote student success in part through adaptive and personalized learning have not abated. Meanwhile, dozens of institutions are now developing CBE programs, many with support from the DOE, with several more schools examining how to proceed.

I expected to hear more of these trends at the 2014 conference, and I did to an extent, especially the interest in analytics. However, new trends emerged in 2014, chief among them:

  • Competition – At a time when traditional college-aged student enrollments are declining due to demographic and some economic reasons, and adult enrollments have declined even more due primarily to economic factors, institutions have a smaller recruiting pool. The competitive pressure is particularly strong within online higher education as steadily increasing numbers of colleges and universities are launching online programs. During the conference, several large online providers discussed competitive concerns, while online enabler companies detailed how the market for their services continues to expand as traditional bricks-and-mortar schools try to enhance learning and enrollments.
  • International and Corporate – In a competitive environment, colleges and vendors alike will seek out new markets. Several institutions reported increased international partnerships and investments, while technology and services providers discussed expanding internationally where online learning is still gaining traction.

Several colleges and education firms expressed interest in partnering with industry to help address workforce learning needs. In doing so, colleges can gain access to a motivated cohort of adult learners and a network of contacts to position their students for career success. Some education companies echoed that theme as they discussed how they assist students in presenting themselves to employers through the development of competency profiles.

  • Retention – Enhancing retention is an effective strategy to survive in a competitive environment. Several schools highlighted their efforts to retain students by providing a dynamic learning environment and quality learning experience while promoting community among students and the broader institution. Technology and services companies, meanwhile, discussed how their offerings support retention efforts, especially as they pertain to online education.

Next September when I again head to New York City, I anticipate all of these trends will have persisted and some new ones will have come to the fore such as modularized learning, alternative credentialing, and gamification. Whatever trends emerge, I am sure they will reflect the inescapable evolution of the education landscape.

Jeffrey McCafferty is the Associate Vice President for Strategic Planning at APUS, where he has spent the last 11 of his 25-year higher education career working on organizational and departmental strategy while providing research and insights to promote informed decision-making.

Subjects of Interest


Higher Education

Independent Schools


Student Persistence