9 higher ed. trends to watch for in 2023.

The higher ed. landscape has been evolving at a rapid pace. If there’s one thing for certain, it’s that more change is in store. 

Even as the pandemic dust settles, universities and colleges will continue to be tested. To remain competitive (or for some, afloat), schools will need to be nimble and flexible, willing to pivot, define and redefine themselves. 

So, as 2023 gets underway, here are 9 higher ed. trends to consider in your strategic, marketing and communication approach. 

1. The pressure is on for higher ed. institutions to prove their value.

For decades, attending university meant better job opportunities and the way to achieve upward mobility. No questions asked.

But now, with worsening enrolment declines, it’s clear times have changed, and many are wondering, “Is college worth it?

Escalating costs and the belief that the value of higher ed. hasn’t increased at the same rate as tuition are leaving many Gen Z’s rethinking university and exploring shorter, more hands-on alternatives.

Add that to numerous success stories of people sans degrees, such as Bill Gates or influencers who turned hobbies into side hustles that have gone on to become 6+ figure businesses.

So given all that, what can a post-secondary institution do that these other options seemingly can’t? The answer is prove your institution’s ROI. Branding and romanticizing the student experience only gets you so far. Few people care how pretty your dorms are if, after graduation, all they can foresee is looming debt.

This new-generation of students is looking for practicality, tangible benefits, and facts. What percentage of your graduates find employment within three months of graduating? How have their salary outlooks changed? Answer these questions to start reeling students back in.

2. It’s time to rethink academic offerings to include skills-based training.

Not only are Gen Z’s wondering whether they really need a degree, but more employers are rethinking their hiring practices. Four-year-degree requirements are being eliminated as employers desperately try to staff up amid The Great Resignation.

Often, mid-level, senior roles and even entry-level positions were earmarked for degree holders. And those who attended prestigious universities, of course, held an extra advantage because of the brand power of their alma mater (Hi, Harvard). 

That is, until now.

Enter this new era of work, where employers have become more flexible filling the roles they needed yesterday. People with non-degree credentials and skills earned by way of online courses, bootcamps and certificates have become perfectly acceptable. 

So traditional universities, it’s time to make your academic offerings more job-market aligned. If your curriculum lacks skills-based training, take a page from the polytechnics and trade schools. Theory is cool, but are you also preparing your students to enter the workforce so they can hit the ground running? Employers’ job pools are widening and those with four-year degrees don’t have the upper hand anymore.

3. Growth in demand for non-accredited training and certification programs.

Schools are no longer competing with just the institutions in their catchment area, state or province, or the universities and colleges they directly compete against across the country.

There’s a force of online disruptors to be reckoned with – the non-accredited providers. Think Bootcamps, Google Career Certificates or MasterClass where you can learn entrepreneurship from Richard Branson and filmmaking from James Cameron. Although not officially in the education realm (or not intending to be at the business’s inception), professional associations, online providers and big-tech giants are offering high-quality programs that more and more employers are giving credence to as they hire non-traditional (sans degree) candidates.

All of this is to say, in addition to rethinking your academic offerings, your marketing will be crucial. You’ll need to step up to the plate to combat declining enrolment numbers. Make sure to know and hone in on who your prospective students are and market your strengths.

4. Public funding for higher education continues to decline.

Add chronic underfunding to the not-so-good news pile when it comes to the future of higher ed.

It’s no secret, more schools are struggling financially and they’re seeking out new ways to boost enrolment numbers. Some are looking to rebrand, focusing on international student recruitment, improving the student experience or making sure their marketing really hits home with right-fit students. But, if you’ve exhausted all your options, it might be time to consider an M&A. Mergers and acquisitions used to be rare in higher ed., but not anymore. An M&A might just be the answer to strengthening or preserving your institution.

5. Make saying yes to higher ed. easier with reducing application, admission and enrolment barriers.

Students are customers. 

We know, thinking of students as customers has never been widely accepted in higher ed. But with decreased enrolment, funding cuts, increased competition, and the many other challenges higher ed. institutions are facing… drastic times call for drastic measures.

So, let’s say you’re willing to explore the idea that students are customers. Then ask yourself this: Right from application to admission and enrolment – is your process straightforward, simple and welcoming, like it should be in the traditional consumer model? 

Students are already questioning whether college is worth it, so don’t give them any more reasons to abandon their decision to obtain a higher education. Take a look at how your students apply and qualify for admission. How long does it take before you send that letter of acceptance? What does the onboarding and enrolment process look like? Do you have dedicated staff who can guide prospects through the application and enrolment process? What can you do to improve students’ customer journeys, to make saying yes to your school a little easier?

6. It’s time to level-up your video marketing.

Online video is popular across all generations, but especially with Gen Z.

With the quick rise in popularity of TikTok, short-form video content is the clear winner when it comes to capturing the attention of a Gen Z audience. And platforms are already favouring this type of video content in their algorithms. 

So, if video isn’t a core part of your recruitment strategies, it’s time to think about developing a video-first strategy to reach and resonate with Gen Zs on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram.

7. Move beyond surface level equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigeneity statements and demonstrate results.

When it comes to equity, diversity, inclusion and Indigeneity or EDII, it’s time to walk the talk.

It’s no longer enough to profess your school’s commitment to fostering an equitable and inclusive campus; and that you’ll get there by executing your shiny new equity, diversity and inclusion program.

EDII isn’t new anymore. Schools need to demonstrate what they’ve actually done to prove if they are any closer to reaching their EDII goals.

To start, use assessment methods to invite your school’s BIPOC individuals, differently-abled people, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, to get their take on how successful you’ve been in moving the needle in the right direction. Then start talking about how you’re doing in your communications and marketing to show your transparency and that you’re on your journey to getting it done, and right.

8. Improvements to online learning and hybrid learning. 

While online learning has been around for some time now, it was COVID-19 that pushed higher ed. institutions to pivot entirely to online classes. And although the pandemic may be waning, there are many students who continue to want the flexibility of online and hybrid learning options.

With the infrastructure already in place, many higher ed. institutions continue to offer or revamp and upgrade their online learning programs. But before you begin overhauling your academic programs and delivery methods, stop and ask yourself, should your higher ed. institution put more weight behind your online degree programs? And if your answer is yes, then should your traditional on-campus branding extend to your online arm? Scaling up your higher ed. institution’s online offerings and other important factors are worth considering. 

9. Buckle up: more turnover from higher ed. leaders and staff ahead. 

2022 saw a lot of resignations and migrations from those in higher ed., especially in leadership roles. With The Great Resignation likely to continue, what can institutions do to ensure they are fully staffed up? 

Your higher ed. institution focuses a lot of time, energy and budget to recruiting the right-fit students, but what about your staff? What strategies do you have in place when it comes to recruitment, retention or succession planning? Here are some tactics to consider as you work to improve your school’s employee recruitment protocols.

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