Throughout the past year, American colleges and universities faced many challenges, with multiple institutions struggling to manage budget deficits and many prominent university presidents having no choice but to resign. What’s more, state legislatures worked up their attacks on diversity and curricular initiatives, and there was a substantial decline in the number of new freshmen, an issue that raised concerns about a continued downturn in college attendance.

What about 2024? Will this year be as tumultuous as the previous one, or will it bring new opportunities to universities? Let’s delve into the predictions and trends for this year to see what higher education institutions should expect.

Shifting admissions dynamics

According to an article from Insider Higher Education, college admissions will change this year. After the Supreme Court’s decision concerning selective colleges, there will be race-conscious considerations. On the flip side, institutions will be increasingly committed to student diversity by implementing new enrollment strategies that comply with the court’s ruling. Moreover, additional colleges will likely no longer give an admissions advantage to alumni children in response to the constant criticism of legacy admissions.

In 2024, there will also be an increase in direct or guaranteed admission programs, with universities looking to enhance enrollments and reach students who may not otherwise even consider college. To further persuade students to enroll, institutions will likely extend college preparation. It’s worth noting that market research plays a critical role in helping institutions figure out ways to attract more students by understanding their needs and, therefore, remaining relevant in the evolving higher education sector. So, to maintain academic standards and boost student satisfaction, institutions should hire a company specialized in higher education research, such as Savanta.  

Enhanced learning opportunities with AI

AI has permeated every aspect of modern life, including higher education. So, this year, instead of worrying that generative AI could cause students to cheat, universities will embrace AI to enhance the teaching experience and provide personalized learning opportunities.  Complete College America, the national nonprofit, is creating a Council on Equitable AI in Higher Education to represent different higher education stakeholders and consult with major tech companies to leverage AI to enhance access to a college degree.

With the growing implementation of AI in sectors like healthcare and finance, healthcare initiatives, and so on, it won’t be surprising to see institutions providing sophisticated courses for students and graduate and undergraduate degrees in big data, AI, and machine learning. Moreover, universities will hire more faculty skilled in AI as part of their search to achieve federal AI funding in different fields, including cybersecurity, climate change, mental health, finance, law, medicine, and agriculture, to name a few. This is a necessary move considering that support for AI research is anything but cheap.

Curricular innovations for a workforce-ready future

Employers are increasingly questioning the relevance of a college degree and seeking practical skills in potential employees. For this reason, universities will implement curricular alternatives this year that aim to improve the appeal of the baccalaureate degree for students and hiring managers alike. Although previous attempts were to reduce the time required to earn a college degree, the approach “College in 3 Exchange” seeks to change the undergraduate curriculum so that the required credit hours will be reduced considerably (sometimes even to as few as 90 credit hours).  The exchange started in 2021, has already got 17 institutions onboard, and is designing unique undergraduate degree programs that students can complete in three years. Some options, such as the American Public University System and Brigham Young University-Idaho, have already obtained the required accreditation approval.

Furthermore, universities will search for ways to enhance traditional undergraduate majors by offering skills-oriented training and courses, whether through industry-approved certificates or experiences such as internships. This is an essential shift to pay attention to, as it aims to making education more relevant in the job market.

Stronger focus on the wellbeing of students

This year, higher education institutions are emphasizing students’ mental health more, recognizing its tremendous role in ensuring academic success. An increasing number of students are experiencing mental health issues like anxiety and depression – in fact, according to an ACHA 2023 survey, around 76% out of 55,000 reported dealing with some sort of psychological distress, whether moderate or severe.

Given that mental health problems reduce not only the quality of students’ lives but also their academic achievement and satisfaction with their college experience. Moreover, they affect their future employment, which ultimately negatively impacts students and the larger society, as students can no longer contribute significant skills to the job market. Hence, institutions will focus this year on addressing these concerns by strengthening access to mental health services to foster mental resilience in students. Universities will not limit themselves to being knowledge hubs but rather commit to safeguarding the wellbeing of students through reactive and preventive measures.

 Embracing change in the higher education sector

Although higher education institutions are considered to play a crucial role in promoting lifelong learning, it’s worth noting that they have been under increasing pressure because they no longer seem to have societal relevance, especially in the eyes of hiring managers. Therefore, institutions must take the necessary steps to equip students with a set of skills that better prepare them for the job market.

As highlighted in the article, many trends will shape the higher education sector this year, and institutions must be flexible and adapt to them if they want to stay relevant and innovative. While it might not be easy to embrace this shift, it’s necessary given the evolving requirements of students, and it will also provide benefits to institutions because alumni could return to their classrooms during their careers to stay on top of new developments in their field. Considering the role that higher education plays in society, it’s not surprising that universities are impacted by the wider world’s issues, and therefore, need to demonstrate their commitment to addressing them effectively, whether we talk about sustainability, or creating inclusive and equitable learning environments. Moreover, the importance of mental health is not to be neglected, either, because providing the necessary support for students to cope with their issues will offer better chances for learning and success.