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Looking at the Future of Higher Education

This edited excerpt from the study “The Future of Higher Education: A View From CHEMA” discusses key drivers of change ahead and institutional readiness for change.

By Philip Goldstein

Earlier this year, the Council of Higher Education Management Associations sponsored a collaborative project to look at the future of higher education from the perspective of its administrative leadership. CHEMA asked the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research to design this study and perform the analysis. A CHEMA volunteer steering committee guided the development of research questions and reviewed the results of the analysis.

The research included two major activities. First, a quantitative survey was distributed to the board of directors of each association. Second, qualitative interviews were conducted with multiple representatives of each participating association.

Survey responses were received from 190 individuals representing 22 associations. Nearly all of the respondents are presently employed by institutions of higher education. The majority of respondents work at large public institutions. Among the 190 respondents:

  • 55.6 percent are from doctoral institutions.
  • 41.6 percent are from institutions with more than 15,000 students.
  • 55.8 percent are from public institutions.
  • 57.4 percent have more than 20 years experience in higher education.

Key Drivers of Change

We asked respondents to select their top three drivers of future changes. More than half of respondents (60.5 percent) see financial constraints as the most significant driver of change. The next two most frequently selected factors were technological change (32.6 percent) and changing student demographics (23.7 percent). Table 1 lists the percentage of respondents who selected each factor for both higher education as a whole and for the respondent’s function.

Table 1. Top Three Change Drivers in Higher Education and My Function (n=190)
For Higher Ed
For My Function
Drivers
Percent
Percent

Insufficient financial resources

60.5
53.7

Technological change

32.6
31.1

Changing student demographics

23.7
14.7

Aging and expanding plant

21.1
24.7

Demonstrate outcomes

20.5
26.3

Rising consumer expectations

18.9
17.4

Increased regulation

17.4
14.2

24X7 service

16.3
25.8

Rising student expectations

15.3
22.1

Global marketplace

14.7
6.3

Increased competition

14.2
10

Workforce demographics

12.6
8.9

Pressure to reduce tuition

8.4
2.1

Privatization

6.3
10

Decline in enrollment

3.7
1.6

Managing IP rights

2.6
6.3

Lack of skilled workforce

2.1
10

Declining student retention

1.6
2.6

Change, But How Much?

The majority of participants expect significant change both for their institution and their individual functional areas, with the greatest expectations among participants at public institutions where the decline in government funding is expected to bring about significant changes in strategy and behavior. Respondents were also asked to indicate their level of agreement with four specific changes that higher education will encounter. We asked respondents to agree or disagree that in the next 10 years, higher education will:

  • face more competition.
  • have sufficient funds to meet strategic objectives.
  • face pressure to reduce tuition.
  • improve the quality of education.

Scale 1- strongly disagree, 2 – disagree, 3 – neutral, 4- agree, 5 – strongly agree

As Figure 1 illustrates, respondents on average agree that higher education will face more competition, will be under greater pressure to reduce tuition, and will make strides in improving the quality of education. Again, respondents were not uniform in their view of the future. The strongest response came in regard to the question of sufficiency of future resources. Respondents disagree strongly that institutions will have sufficient financial resources to meet future strategic objectives.

Respondents had similar expectations for change for their individual functional areas as well. Using the same five-point scale, respondents agreed somewhat that their functional area would change dramatically (3.7), face more competition (3.62), and be under pressure to reduce costs (3.65). Respondents agreed more strongly that they would also achieve improvements in the quality of service in the future (3.99). As they did for higher education as a whole, respondents also disagreed that their functional areas would have sufficient resources to meet strategic objectives (2.84).

Are We Ready for the Future?

To understand the degree to which respondents believe that their institutions are capable of managing change, we identified change enablers that would be necessary to successfully anticipate, plan, and implement change. Respondents expressed the most confidence in institutional leadership, technology, student services, and knowledge of the external environment as change enablers. Respondents expressed the least confidence in human resource practices, perhaps indicating concern about future challenges in recruiting and retaining a skilled workforce in light of changing demographics and enhanced competition.

CHEMA’s study suggests that a set of interconnected forces are buffeting higher education. At a macro level, heightened competition, changing revenue streams, demographics, technology, and altered public perceptions are all creating serious threats and opportunities for higher education. These same forces are altering the landscape for most, if not all, of the individual functions of a university that are represented in this study.

The study also suggests a set of critical questions that institutions and functions should be mindful of as we chart a course to the future.

  1. How can we alter the underlying economics of our institutions and functions to be able to contain costs while serving the increasing expectations of our constituents?
  1. Do we understand how changing demographics will impact the composition of our students?
  1. Have we developed an understanding of the new competition we will face and the new markets in which our institutions and functions may compete?
  1. Have we done enough to demonstrate how our functions can be supportive of the broader mission and strategies of our institutions?
  1. Are we prepared to recruit and retain the workforce of the future?
  1. Are we developing the next generation of leaders for our functions and our institutions?

Philip Goldstein is a research fellow with the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research.