Transformation will be a key theme for colleges and universities in 2020. Market shifts and regulation changes are forcing higher education to evolve in order to thrive. We enlisted various Collegis team members to weigh in on the biggest shifts they see happening in their respective verticals.

Read on to hear their perspectives on key trends affecting higher education in 2020 – and recommendations on how to move forward.

1. Regulation changes increase competition

Charles Ramos – Vice President, Strategic Partnerships

A few major, yet unexpected, changes face institutions in 2020 as they look to enroll traditional freshmen as well as transfer students. In October 2019, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) announced that it has scaled back on regulations tied to the recruitment practices aimed at attracting traditional and transfer students. These changes will require colleges and universities to develop more robust communication and engagement strategies to ensure stronger conversion rates, mitigate melt and enhance their ability to attract students in an already fiercely competitive market.

To position for success, schools should look to implement communications and nurturing strategies, best-in-class training for their admissions staff, and create a transfer-friendly culture on campus. A keener use of technology to connect the university to the student will also be key – across all populations, and funnel segments.

Reporting will be another major issue, as schools will have to create new baseline data-sets in order to assess performance, let alone accurately forecast enrollment. This will pose a challenge for all schools, but especially those that already have sub-par reporting and data collection capabilities. These weaknesses have the potential to compromise the institution’s ability to provide the necessary information accurately and completely, let alone in a timely manner.

In the coming year, schools will continue to face the already-known demographic challenges, but will now need to navigate these rough waters in a more aggressive environment. Although a few schools have already enacted such a strategy, the impact of its adoption across the industry is unprecedented and will certainly demand changes to strategic thought and implementation moving forward.

2. The rise of corporate enrollment

Chris Dwyer – Vice President, Corporate Education Solutions

With the unemployment rate currently at 3.7%, companies across the United States are under increased pressure to attract, retain and engage their talent. One emerging trend we’ve seen over the last few years, and expect to continue to see, is companies leveraging education as a benefit for their workforce. A study published by Deloitte found that employers will spend $22 billion in tuition assistance programs this year and that number is likely to continue growing in the coming years.

Companies are becoming more strategic with their retention tactics by partnering with colleges and universities to offer unique and exclusive benefits. These offerings include custom programs, special pricing or grants, and even fully funded educational options, meaning little or no out of pocket for employees. This market is booming and companies hesitant to add education benefits may feel the repercussions, leaving them with high turnover and additional expenses as they try to replace an employee they could have retained with these benefits.

But finding the right fit between a company and a college can be challenging. Not all institutions have the programs a company needs and not all companies will benefit from every program a school offers. Furthermore, once you find the right fit, navigating the operational complexities of tuition reimbursement, employee eligibility and learning and development goals can be time consuming, overly complicated or expensive.

In 2020, companies and colleges alike will need to find ways to navigate these new partnerships. Some things to consider include developing corporate-aligned programs, building a student experience catered to the working professional and constructing a marketing plan that attracts the corporate audience.

3. Admissions-focused websites

Brad Frank – Chief Marketing Officer

I was at a conference where I asked 20+ higher education leaders to raise their hand if their school had an admissions-focused website. Not a single hand went up. In 2020, marketing and admissions need to come together to make prospective students the primary audience for the website. An admissions-focused website does three things:  1) speaks to the prospective student exclusively, or at least primarily; 2) answers key questions about the institution and enrollment process; and 3) makes it easy to get to the next step.

I’ve heard many college leaders say, “There is no owner of the website” or “It’s political.” If new enrollments drive the financial stability of a school, then the institution’s virtual front door should be as inviting to a prospect as a campus tour.

An admissions-focused website is as much about what you don’t see as what you do see.  Sections like events, calendar and news typically apply to current students, faculty and staff – and are not needed on a school’s homepage. Instead, dig into what prospective students want to find and help them get there.

The homepage should inspire, but it is also a traffic cop to help direct the prospect deeper into the site based on where they are in their journey. Relevant calls-to-action should be easy to find at the right time in the journey. If someone is on a program page, include a call-to-action about applying to the program. If they are on the financial aid page, offer a call-to-action to download a financial aid guide.

Why is this so important? It is more efficient to capitalize on existing web traffic than just about any other marketing tactic to gain new traffic. Paid media is costly and media inflation continues to rise. Investing in the website may cost more in the short-term, but when successfully executed, it can improve marketing efficiency now and in the future.

4. OPMs in flux

Bob King – Executive Vice President, Partner Strategy

The last several years have seen the online program management (OPM) market come under duress due to the inability to sustain viable revenue-share models. The shortcomings of such revenue-share arrangements were already becoming apparent to observers who recognized the increasing level of competition in the market and evolving views on traditional master’s degree formats.

As the cost to recruit and enroll online graduate students has skyrocketed, the OPM model has begun to deteriorate – even for the elite brands. And the rapid proliferation of online programs only means that every time another program launches, competition and cost to acquire a student increase even more.

These events represent a clear signal to higher education institutions that the OPM model is broken – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A transition to targeted solutions and fixed-fee services is a positive development in this market. One Collegis analysis found that fixed-fee models are significantly more revenue-positive for schools – averaging 12-15% of revenue versus 50-60% of revenue with traditional deals. Going forward, it means the online program market is going to shift. Hype around revenue-share models will fade and landing an OPM deal will be more challenging.

As colleges look to bring programs online or unwind from OPM relationships, they should take a hard, objective look at what they can and cannot do with their current resources. From there, they should develop a plan to invest with an external party (or parties) to fill in any gaps.

Do they have instructional design capabilities? Do they have faculty that can teach online? Is the enrollment experience traditional, on-campus undergrad-focused versus the highly responsive model needed for online? What is the marketing strategy?

If funds are limited (which they usually are), schools will need to get creative. For example: Looking to a donor base to fund program launches. Seeking out fixed-fee arrangements that allow costs to be financed over time. Optimizing their website before sinking dollars into costly media.

In summary, institutions will need to plan for a future in which they own their online programs without turnkey OPM resources. This may be a scary transformation – but we are confident it is a necessary one for the overall health of the industry.

5. Technology as a differentiator

Kim Fahey – Chief Information Officer

Technology is evolving at a pace that colleges and universities are ill-equipped to manage.   Digital transformations, cloud migration, automation, self-service, data centricity, integrations, security – these advances have become the new norm. At the same time, colleges and universities are experiencing transformative changes to their business models that will require new ways of thinking about technology as a strategic differentiator in how they service their students. In sort, the role of IT at a university is significantly changing.

In order to survive, schools need to move away from an environment where they are investing more than 75 percent of their time and money on maintaining archaic technology solutions that have been in place for years. Instead, they should transition to a secure, integrated and optimized environment that allows them to shift to investing in technology to grow and transform their school.

In 2020, colleges and universities should begin this journey by initiating a thoughtful plan to assess current operations compared to a student- and data-centric model and building a methodical plan to get there. To become the university of the future, your school’s technology platforms must first be stable and secure with the appropriate people, processes and technologies deployed. Only then can focus shift to standardizing on cloud-based solutions with a formalized IT governance to guide priorities. From there, schools can leverage any cost savings toward optimization and transformation to support student-centric, highly integrated, data-enabled and process-driven solutions.

It is no secret that students today are more demanding than ever. They have choices and the technology deployed by your university will impact their decisions. According to Google, students are three times more likely to recommend, enroll and graduate based on a positive outlook of a school’s technology. With the massive changes underway in the higher education market, institutions need to create every point of differentiation they can. Technology is often an overlooked opportunity and data now suggests transitioning to a technology-driven student experience is worth the investment. It’s time to pull IT out of the back office and bring it to the forefront of your 2020 strategic plan!

6. Supporting learning, not just teaching

Tim Loatman – Director of Academic Services

As more education expands to online modalities, learners are becoming more interested in ways to fill the gaps that asynchronous learning can create through online courses. An academic coach can create opportunities for support, encouragement and learning retention. As we look to trends in higher education, the academic coach is emerging as an important (and necessary) tool a school can employ to empower their learners and lead them to success.

The trend toward academic coaching is being driven by more asynchronous learning entering the marketplace. As more learners are expected to drive their own learning experiences, they have more and more needs that are chronologically tied to the times where they are most likely to be doing their work. As a result, the traditional office hour (an arbitrary allotment of time assigned by a faculty at their convenience) is proving less useful to the learner who does their work at varying hours according to their convenience. Moreover, the traditional 24/7 tool of the IT help desk is proving to be ill-prepared to offer academic support to learners.

Academic coaches are quite different than tutors or even faculty. Instead of specializing in a specific subject matter, these coaches are experts in learning. They provide information and coaching on “how” to approach a variety of topics and be successful in an academic environment. That support may be as complex as teaching a learner how to study, how to take notes, or as simple as providing encouragement to get to the next milestone.

A properly leveraged coach can allow faculty to serve more students. They provide support and encouragement in an environment that is time-sensitive. Schools that offer academic coaching can expect a learner who is more confident and successful, especially as traditional learning gives way to more asynchronous methods.

Gear up for 2020

The higher education landscape is evolving. Look to these trends on the horizon that could differentiate your school and position it to grow and thrive into the next decade.