By Sacha Chiniara, Managing Editor of Core Research
2014 was a wild ride for higher education. While innovations like competency-based education gained ground, colleges and universities encountered high-profile cheating and sexual assault scandals and public sentiment that questioned the value of a college degree. We will leave legal advice to the experts, but thought we would take a moment to reflect on the current state of higher education and the forces that are poised to transform the sector. Eduventures’ research team identified seven high-impact trends and memorable events from 2014.
1. Financial pressure has outgrown Band-Aid solutions to enrollment shortfalls.
This year saw a continued decline in traditional undergraduate enrollments, putting pressure on tuition-dependent colleges to make ends meet. On top of this, states that have been divesting from higher education for years turned to performance-based funding models to guide their remaining investments. The controversy in the University of California system is just one example of a state-wide system struggling to respond to mounting financial pressure and to meet directives to boost attainment rates. While Band-Aid solutions (e.g., raising tuition and cutting resources) may relieve short-term financial strain, alternatives such as online delivery and blended learning can help to drive revenue and reduce costs. Still, these alternative approaches require a significant up-front investment.
2. Competency-based education got a boost.
In July, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill that opened the door further for the use of federal funds to support competency-based initiatives. This bill provides colleges with a better framework to experiment with learning models outside the standard credit-hour framework while maintaining access to federal aid. With an estimated 250 competency-based programs currently offered today and as many as 350 new initiatives underway, 2014 pushed this emerging model forward. Look for more Eduventures research on competency-based education in early 2015.
3. Ice buckets flooded our lawns and our newsfeeds.
Development organizations need to take note.If you felt the shock of an icy cold shower, you’ll remember 2014 as the summer of the Ice Bucket Challenge. In many ways, the challenge confirmed what fundraisers and marketers have long suspected: the most powerful messages are created by your audience, not for your audience. Eduventures data indicates that for the first time, current students are on par with parents as influencers of prospective students’ enrollment decisions. Inviting members of your community—from students and faculty to alumni—to participate by spreading simple ideas in their own words can foster community-wide engagement and generate authentic content for both recruitment and fundraising purposes.
4. College debt reached a tipping point.
This year, average undergraduate student debt reached a new height of $28,000. Beyond the troubling fact that rising debt levels are threatening to put a college education out of reach for more Americans, Eduventures research shows that alumni are significantly less likely to make a gift to their alma mater if they owe more than $20,000 in student loans. With alumni participation on a steep decline for well over a decade, the increase in average debt will only make fundraising from alumni even more challenging in years to come.
5. Midterm elections brought a Republican majority back to Congress.
While the debate over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act will wage on, the 2014 election results will significantly shift the conversation toward deregulation and changing federal student financial aid, including Pell Grants. In the near term, the presumed new chairman of the Senate education committee, Senator Lamar Alexander, has made it clear that his first priority is to slash the current Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) down to two basic questions: family income and size. Colleges will need to make up for the resulting information gap by creating their own needs assessment forms, which could place burdens on students and families applying to multiple colleges.
6. The edtech market again expanded significantly.
2014 saw more than $1 billion go into investments in educational technology companies and the higher education sector spent more than $40 billion on information technology. As this market has grown more interesting to larger players, we have seen the beginning of a new wave of mergers and acquisitions. Companies are trying to expand their footprints in order to serve a broader segment of this market. For example, Blackboard acquired Perceptis and MyEdu and McGraw-Hill acquired Area9 Apps. 2014 represents a foundation upon which we will see significant consolidation as many of the larger companies seek to augment their services by acquiring the growing number of smaller companies that are only “features” in the market.
7. All eyes were on us.
Whereas federal reform initiatives like No Child Left Behind kept the focus on K-12 for much of the past decade, the conversation shifted to higher education in 2014. President Obama has kept the College Scorecard in the spotlight, most recently by releasing an outline of the ranking system on Friday. Meanwhile, the New York Times ranked colleges on economic diversity and dedicated higher education desks have sprung up at major news outlets on both sides of the political spectrum, from NPR to Fox News. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the goals colleges should set, the ethics of the for-profit model, and how colleges should navigate choppy financial waters.
Thank you all for your readership this year! Eduventures looks forward to advising higher education leaders as they navigate this transformation. Please let us know in the comments if we missed something, or if there is something you would like to see us write about next year.