COVID-19 has exacerbated existing challenges for colleges, such as low enrollment. The future of higher education may lie in technology and online learning.

The Future of Higher Education

The Challenges and Opportunities for American Colleges


  • The challenges colleges face include student demographic shifts and high tuition rates.
  • COVID-19 has exacerbated existing obstacles for colleges, like low enrollment.
  • Futurists claim the integration of technology and education can improve learning outcomes.
  • According to experts, online classes may become a permanent staple at colleges.

Calls for higher education transformation, reformation, and disruption aren't new. Admissions scandals, rising tuition costs, accessibility challenges, student homelessness, and the digital divide in education are just some issues that have garnered attention in recent years.

In the past few months, the gravity of these problems has weighed even heavier on students due to campus closures and the move to online education caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Changes to how colleges and universities operate, as well as our approaches to teaching and learning, are happening quickly.

How might what is happening now alter higher education in the long term? Some predictions include permanent college closures and increased inequality. But there are also expectations for — and early evidence of — positive changes.

The 3 Main Challenges in Higher Education Today

Higher education institutions face a long list of challenges to their success, such as changes in student enrollment and demographics. In addition, people continue to question the value of a college degree.

Declining Enrollment

Concerns about college enrollment existed well before the pandemic.

Experts project a 15% drop in college enrollment after 2025.

The U.S. birthrate declined after the 2008 economic recession, resulting in a projected 15% decrease in college enrollment after 2025. This "enrollment cliff" varies by location and school, with the biggest impact expected at regional four-year institutions.

Lower enrollment numbers may appear sooner than expected, though, as students weigh their options for the fall term. Due to the coronavirus, more students are considering taking a gap year or transferring to a community college.

Demographic Shifts

According to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, "Today's college students come from a wide range of backgrounds and bring an equally diverse set of needs." Data shows that 40% of college students are at least 25 years old, 62% are employed, and 28% have children.

More shifts in demographics and students' needs may be on the horizon. As such, institutions designed to serve younger, traditional college students living on campus must adjust to support older, commuter, and part-time students.

Students deciding whether to return to campus this fall face concerns about changes related to the coronavirus outbreak, such as the continuation of online classes. One survey reveals that one-third of college students would transfer to another school if their institution were to offer only online classes.

Return-on-Investment Concerns

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, people held growing concerns about the value of a college degree. Tuition has risen steadily for years — and along with it student debt.

Students and their parents continue
to ask whether a college education is worth the cost.

Both students and their parents continue to ask whether a college education is worth the cost; however, changes in the college experience, growing unemployment, and economic uncertainty in the wake of COVID-19 complicate this question.

Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce emphasizes the financial advantage of earning a college degree. But students considering delaying college enrollment or reducing the number of classes they take this fall may compromise this long-term outcome. Multiple studies indicate these types of decisions negatively impact college graduation rates.

Embracing Change and the Potential of Higher Education

In 2019, several headline speakers at online education conferences focused on predicting the future and technology's potential to transform how we learn and work.

While these speakers had no idea that COVID-19 was about to change everything, their insights are highly relevant today as we continue to deal with uncertainty about college campuses, employment, and the economy as a whole.

The Role of Educational Technology

College classes can provide students with a richer learning experience through technology integration.

In his keynote speech at the 2019 Distance Teaching & Learning conference, educator and futurist Bryan Alexander emphasized the mainstream nature of technology in education. Most institutions, for example, use learning management systems and applications that run administrative functions, such as course registration.

Alexander also spoke about the possibility of all college classes — not just those offered online — to provide richer learning experiences through technology integration. Two of the tools he suggested colleges utilize are Tilt Brush, a 3D painting tool by Google, and Hyland Credentials, a digital credentials system that uses blockchain technology.

You can learn more about Alexander's work at The Future of Education Observatory.

Education's Future Is Humanity's Future

Ross Dawson, a futurist and entrepreneur who spoke at the 2019 Online Learning Consortium Accelerate conference, explained that "the fundamental question is the future of humanity. At the center of this is the future of learning." In other words, higher education's essential role is to prepare students to create the future rather than to simply react to it.

“The fundamental question is the future of humanity. At the center of this is the future of learning.”

Ross Dawson, Futurist and Entrepreneur

In his keynote speech, Dawson focused on the growing connections between humanity and machines, such as the acceleration of data collection, our immersion in information, and the ability to interact with others remotely.

He also shared the need to identify opportunities for technology to improve the learning process. Predictive analysis, artificial intelligence, and advanced communication tools all carry the potential to better higher education.

You can visit the Future Exploration Network to learn more about Dawson's work.

The Impact of Online Learning on Higher Education

Some experts predict that online education will remain long after the pandemic ends. Remote learning can be uniquely adapted to meet the needs of students facing today's challenges in higher education.

Increasing Value Through Connections

Good online education is not just a series of Zoom meetings or a compilation of digital slides. Learning requires meaningful interactions between a student and their classmates, professors, college resources, and course content. These connections are vital as schools shift from emergency remote learning to fully online courses.

In an article for Insider Higher Ed, Post University Provost Elizabeth Johnson shares the need for institutions now immersed in online education to move beyond "misconceptions about the quality of virtual learning."

“[W]hen online education is offered correctly, the connection between professor and student is emphasized; the goal of online instruction is personalized, virtual engagement with each student.”

Elizabeth Johnson, Provost at Post University

It's important to commit resources to course design and technology selection. Colleges must ultimately "reimagine student support services" in ways that help students better connect with one another, Johnson advises.

New ideas about how we can utilize technology in education are emerging. For example, Penn State's incoming freshmen use online communication tools to meet one another virtually while the campus remains closed. These students find roommates, form interest groups around topics like sports and academic majors, and play online games through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, GroupMe, and Zoom.

Exploring the Capabilities of Technology

Online education has also transformed community college courses during the coronavirus crisis. Topics originally believed to be impossible to teach or learn online are now being offered remotely using new strategies, such as simulations and take-home lesson kits, and innovative technologies, like videos and 3D apps.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, faculty who teach information technology, culinary arts, anatomy and physiology, ethics, and cosmetology courses successfully adapted their approach and tools to "engage [students] at a deeper level" online.

Michael Hannen, a philosophy instructor at Amarillo College in Texas, found that in live, online discussions on controversial issues, "some students are more willing to speak up and feel less intimidated than if they were in the same room."

Creating New Options for Students

The lessons learned at this time may lead to modifications that improve the college experience in the long term. For all we know, Hannen may continue holding online discussions, even after his campus reopens.

The Boston Globe, which recently spoke with students, professors, and college administrators, reported that "advancements in online learning could allow for a hybrid approach ⁠— a mix of online and on-campus learning ⁠— that might significantly cut down on the cost of education."

Certificate programs have experienced dramatic enrollment increases in recent months due in part to uncertainties posed by the pandemic.

Certificates typically require less time to complete than formal degree programs. These types of programs were growing popular even before the pandemic. In recent months, microcredential programs, such as those offered by edX, have boasted significant enrollment increases.

Many learners facing unemployment are now hoping to gain new skills through online learning. For instance, Western Governors University's partnership with Udacity includes a curriculum that integrates multiple industry certifications with a bachelor's degree in data management and analytics.

These novel academic formats allow students to acquire critical job skills and industry certifications in months instead of years.

Ongoing discussions on the length of time it takes to earn a degree are important. Higher education consultant Marguerite Dennis views the lessons learned during COVID-19 as an opportunity to move to a 12-month academic year — an approach that would "combine the best of in-person and online learning and ... contribute to improved progression and graduation rates."

Remaining Flexible About the Future of Higher Education

What will college look like in the future? The number of decisions that university presidents must make in response to the coronavirus is overwhelming. No one knows for certain how these decisions will play out, though long-term changes are probable.

Student expectations will likely shift as well. Flexibility in your vision of what college will and should be like is key. You should also maintain focus on your long-term educational and career goals.

Ideas and solutions to challenges in higher education continue to emerge as leaders in the field move past the short-term decisions concerning the upcoming fall term.