Higher Education: What Will it Look Like in Five Years?

ESI is using April to highlight our work with higher education institutions. We value and take great pride in our work with colleges and universities. Our report with Campus Philly, Philadelphia Renaissance: College student retention drives growth in the city and the region, was released yesterday. Click here for more info. We are currently doing studies for schools in California, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. This month, we have a number of blog posts related to higher education being released from our well-known experts in the field. Stay tuned and keep checking back on our website and social media for updates! To learn more about our capabilities with colleges and universities, please click here.


I had completed organizing my thoughts for this blog post weeks before the the college admissions scandal. This has caused me to rethink what I believe the most important drivers of change for higher education in the next five years will be.

I certainly agree with the many writers who argue that the only surprising thing about the admissions scandal is that we are surprised by it. There was little doubt that “back doors” into some elite institutions existed. Legacy admissions and admissions for the children/relatives/friends of donors have been at least tacitly accepted as the norm of the fundraising/admissions process for centuries. Recent publication of legacy admissions rates at various schools has brought some attention to these inequities and some curbing of legacy admission rates. The amount of national attention, however, was trivial. Last week this changed. The purchase of admission slots and the falsification of admissions materials, including ACT and SAT scores, appear to have struck a nation-wide nerve. What we are seeing, I believe, is just the “tip of the iceberg.” If this was happening at Yale, Harvard, Southern California, and Wake Forest under the auspices of one of thousands of college admissions counselling companies in the country, one might be skeptical that the offenses were repeated at hundreds of universities. Additionally, my experience as a college administrator makes me seriously doubt that knowledge of the fraud is limited to a few athletic coaches. For an institution’s president to claim, as occurred recently, that the university was the “victim” in the situation is self-serving, disingenuous, and indicative of the magnitude of the problem. Furthermore, the situation points not only to elite institution admissions problems, but also to fundamental problems within intercollegiate athletics in elite institutions.

graduatingWhile the test-taking fraud is certainly troubling, it is not an inherent flaw in the admissions process. Many institutions, including some of the very ones involved in this scandal, have moved to “test optional” admissions in recent years, finding that SAT and ACT scores neither accurately reflect future college performance nor assist the university in developing a diverse and talented freshman class. Additionally, I suspect that the SAT and ACT agencies will become much more stringent in their utilization of private testing facilities and granting of exceptions in testing conditions for issues such as learning disabilities. These are challenges to the integrity of the system that can be addressed straightforwardly by new and more rigorously enforced policies.

The inherent and troubling flaw in the system is the granting of control of admissions slots to athletic coaches. Recent court documents revealed that at one of the elite institutions involved, athletic coaches controlled 128 freshman admissions slots. Four of these slots were under the control of the coach who sold one for thousands of dollars to the parents of a student who had neither talent nor experience in the particular sport. Since one would assume that the coaches do not use their “exemptions” for athletes who meet regular admissions standards, ten percent of the freshman class at this elite institution does not qualify academically for admission. That is huge! This is both a dramatic distortion of the admissions process, challenging its fairness and effectiveness, as well as a total lack of institutional control of the process.

This also highlights the bias of the system towards families of means. Historically, there has been a relationship between elite colleges and elite private high schools, especially in the Northeastern United States. This relationship has focused on legacy and donor relationships, but it has also been centered around non-mainstream intercollegiate sports such as lacrosse, volleyball, fencing, squash, etc. The recent scandal which focused exclusively on these sports (no one was selling their basketball “exemptions”) is likely to turn a spotlight on the operation of these sports and the relationship that they have to the admissions process.

So, what is likely to happen in the next 5 years? As I mentioned earlier, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.  I think this will resonate with the American public and present an attractive opportunity for State’s Attorneys General to launch significant investigations. Some schools may institute voluntary reforms, removing athletic department control over designated admissions slots. I suspect that we will see both national and state legislation aimed at reform and that the ability of institutions to discount academic qualifications for legacy, donor, and athletic exceptions is going to be dramatically limited, if not eliminated. This will have far ranging implications for universities. Some large donations will no longer exist, but it is doubtful that the impact on university fundraising will be dramatic. On the other hand, if athletes must be evaluated for admissions on level footing with regular students, the composition of athletic teams will change dramatically and college athletics as we know them may never be the same—to the good and betterment of all.


Beyond admissions, scandals and athletics, what major changes will we see in higher education in the next 5 years?


collegeThe number of colleges and universities, particularly in the Northeast will shrink.

The demographic challenge is ahead. The number of high school graduates has plateaued, and a precipitous decline will begin in 2027. New England is already being affected with multiple college closings this year. The closings have not been limited to low-quality, lowly-enrolled institutions. Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a widely respected liberal arts college recognized for its counter culture environment and excellent student outcomes, has announced that it cannot sustain its current operations and is looking to merge with another institution. It is likely that more and more institutions will close or seek mergers.

Two independent dynamics are behind this challenge to the viability of small colleges. The first is, obviously, the demographics. If there are fewer high school graduates, there are fewer students for colleges to educate. Recently, the restrictions on immigration from the current administration have exacerbated the problem by discouraging and thwarting international students from pursuing their education in the United States. This is not the entire story. Our system of higher education is increasingly expensive and highly inflexible. The costs of the technology to provide required auxiliary services to an increasingly diverse and needy undergraduate population are very high. Building this infrastructure has high fixed costs—fixed costs that make it extremely difficult for a small institution to compete or to remain financially viable. Academic inflexibility exacerbates the problem. The structure of traditional curricula, majors, and approaches to classroom instruction remain relatively unchanged in the face of demand for new skills and the opportunities to utilize technology to improve teaching effectiveness and to reduce instructional costs. For example, in the face of increasing needs for international and language literacy, have invested in the development of highly effective language acquisition technology that can impart language skills to large numbers of individuals at relatively low costs. At universities (where the demand for graduates with these language skills is equally great), language study is plummeting, and instruction for the most part continues to resemble pedagogy of the 20th if not the 19th Century. This is true across the academy.

Thus, expect to see more closures of small colleges. I would not be surprised to see mergers of even some state university campuses in the Northeast (Maine has already moved in this direction).


Universities will be forced to focus more on “workforce alignment.”

Under the Baker Administration in Massachusetts, state universities have had to justify requests for deferred maintenance projects (projects to repair and maintain their current buildings) with plans to show how such capital expenditures will result in increased employment opportunities for graduates and job growth in the Commonwealth. That is a pretty harsh standard. While one can certainly argue the appropriateness of such a perspective (If the cafeteria roof is leaking, should you have to demonstrate job impact to get it fixed?), it does emphasize a shift in the expectations of higher education from government and the public. I still remember the first time a parent asked me about the job prospects of a graduate of my program. It was well into my career, and previously it had been more of an implicit expectation (you go to college and you get a job) than a need for quantifiable evidence. Soon my presentation to parents began with the quantifiable evidence of the job outcomes for graduates. Today our accreditation agencies require us to put this data on our web pages.

I expect to see universities adapting to these demands in dramatic fashion. Internships will be ubiquitous and co-operative education (go to school for a term and then work full-time in a company for a term) will become a predominate part of higher education. Many traditional majors will be eliminated if they are not aligned to workforce needs. Much relevance can be obtained through certificates and “badges”, and creative development of minors in business, computer science, and even languages can turn challenged traditional majors into cutting-edge preparation for the modern workforce.

Thus, expect the 2020’s to be dominated by internships, co-ops, certificates, badges, skill broadening minors—actions to increase ties across the university to the regional, national and global economy.


studyingLarge research focused public universities will increasingly develop national and internationally focused online degree programs.

Nationally- and internationally-focused online degree programs such as those at Arizona State and Purdue will become ubiquitous. In the last month, the University of Massachusetts system announced a significant investment to develop such a set or programs. This was no doubt a response to significant inroads into its enrollment base from the online programs of the University of Southern New Hampshire. As the number of high school graduates declines at the same time that our country’s demand for skilled workers increases, public policy demands and university survival needs will merge into a focus on increasing the number of adult students in degree programs. Adult learners demand program and degree flexibility. They will not travel to inconvenient campuses or commit themselves to programs that cannot be adapted to allow them to deal with their work, family and social responsibilities. I don’t believe traditional face-to-face graduate programs will  disappear, but those programs will only thrive at the elite research universities where grants and research programs pay for students’ tuition and expenses. Graduate programs geared to the development of the professional and managerial workforce will become primarily online.

Take MBA programs for example: I believe the full-time MBA program is dying. Applications and enrollments are declining. The size of full-time MBA programs in the second tier of programs (those ranked 25-50) is quite small. There is no doubt that the highly ranked MBA programs will thrive, but I expect that more and more schools in the second-tier will follow the lead of Wake Forest and eliminate their full-time MBA programs.

The MBA itself is becoming outmoded. Increasingly, business schools are finding their focus and student interest in specialty masters programs in areas such as finance, data analytics, and marketing. I expect this trend to continue. Many of these specialty masters programs will be offered at least as accelerated one-year post graduate experiences, if not as part of an accelerated four-year undergraduate program.

Thus, fewer students will be educated on campus and will be more engaged in the virtual world.


Elmore Alexander, Ph.D., is a senior advisor at ESI. Dr. Alexander is Dean Emeritus of the Louis Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State Univeristy in Bridgewater, MA. Dr. Alexander has an illustrious career in higher education focused in business and organizational management. Prior to joining Bridgewater State University, he served in high-level posts as well as being a professor for the business schools of Marist College, Philadelphia University, John Hopkins University, American University, and University of Memphis.

Share This