The Future of Higher Education: Three Trends

While predicting the future is desirable, it is an elusive exercise. However, careful observation of emerging trends can provide us with early indicators of future change. Doing so equips us to be future-ready. Earlier this month I was privileged to speak at a Christian higher education conference. The following three educational trends are all indicators of significant future change.

Shifting demographics

A decade ago demographic data revealed significant declines in the total number of youth who would pursue post-secondary education. This data also revealed a decline in the percentage of Anglo students which has been a primary market for Christian colleges and universities. This population bubble has burst and there simply aren’t as many students as we once had.

We are currently living amidst the tough realization of this trend. My conversations revealed that an estimated 30-40% of attendees are facing enrollment stagnation or decline. Since most Christian institutions derive between 75-90% of their budgets from student tuition, this decline is a significant harbinger of change.

This realized trend is a perfect example of what occurs if we do ‘business as usual’ in a time of significant market shifts. Here are a few examples of what institutions have done to address this shift: adult markets, cultural diversity, re-assessing the need for growth, right-sizing operations and urban campuses.

Focus on Value

Statistics demonstrate that there is a growing gap between rich and poor in North America. This is often referred to as the ‘shrinking middle class’. As a result, society is less likely to invest in things which are good but not critical. The heart-and-soul of Christian higher education has been this middle class so this is going to have a significant impact. We are going to have to determine what we need to do differently in order to move from being an ‘optional’ to an ‘essential’ educational option. Institutions have utilized some of the following strategies to address the value proposition gap: Graduation or employment guarantees, tuition freezes, increases in financial awards, alumni success stories and adding programs with tangible employment focus.

A New Business Model

“We are using far more adjunct professors than we used to”. While this statement seems innocuous, it reveals a significant problem in our educational business model – the need to cut educational delivery costs.

The American Association of University Professors reports that adjuncts compose 70% of college instructors. In 1975 that number was 43% (Belkin & Korn). An adjunct salary is approximately $25,000 per year compared to a full-time professor average of $84,000 (Kingdale). It is obvious how adjuncts benefit an institutions financial situation. I am not going to address the pros and cons of this shift which are rooted in arguments of efficiency vs. effectiveness. However, I do believe that this shift signals a change in the economic model of higher education – things are not business-as-usual. I do not have a nice list of tried-and-trued remedies for this trend and welcome your insights on how this issue could be resolved.

The pioneer futurist Pierre Wack once said, “In our times of rapid change and discontinuity, crisis of perception – the inability to see a novel reality emerging by being locked in obsolete assumptions – has become the main cause of strategic failure”. The trends of shifting demographics, new business models and the need for value are shaping our future educational context and we must respond. We cannot predict the future. But we can anticipate it.


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman


Douglas Belkin & Melissa Korn. The Wall Street Journal.

Tyler Kingdale. The Huffington Post.