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Higher Education Predictions for 2021, Part 1

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In the wake of COVID-19, momentous and completely unexpected, it might be tempting to go big on higher education predictions for 2021—an alien invasion perhaps? But higher education is battling quite enough drama to get pulses racing over what might—or might not—happen.

Here are my predictions for 2021 (and read part 2 here):

  1. Fall 2021 Enrollment: Expect a fall 2021 enrollment recovery, especially at four-year schools.
  2. Academic Program Sanity: Pandemic-driven cuts—and pockets of innovation—will end the “new programs” arms race.
  3. Flagships & Online: Emerging from 2020 bruised and disoriented by the pandemic’s crash course in remote instruction, a few energized flagships will go on to announce game-changing online learning strategies for traditional-aged undergraduates.
  4. For-Profits & OPMs: Even if the Democrats manage the Presidency-Senate-House trifecta, don’t expect serious renewed legislative or regulatory curbs on for-profit colleges or OPMs.

Today, we'll dive deeper into —centered around enrollment and academic programs—and expand further upon the latter two predictions—trends around online learning, for-profits & OPMS—in next week’s Part 2.

Prediction 1: Fall 2021 Enrollment

First things first, the looming question bothering higher education leaders everywhere is: will fall 2021 see an enrollment turnaround, or are we in for another record-breaking decline?

Ironically, in terms of domestic students and aided by a graduate enrollment surge, four-year schools actually did okay this past fall, posting modest gains or small declines, which was actually better than many recent prior years. It was two-year institutions that really took a hit. But first-time undergraduate numbers were down sharply across the board. This is where schools want to avoid a re-run.

With vaccines rolling out, a new U.S. president, and lots of pent-up demand, fall 2021 is likely to see strong traditional-aged undergraduate enrollment growth at four-year schools. Applicants think they can see campuses opening up fully by late summer, attracting the numerous deferrals from the previous cycle. Early admission application volume is way up at Ivy League schools: for the first time in living memory, numerous elite colleges are not requiring standardized test scores this year, and a wider pool of applicants is having a shot at admission. This will help four-year schools generally, even those lower down the pecking order.

Community colleges, if they can get back to campus, should also do better than fall 2020, but a rapidly re-opening economy might convince lots of prospects to grab as many work hours as they can and put off college for another day. The same dilemma will impact adult undergraduate enrollment at four-year schools. Any new federal funding for public higher education, to re-start lives disrupted by the pandemic, will help the case for college.

Graduate enrollment will keep growing, if not by as much as in fall 2020. The combination of burgeoning demand from a swelling cohort of bachelor’s degree holders, mature and expansive online offerings, and solid workplace return-on-investment, is a winning one.

Fall 2021 will continue a longer-term trend favoring better-known brands that can accommodate more students and sweat economies of scale. For many lesser-known schools, the admissions landscape will get still chillier.

Prediction 2: Academic Program Sanity

Anyone observing higher education over the past decade would be forgiven for thinking that “launch a new program” is the answer to most questions facing the industry. Want to attract more students? Launch a new program. Want to diversify revenue? Launch a new program. Want to jump on an industry trend? Launch a new program.

The problem is that programs have grown faster than enrollment, particularly at the bachelor’s level, implying flagging productivity and bloated portfolios. Under the right circumstances, a new program can make perfect sense. But continually adding new programs without cutting some existing ones inflates costs, dilutes differentiation, and complicates marketing, particularly in a challenging enrollment environment like that of recent years.

Figure 1 contrasts total bachelor’s programs and degree-seeking undergraduate enrollment at nonprofit four-year schools.


Figure 1.


According to Figure 1, bachelor’s programs grew 17% over the period, but enrollment grew only 10%. An enrollment lag is to be expected as new programs find their feet, but overall, the data suggests a surfeit of programs and weak return-on-investment.

The boom in online learning explains some institutional enthusiasm for new programs, but there should be no double-counting: IPEDS guides schools to report only one program per academic level per field of study code, so campus and online versions of the same program are counted only once.

When examined by main field of study, excluding a few areas where bachelor’s degrees are rare, every field added programs over time. Even fields such as history and foreign languages, in the midst of long-term enrollment declines and often in the news when colleges float cuts, added net new programs (if at a slower rate than other fields).

In a recent Wake-Up Call, we reflected on the steady growth in per-student spend on instruction (far above inflation), and in enrollment growth or gains on retention or graduation rates. Program portfolio expansion was a key driver.

Of course, Figure 1 charts the world pre-COVID. In today’s tumultuous market, schools are under enormous pressure to boost enrollment and reduce expenses. A slew of new programs may be more tempting than ever, but equally, some unsentimental program rationalization may be unavoidable. Some leaders may still hope to keep all the plates spinning until a vaccine comes to the rescue, putting difficult choices off for another year.

My prediction is that the next set of IPEDS data will show another year (2019-2020) where bachelor’s program growth exceeds enrollment expansion. Looking a year further out to 2020-2021, however, I predict that for the first time since IPEDS began reporting program numbers, total bachelor’s programs will decline. New programs will be launched, but COVID will force a greater number of programs to close.

If done strategically—and with some luck—many schools will emerge fitter and healthier, but cuts are never easy and many pitfalls lie ahead. Some schools may find that a fresh approach to bachelor’s programming, emphasizing cross-disciplinary capabilities and experiences rather than endless lists of majors, is just what students are looking for.

Of course, too many programs is an issue beyond the bachelor’s level, but this is where the problem is most acute.

Next Tuesday, we'll cover Flagships & Online and For-Profits & OPMs in Part 2 of Higher Ed Predictions 2021.

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