Traditional Student Demand

My Higher Ed Predictions for 2024: AI Breakthrough, Short-Term Pell Passes, and a New Bachelor’s Era Begins

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Every year I try to make out what is looming over the higher education horizon. For 2024, I see an AI breakthrough, a potential new source of students, and signs of a new approach to the bachelor’s market.  

I predict that in 2024: 

  1. A leading online school will launch a social teaching and learning model powered by AI. 
  2. “Short-Term Pell” will finally pass, fueling the non-degree market (but read the small print) 
  3. After decades of diversification, specialization will be the new bachelor’s strategy. 

Am I right? We will know in 12 months. But read on to find out why I am placing these bets.  


Prediction 1: An Impending AI Breakthrough

As ChatGPT and other next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) tools awed the world, higher education leaders scrambled to “do something” in response. But what? The possibilities seemed endless and the implications profound. No one wanted to fall for the hype or be “left behind.” 

AI is an expanding toolkit with potential applications across the higher education enterprise, from administrative efficiency to hypothesis testing. Rather than focus on shiny purported “solutions,” a smart place to start is with problems to be solved—in this case, a teaching and learning problem.  

In 1984, education researcher Benjamin Bloom, of Bloom’s Taxonomy fame, posed his “2 Sigma Problem:” the challenge to replicate at scale the learning benefits of one-to-one tutoring, found by Bloom and others to be the most effective pedagogical approach.  

Before and since, everything from correspondence education to MOOCs has taken a swing at “2 Sigma” and come up short. These innovations undoubtedly widened access and boosted efficiency, relative to the traditional classroom and campus, but learning outcomes lagged. (For example, read the section in Eduventures’ new Online Higher Education Market Update report on completion rates for fully online undergraduates.) 

Today’s AI, conjuring human tutor-like iterations, embellished with audio, visuals, and “personalities,” and trained to play any number of roles by discipline or theme, offers new scope to potentially solve for “2 Sigma.” Figure 1 illustrates my take on where AI is going. 


Eduventures AI Pedagogy SpectrumFigure 1.


Self-paced online courses, similar to those found on platforms like Coursera and edX, are commonplace, but are not customized to individual students and have few interactive or social features. Individualized student support chatbots are also prominent but leave core pedagogy untouched. Adaptive Learning appeared a decade ago, led by Knewton, but automated content personalization by itself left obvious human and social gaps.  

AI Tutoring or Intelligent Tutoring Systems (which go back decades in earlier forms) leverage machine learning to transcend laborious manual training and finite learning pathways. Learners have the prospect of more of a genuine thought partner at the heart of a course, approximating Bloom’s personal tutor ideal.  

But the one-to-one personal tutor relationship is also a limitation. A single AI tutor might be able to present a variety of perspectives but risks seeming artificial to learners who are used to social interaction as a learning constant.   

I predict that in 2024, a leading online university will launch a social AI model, integrating visualized intelligent agents with “personalities” in a handful of trial courses. Only a few schools have the ambition, resources, and operational culture to attempt this at present, let alone make a success of it. But now that the technology exists (companies such as Fantasy and Oterman’s Institute are already touting these capabilities), pioneers will undoubtedly emerge.   

Roadblocks? Sure. The AI avatars might still be too clunky or uncanny to be believable; it might be too costly to scale up beyond a few courses; faculty may be frustrated when trying to tune agents to their liking; too little thought might be given to how best to balance AI and human pedagogy.   

Over-reliance on AI is a recipe for disillusionment and poor outcomes. Human faculty must remain fundamental to the student experience, using the AI to forge a new combination of self-paced and social components that actually improves learning.  

Is an AI-driven learning breakthrough within reach? Or just another tarnished shiny object? Professor Bloom—perhaps himself returning to the classroom courtesy of AI—will be watching closely. 


Prediction 2: Short-Term Pell Will Finally Pass; But Don’t Get Too Excited

Making short non-degree programs eligible for Pell Grants has been dubbed the higher education legislation most likely to pass a gridlocked congress but remains unenacted despite years of bills and votes.  

The latest attempt, the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, currently under discussion in the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, would extend Pell to students enrolled in eligible non-degree undergraduate programs as short as eight weeks (the current threshold is 16 weeks).  

The thinking is that such short programs are a good way to address specific skills needs in the economy and support affordable degree alternatives; and schools would welcome a new source of students. 

Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Committee on Education & the Workforce, champions the bill as “a major win for students and workers, as well as employers who are desperately looking to fill in-demand jobs.” 

Today, such non-degree programs and students are funded through a mix of other federal money (e.g., Perkins), states, employers (e.g., apprenticeships), philanthropy, and private providers and loans.  

Tying Pell to short certificates would be a big improvement on today’s confusing and inconsistent patchwork, potentially boosting demand.  

Should colleges and universities anticipate significant enrollment if short-term Pell passes? 

Headline enrollment is big. In 2021-22, there were 3.3 million postsecondary Career & Technical Education (CTE) learners, the official federal term for non-degree career-focused education.  

But some longer undergraduate certificates are already Pell-eligible and are reported to IPEDS, as are occupational associate degrees that also fall under CTE.  

It is less clear how much postsecondary CTE enrollment is currently not Pell-eligible (e.g., short and noncredit programs), and how much more enrollment might be generated with Pell in place.  

Committee members anticipate $160 million in new funding to pay for short-term Pell, over five years. This implies few additional learners: only 12,000 a year assuming per program costs of $2,500. That is not even 0.5% of the present postsecondary CTE total.  

Have lawmakers underestimated demand or are advocates making the best of a forbidding funding climate?  

Holding back the current version of the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act are controversial provisions that would bar the wealthiest private institutions from participating in federal student aid and complex program eligibility criteria involving state workforce boards, accreditors, and outcomes data. Right now, for-profit providers and online programs are written into the bill, another touchy subject.  

I predict that in 2024 these hinderances will be reconciled, simplified, or removed, and short-term Pell will finally pass. Going into the presidential election, both parties see this bill as a win. Being seen to strengthen the connection between federal funding, career training, and higher education is politically salient, even if funding is modest and enrollments relatively few.  

Which institutions benefit from short-term Pell is another question. Community colleges and lower division for-profits are most obvious. Four-year schools might see potential to stack some of these learners into degree programs, which might make a case for investing in this sort of certificate programming directly.  

Short-term Pell, if it passes, will be a milestone, but enrollment scale is unlikely unless learner demand far exceeds expectations, and more money is forthcoming.  


Prediction 3: A New Bachelor’s Era- From Diversification to Specialization

I predict—based on shifts in some “deep” trends Eduventures has tracked for years—that 2024 will mark the turning point toward greater bachelor’s program specialization, particularly for schools struggling with enrollment.  

In next week’s Wake-Up Call, I will dig further into this prediction and its impact on the market. 

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