Higher Education Faces Hurdles In 2024

Higher Education Faces Hurdles In 2024

Dr. Mitchell is a former president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College and founding principal of Academic Innovators.


Higher education does not operate in isolation. Many of the ongoing challenges faced by American society are also sweeping over the higher education community.

Some will have a dramatic effect on how higher education does business. Many are long-term issues and include but are not limited to immigration, geopolitical instability and climate change. But there are also a good number of short-term challenges, many of them unique to higher education, that will likely emerge more starkly in 2024.

Now is the time to make the first critical decisions on how to handle them. After discussion with colleagues at all levels across higher education and the media, here are some areas that are likely to become front-burner concerns for leaders in higher education.

The Culture Wars

This will likely be fought on several fronts, as demonstrated with painful clarity after the recent Congressional testimony of three Ivy League presidents. To offset this discussion, the Ivy Leaguers will need to speak in the future with clear, reasoned, explainable and realigned policies on free speech.

Overall, I think it will be necessary for educational leaders to remind Americans that few students attend Ivy League schools and that every campus handles free speech not from a cookie-cutter manual but on the basis of their purpose and mission.

The 2024 National Election

There are likely to be financial, cultural and social impacts from the run-up to the 2024 national political races. One concern will be the continuing inability of the federal government to support a funding mechanism that coordinates with varied state funding priorities.

Are policies on free community college tuition and debt forgiveness dead? Will Pell Grant support hold and increase? Will political threats at the local, state and federal level to tax resources like endowments grow louder? Will the debates over a woman’s right to choose, diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and U.S. foreign policy positions become rallying cries on college campuses? Will the line on tenure hold or weaken, depending upon the state and internal governance battles?

Likely, new issues will also take shape that could spill over into election rhetoric.

The Demographic Cliff

During the Great Recession, many adults chose not to have children, causing a sharp downturn that, according to Nathan D. Grawe in Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, will hit enrollments full force in 2026.

It is unlikely that graduate, continuing education and professional enrollments will increase substantially, ensuring that the competition will intensify among colleges and universities.

Yet colleges are also almost uniformly tuition-dependent, signaling how new markets, especially for international students, will become critical strategically to offset growing institutional deficits. Further, the unbroken bond between colleges as degree-granting institutions preparing the American workforce for employers who recruit graduates looks to continue to erode as certificate programs grow and families are unable or choose not to afford a college education.

The Looming Financial Crisis

There is a steady stream of college closures that will only grow, particularly as the Covid support money that kept them afloat dries up. Many institutions simply looked inward at how to manage college finances during Covid-19 and paid little attention to the aftermath of the pandemic.

Discount rates at private colleges now stand at 56%, but the weaker colleges are now discounting at the unsustainable level of 65% and higher. The cost of higher education is increasing at about twice the rate of the consumer price index. Sticker-price tuition now exceeds $80,000 per year at schools that have a good reputation and brand in the consumer market.

This suggests that the financial aid model, with its origins during the boom enrollment years of the last century, is in the early stages of collapse at most institutions. The cumulative effect of rising costs, high sticker prices and increasing financial discount rates forecasts a deepening financial crisis on every level, with impacts determined in part by wealth, location, academic program and size.

The Changing Face Of Athletics

The collapse of the older athletic conferences and the continuing scramble to attract or re-align institutions within new organizational frameworks will change American higher education.

While an argument is made that these realignments were about money from lucrative cable contracts at Division I, I believe they will also have an impact on alum support, student interest, payments to student-athletes and community backing.

Further, these changes highlight the differences among divisions in how athletics works. At Division III, for example, the use of athletic programs to balance enrollments at small schools will likely receive increasing attention from groups like accreditors and bond rating agencies if institutions continue to rely heavily on athletics to make their enrollment targets in a market facing a demographic crash.

The Growing Importance Of Artificial Intelligence

Higher education institutions rely heavily on technology for their academic programs, student services and general business operations. But the verdict is still out on how to handle this technology in how colleges and universities deliver education, especially the growing impact of artificial intelligence in an unregulated Wild West setting.

Practically, I see artificial intelligence as a good development that will force higher education to rethink much of what it does, but decisions governing its use must be made soon and sensibly.

Facing The Challenges

Set against the larger background of a changing American society, the challenges facing higher education in 2024 might seem Herculean in scope and depth. There is no doubt that American higher education is at what my co-author, W. Joseph King, and I call a “third inflection point” in our book, How to Run a College.

The immediate challenges in 2024 anticipate that there will be a shake-out with winners and losers affecting the sector over the next ten years before higher education settles into a new normal. But time is running out to start making choices. I believe we need strong leadership to help higher education imagine the possible before the challenges overwhelm it.

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