Second, the business model has largely been driven to this point by middle-class and affluent, well-prepared high school graduates (of all racial and ethnic backgrounds) whose parents attended college. The kind of students who propelled expansion over the last 20 years will not disappear, but they won’t spur growth either. As Trend no. 1 summarized, finding adult students who have accumulated postsecondary credits but are short of a credential is much more difficult than recruiting high school students into college. What’s more, many adult learners are juggling the demands of work, caregiving responsibilities for children and aging parents, as well as a frayed social safety net that often means a car repair or a sick child derails their progress toward a degree. A recent survey by Gallup and Lumina found that 56% of one-time students who stopped out before the pandemic would be open to reenrolling, but they also cited work and family obligations as huge hurdles to returning to college.1 Many colleges lack the administrative and student structures to reenroll and retain adult learners, putting even more pressure on their business model.
Yet the opportunities for colleges and universities that shift their business model to a more student-centric one, serving the needs of a wider diversity of learners at different stages of their lives and careers, are immense. Politicians and policymakers are looking for solutions to the demographic cliff facing the workforce and the need to upskill and reskill generations of workers in an economy where the half-life of skills is shrinking. This intersection of needs—higher education needs students; the economy needs skilled workers—means that colleges and universities, if they execute on the right set of strategies, could play a critical role in developing the workforce of the future. For many colleges, this shift will require a significant rethinking of mission and structure as many institutions weren’t designed for workforce development and many faculty don’t believe it’s their job to get students a job. But if a set of institutions prove successful on this front, they could in the process improve the public perception of higher education, potentially leading to more political and financial support for growing this evolving business model in the future.