4 minute read 17 May 2023

Higher education’s new era

Not unlike other moments of political, cultural, and economic upheaval throughout our history, the global pandemic ushered in a new period of disruption for colleges and universities.

Cole Clark

Cole Clark

United States

Megan Cluver

Megan Cluver

United States

Higher education is facing a moment of change.

For the last three years, through a global pandemic, we have witnessed a great reassessment going on in the United States and around the world. It’s happening on many different levels—from how we live and work to what we value in life—all with significant consequences for higher education going forward.

In many ways, this time is not unlike other moments of political, cultural, and economic upheaval throughout our history and the long-lasting impact each had on colleges and universities. Other disruptive eras such as after the Civil War and World War II or during the Baby Boom influx of students into campuses, the Internet Revolution, and the Great Recession of 2008all tended to reward innovative institutions and transform higher education in ways we only fully understood years, or even decades, later.

The articles in this collection outline trends and opportunities that face the higher education sector today, regardless of geography, institutional type (e.g., research, teaching, public, private, etc.), or brand. They include:

These trends shouldn’t be taken as exhaustive or prescriptive, but rather as prompts to drive discussion and ideas for institutions. As we came to understand from our many and varied conversations with presidents and chancellors (see sidebar, “About the research”), there isn’t a single pathway forward for higher education. Rather, the trends outlined here provide opportunity for institutions to mix and match opportunities, have them overlap, and evolve over time. But we can say this for sure from our discussions and direct engagement with institutions across the country: Given the intersection of enrollment, fiscal, and talent forces at play on campuses, coupled with the workforce needs of the future, this is a “new era” for higher education—one that requires colleges to set themselves apart as whole new institutions, rather than stake their future on tweaks around the edges.

About the research

Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence convened college and university presidents in December 2022 at Deloitte University in Westlake, Texas. This inaugural annual Forum on the New Era of Higher Education (New Era Forum) was designed to foster a conversation in a closed, intimate setting on the trends driving disruption and opportunity for change on campuses in order to help leaders better understand the connective tissue between these key issues and the opportunities they create among the array of institutions that gathered at Deloitte University. The center’s goal with the New Era Forum is to find ways for institutional leaders to share successes and learn from failures in order to achieve lasting and positive changes more rapidly. This research synthesizes and prioritizes trends that were informed by the discussions with the New Era Forum community.

In this period of high conflict, polarization, and eroding trust in institutions, both public and private, a strong higher education community that is increasing access to education—and therefore economic mobility—and expanding the frontiers of research is more important than ever.

Higher education is far from monolithic. The sector is a tapestry of institutions that serve a wide variety of constituents and stakeholders. Yet, many institutions share similar challenges, despite being very different in terms of their location, learners served, and scope and scale. Despite the differences across the sector, there are many issues, challenges, and opportunities that are common across institutions. By meaningfully engaging in topics that have implications for the entirety of the sector, the future of higher education will emerge stronger, informed by the experiences and innovations that have developed organically and inorganically across institutions and within adjacent sectors.

The prevailing external narrative around higher education today is of a sector slow to change, starved for business and operating model innovation, and possibly even predatory in some cases (as evidenced by the steadily declining public trust and erosion in the belief in the “return on investment” of the sector). Some of this decline in trust is not without merit. The “paradox” of declining public trust and the empirical evidence of the value of higher education is becoming stark. Despite this prevailing narrative, there has been significant innovation from all corners of the higher education spectrum from which we can all learn—although institutions will continue to incorporate aspects differently into varied missions.

As the higher education sector emerges into its new era, there is a compelling need to break down intra-industry silos, finding the common ground among top research schools, small/mid-sized privates, regional publics, state systems, athletic conferences, religious affiliation, etc. Limiting the scope of our common efforts could minimize innovation and reduce our collective ability to truly change the declining perception of higher education in America and internationally.

Change comes slowly in higher education, and this isn’t helped by the relatively slow pace of the exogenous forces acting on us (slow drip of enrollment declines, confined only to certain segments of the higher ed panoply, or the incremental jumps in distrust in other institutions, which leads us to believe: “We’re better than most … so why change?”). Regardless of what corner of the higher education ecosystem an institution occupies, these challenges (and opportunities) are shared by all.

  1. Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and Demand for Higher Education (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).

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The authors would like to thank the following colleagues for their sizeable contributions to the report: Tiffany Dovey Fishman, Pete Fritz, Cynthia Vitters, and Jake Braunsdorf. They would also like to thank the participants in Deloitte’s inaugural Forum on the New Era of Higher Education, whose perspectives and insights helped shape the contents of the report.

Cover image by: Sofia Sergi and Sonya Vasilieff

Partners on the path forward

Faced with complex issues and untapped opportunities, higher education institutions need fresh perspectives and advanced skill sets to chart a way forward. Deloitte’s Higher Education practice brings those to the table, enabling us to serve as a uniquely effective, collaborative partner. As a leading provider of higher education professional services, we help institutions around the world address complex challenges from multiple perspectives. We work with an extensive variety of colleges, universities, research institutions, community colleges, and systems of higher education, creating new pathways to success for their students, and for themselves. We contribute to the greater discourse on access, affordability, persistence, and other key issues, and we craft practical solutions to address such issues within the unique culture and governance structure of each individual institution.

About Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence

Higher education institutions confront a number of challenges, from dramatic shifts in sources of funding resulting from broader structural changes in the economy to demands for greater accountability at all levels to the imperative to increase effectiveness and efficiency through the adoption of modern technology. Deloitte’s Center for Higher Education Excellence focuses on groundbreaking research to help colleges and universities navigate these challenges and reimagine how they achieve innovation in every aspect of the future college campus—teaching, learning, and research. Through forums and immersive lab sessions, we plan to engage the higher education community collaboratively on a transformative journey, exploring critical topics, overcoming constraints, and expanding the limits of the art of the possible.

Cole Clark

Cole Clark

Managing Director | Higher Education


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