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Opinion: Higher-Ed Trends to Watch in 2024

If the recent past is any indication, higher education this year is likely to see financial stress, online learning, a crisis of faith in leadership, emerging tech such as AI and VR, cybersecurity threats, and a desperate need for skilled IT staff.

a person's hand with one fnger pressing a screen where it says "2024" in a circle, with an overlay of digital dots and lines
Adobe Stock/Dilok
As we begin 2024, it may be hard to believe we are four years out from the start of the pandemic. Particularly for higher education, the last half-decade has been a period of disruption and profound change in our work, lives and play. Technology has been, and will continue to be, at the epicenter of this transformation, with other critical factors such as campus leadership, enrollment growth, consolidation and financial stability likely to shape the future in profound ways. Below are half a dozen trends I expect higher education will face this year.


In the world of IT, there is much discussion about being resilient. In other words, can your institution maintain service levels when there are disruptions? Can it keep essential IT systems, networks and applications up and running? Financial experts are warning higher-education institutions about threats to financial resiliency in a post-pandemic environment. Inflation, interest rates and lower enrollments will have a negative impact. In an article for the management consulting firm Bain and Company titled "The Financially Resilient University," Mark Krafft, Jeff Denneen, Tom Dretler, Pam Yee and Jeff Selingo said they expect the financial stability of colleges and universities to fall below pre-pandemic levels over the next three years. They said elite and private institutions will be more likely to survive financial downturns, but public universities will have “great challenges” and need to consider cost cutting and additional funding alternatives to operate and survive. These challenges can affect an institution’s ability to afford and invest in important IT infrastructure, operations and staffing.


There is no question the utilization of online learning in higher education grew dramatically during the pandemic. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of undergraduate students enrolled in at least one distance-education course grew from 36 percent in 2019 to 75 percent in 2020, and slightly retracted to 61 percent in 2021. As the pandemic began to stabilize, by 2023, in-person instruction in higher education began to return to normal. However, as Emma Hall noted in an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education, students “didn’t want online- and hybrid-learning options to disappear — even among traditional-age undergraduates.” The challenge for higher ed is to find the necessary technical resources and qualified staff to effectively teach and provide these online offerings. McKinsey and Company in June 2023 published a set of six criteria for higher-ed institutions to implement when redesigning an online experience: scalability, customization, teaching talent, speed to market, regulations and investment.


At the end of 2023 and the beginning of 2024, a number of high-profile challenges in higher-education leadership appeared in the national press. University presidents were forced to resign over their comments about antisemitism and allegations of plagiarism. One chancellor was fired due to allegations of external pornographic activities. These incidents indicate a trend of reduced faith in higher-education leaders. As revealed by a recent survey from U.S. News and World Report, “Americans are experiencing a crisis of faith toward higher-education leaders and do not fully trust them to prioritize their students.” In the report, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe “university leaders are failing students today, while 53 percent of current Gen Z and millennials believe the same thing.” For institutions to reverse this trend, higher education must work diligently to restore faith in leadership at all levels, both to their internal and external educational communities.


Artificial intelligence and virtual reality were popular buzzwords for 2023, and there is no reason this trend will slow down anytime soon. While AI has become a tool throughout higher education with students, faculty and IT staff, the next implementation might be deeper adoption as a true teaching tool. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed, "What’s Next for Ed Tech in 2024," quoted Kadriye Ercikan, vice president of the research and measurement sciences area at Educational Testing Services, as saying, “We’re in the early stages of creating a new paradigm for personalized assessment and learning; it’s critical for moving the field forward … It’s supporting teachers in the classroom to personalize their teaching by using AI to provide feedback for individual learners and pointing in the direction where students can go.”

Virtual and augmented reality are both part of an important trend, not only in higher ed, but also for students in preschool, elementary and high school. These technologies can also be used for students with special needs and disabilities. While there may be challenges in finding adequate and affordable hardware or application software today, Joseph Evanick, an assistant professor at Geisinger College of Health Sciences, recently emphasized in an article for eLearning Industry, “These technologies provide immersive and interactive learning experiences, personalized instruction and access to experiences that may not be possible in traditional classroom settings.”


Cybersecurity will continue to be a top priority for the near future. Higher-education institutions will need to ensure their spending for cybersecurity is sustainable and potentially increased to protect against data breaches, ransomware and malicious malware. While the number of ransomware attacks moved up and down in 2023, the cybersecurity news website The Record this month noted an overall increase from 2022, warning, “with many takedowns the targeted groups only experience minor setbacks — over time, they regroup and rebrand themselves, and continue to launch attacks.” Sustained investments in cyber protection may become challenging for cash-strapped institutions. Tony DiGrazia, a sales manager for the IT company CDW, wrote in December that universities should “strengthen security in areas where a breach would be most costly.” It’s been said many times: Cybersecurity is not a one-and-done proposition.


Related to each of the aforementioned trends, an overriding consideration is the importance of hiring and retaining competent employees — administrative, faculty and staff. In Educause’s list of the top 10 issues for 2024, published in October 2023, the No. 7 item is “hiring resilience,” described as “recruiting and retaining IT talent under adverse circumstances.” Both financial limitations and inflexible workplace policies contribute to this challenge, especially after navigating the complex post-pandemic environment. But beyond finding qualified and affordable IT staffing, competency hiring extends to finding and retaining experienced ethical leadership at the highest administrative levels in colleges and universities. Without strong leadership at the top, coupled with effective management throughout the academic hierarchy, each of the identified trends for 2024 can be negatively impacted. As John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” This is especially true this year, and beyond.
Jim Jorstad is Senior Fellow for the Center for Digital Education and the Center for Digital Government. He is a retired emeritus interim CIO and Cyber Security Designee for the Chancellor’s Office at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He served in leadership roles as director of IT client services, academic technologies and media services, providing services to over 1,500 staff and 10,000 students. Jim has experience in IT operations, teaching and learning, and social media strategy. His work has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, Forbes and NPR, and he is a recipient of the 2013 CNN iReport Spirit Award. Jim is an EDUCAUSE Leading Change Fellow and was chosen as one of the Top 30 Media Producers in the U.S.