Higher Education 2020: Top Trends Overview

Mission Market

As U.S. higher education starts a new decade, several critical issues are driving decision making at most colleges and universities. And, as we wrote four years ago in our white paper, Public Higher Education 2016: Overview of Top Issues, colleges and universities continue to try to solve these issues one institution at a time. A promising outcome is that this pressure is forcing administrative and academic leadership to focus on priorities and differentiation, but the progress and payoffs are mixed and there is no clear path forward in terms of “one size fits all.” The following are the top trends The Napa Group believes will greatly influence higher education in 2020 and beyond.

Six big issues and their impacts on higher ed are described here…

Affordability Worries

Higher education affordability was one of the top three largest problems – 55 percent of Americans said it was a very big problem and 32 percent said it was moderately big – after affordability of health care and drug addiction in a recent Pew Research Institute report. Affordability worries will continue growing as institutions like the University of Chicago will likely hit the $100,000 yearly tuition mark by 2025, according to the Hechinger Report. Despite widespread tuition discounting, there are “sticker shock” implications for a vast number of families and students, including middle-class, low-income and minority students. Increasing tuition discounting, flat enrollment and a focus on affordability will continue to dampen net tuition revenue growth for both U.S. private and public universities in fiscal 2020, Moody’s Investors Service predicted.

Adding to the affordability conversation are schools like Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the private Manchester, New Hampshire-based school known for its online programs. Because of a new statewide credit-transfer agreement, students at 14 Pennsylvania community colleges can transfer a good portion of credits toward an SNHU associate’s or bachelor’s degree and receive a 10 percent discount on tuition. The agreement could put pressure on the state’s four-year public institutions, which are some of the most expensive in the nation, to lower their prices and other states could soon feel the same pressure as SNHU pursues similar deals across the country.

The big issues – affordability worries, recession uncertainty, downward enrollment trends, some college but no degree, the Artificial Intelligence future and hope for the humanities. Next we describe these issues and their potential impacts for 2020…

Recession Uncertainty

With a recession looming, there is great uncertainty about how higher education institutions will fare. Even prestige universities like Harvard, which restructured its endowment-management company and found new, Post-Great-Recession revenue streams like nondegree programs and research funding from nonfederal sources – whose performance during an economic downturn are difficult to predict – are not immune, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Furthermore, universities are operating in a culture of greater skepticism towards higher education that could lead them to bear the brunt of any downturn. Some economists predict student debt could be a precipitating factor in the next recession, placing higher education in the awkward position of being vulnerable to and potentially blamed for the financial crisis.

Enrollment Trends Downward

Higher education enrollment was down in 2019 for the eighth straight year, with an overall drop of 11 percent since 2011. The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal said there were various political, economic and social factors for the trend, with the main factor being falling birth rates, a demographic trend that began in 1990 to 2001 (4 percent fewer births), followed by another steep decline in 2008 after the Great Recession that will affect the number of high school graduates by 2026. This decline continues today, with 12 percent fewer births in 2018 than 2007. “The Great Enrollment Crash,” as the Chronicle Review called it, will disproportionately affect community colleges, mid-sized regional universities, especially in the Northeast, Midwest and parts of the South, and small liberal arts colleges, 20 of which closed since 2016. Adding to enrollment woes, international enrollment remained flat in 2018, increasing only by 0.05 percent, the smallest growth in the 70 years the data have been tracked.

Some College, No Degree

As of December 2018, there were 36 million people in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s database who attended college since 1993 but failed to earn a credential at any U.S. institution and were no longer enrolled in college. That figure was up 22 percent, or 6.6 million, since 2013, when the center first released a data report on this population, Inside Higher Ed reported. While employment will grow by 10 percent for jobs that require a bachelor’s degree between 2016 and 2026, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics predictions – faster than the growth projected for all occupations – the strong job market, life hurdles such as insufficient housing or inadequate childcare and institutions not equipped to meet those needs are some of the reasons why many students aren’t completing degrees or credentials, said the Hechinger Report. Colleges in the new decade have opportunities to target the 3.5 million “potential completers,” the most relevant sub-group for institutions looking to increase enrollments.

The AI Future

As today’s college students can expect to be professionally active into the 2070s and they, and the generations after them, will make choices regarding the use of artificial intelligence, colleges need to prepare students to help build a maximally beneficial AI future. AI will be the driver for a long list of benefits and risks and will require contributions from people trained in a wide range of academic disciplines. Colleges, therefore, need to offer all students opportunities to learn about AI, no matter their major, a trend we are seeing with courses that focus on AI, such as those from engineering schools, as well as more interdisciplinary courses that focus on the intersection of AI with other fields. Tied to AI is the future of work, which will rely on lifelong learning and not the old model of front-loading education early in life. The 60-year curriculum, an evolving model with the goal of developing a much more nimble higher education experience, responds to the reality that employees change jobs and careers many times – typically one new job ever five years – and rapidly evolving industries require them to continually learn new skills.

An example of a university reacting to a changing local job market – resulting from an economic revival over two decades in Jersey City, New Jersey – is Saint Peter’s University, which has expanded and created new degree programs, experienced increased enrollment as a result and generated lots of excitement among alumni and donors to keep the private Jesuit institution on its upward trajectory. University administrators are focused on preparing students to enter the city’s still diversifying workforce and meeting the education and training demands of new employers. The result is an intertwining of fortunes and a story of innovation and partnership between the city’s business leaders, the university and community members.

Humanities Hope

As more students abandon humanities majors, turning instead to degrees they think yield far better job prospects, humanities departments have had an existential crisis, forced to examine the relevancy of their courses, if students are prepared for careers and if they’ve effectively conveyed the value of the humanities to a generation uncertain of its future. However, humanities departments across the country are luring students back with innovations such as liberal arts certificates, modernizing majors, revamping introductory and intermediate-level courses and developing new courses tied to general education. Furthermore, a new wave of hybrid humanities has risen in the past decade, emphasizing commerce between other disciplines, particularly STEM or professional fields, and humanistic ways of thinking – and these appear to be here to stay.



  • “In a Politically Polarized Era, Sharp Divides in Both Partisan Coalitions,” by Pew Research Center, Dec. 17, 2019.
  • “University of Chicago projected to be the first U.S. university to cost $100,000 a year,” by Pete D’Amato, The Hechinger Report, Oct. 30, 2019.
  • “The students disappearing fastest from American campuses? Middle-class ones,” by Jon Marcus, The Hechinger Report, Oct. 2, 2019.
  • “Research Announcement: Moody’s – Annual higher education survey shows net tuition revenue growth dropping for public and private universities,” Moody’s Investors Service, Nov. 11, 2019.
  • “SNHU Moves Into Pennsylvania,” by Lindsay McKenzie, Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 10, 2020.
  • “A Recession Is Looming. Even Harvard Is Uncertain About What That Means for Higher Ed.,” by Lindsay Ellis, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2019.
  • “How Colleges Can Survive the Coming Enrollment Crash,” by Rob Jenkins, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, Nov. 13, 2019.
  • “The Great Enrollment Crash,” by Bill Conley, Chronicle Review, Sept. 6, 2019.
  • “Lessons From Vermont’s Demographic Crisis,” by Scott Carlson, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 2, 2019.
  • “Private Nonprofit College Closures, 2016-Present,” by Scott Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, June 13, 2019.
  • “International Enrollments Remain Flat, Raising Concerns About America’s Continuing Appeal,” by Karin Fischer, Chronicle Review, Sept. 6, 2019.
  • “Some College, No Degree” by Paul Fain, Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 31, 2019.
  • “More students are leaving college without a degree,” by Delece Smith-Barrow, The Hechinger Report, Nov. 8, 2019.
  • “Preparing Today’s Students for an AI Future,” by John Villasenor, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Oct. 13, 2019.
  • “The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow,” McKinsey Global Institute, July 2019.
  • “60 Years of Higher Ed — Really?” by Marjorie Valbrun, Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 10, 2020.
  • “Local Economy Drives Academic Agenda,” by Alina Tugend, The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2019.
  • “The Humanities Are in Crisis,” by Benjamin Schmidt, The Atlantic, Aug. 23, 2018.
  • “Can You Get Students Interested in the Humanities Again? These Colleges May Have It Figured Out,” by Beth McMurtie, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 4, 2019.
  • “The New Humanities. Once-robust fields are being broken up and stripped for parts,” by Jeffrey J. Williams, The Chronicle Review, Nov. 14, 2019.