2023 continued to be a year of transition out of the COVID-19 pandemic, which for more than two-and-a-half years applied its grip on every part of life for organizations and individuals and laid the foundation for a changing future. The universe of educational institutions and their advancement programs was no exception. This report continues our series of annual updates as higher education advancement organizations evolve their engagement strategies to remain vibrant and relevant at a time of significant change in society and the world. (For a quick review of the past few years, see Trends in Advancement, January 2023).

As advancement organizations transition out of the pandemic years, many have been explicit about the need to think differently. What will their constituencies want and need in the next decade? How should they strategically invest in staff, programs and infrastructure to build toward those outcomes? Along with their institutions adapting to new populations of students and emerging needs of society, engagement and fundraising organizations and activities must also identify and incorporate new ways to broaden their reach to current and future alumni in support of lifelong relevance to them.

In sum, higher education advancement organizations are currently challenged to identify new strategies, expand expertise and talent, work in different environments (e.g., hybrid) necessitating solid collaboration and communication, use the latest tools and obtain sufficient resources to sustain vital, yet dynamic, stakeholder relationships. At a time when confidence in higher education is decreasing and demands for loyalty elsewhere are increasing, this also requires working partnerships with their institutions, as well as with the volunteer leaders who represent their constituencies.

While 2024 likely represents “evolution” not “revolution” in institutional advancement, several realities are clear:

  • Confidence in higher educational institutions is declining, and giving by individual alumni is down.
  • The “greatest wealth transfer in US history” has arrived, and women are set to be the largest beneficiaries.
  • Personalization matters more than ever – and is becoming more sophisticated.
  • Constituencies reflect changing demographic, preferences and voices: for example, generations differ in many respects in terms of what they value and how they want to interact; donors want to be more active in the decisions about their giving; and a fully inclusive community is frequently a core value.
  • These issues drive the need for strategic talent management and training of both staff and volunteers to ensure that advancement organizations aim at high performance and accountability, are equipped to work together as teams and have the capacity to respond to the evolving interests and styles of their audiences.
  • Regional programming facilitates both reach and strategic priority setting, while deepening relationships with alumni volunteers.
  • Along with that, new technologies require new skills and strategies – from optimizing data, applying appropriate segmentation and measuring impact to understanding the far-reaching consequences of artificial intelligence.

As one of our client advancement VPs said recently, “Exploring avenues to further develop [staff] skills and enhance their experiences will be pivotal in sustaining our momentum and fostering a culture of innovation.”

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NAPA RESEARCH                                                                                              

As the 2022-2023 academic year began, topics of confidence in higher education and workforce relevance, higher education’s costs, university admissions practices and diversity initiatives dominated the headlines. Since then, some other important themes have garnered significant attention, such as Generative Artificial Intelligence and the U.S. Supreme Court’s intention to rule on high-profile issues in higher education, such as race-conscious admissions and student debt forgiveness.

This mid-year update spotlights the more recent headliners and summarizes the other key issues previously described. (For a deeper dive, follow the references or links in the footnotes.)

Here’s the latest:

Enrollments still down generally, but some segments ticking upward: Undergraduate enrollment continued to decline by 1.1% in fall 2022 compared to 2021, but the decline has slowed to pre-pandemic rates, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) reported once last fall’s numbers were in.

Total undergraduate and graduate enrollment combined declined 1.1% over last fall, leading to a total two-year decline of 3.2% since 2020. Undergraduate enrollment declines occurred across all sectors especially among four-year institutions, with a drop of 1.6% at public four-years; 0.9% at private nonprofits; and 2.5% at private for-profits. Declines at community colleges have slowed, with only a 0.4% enrollment loss compared to fall 2021, driven by an 11.5% jump in dual-enrolled high school students.

“After two straight years of historically large losses, it is particularly troubling that numbers are still falling, especially among freshmen,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Although the decline has slowed and there are some bright spots, a path back to pre-pandemic enrollment levels is growing further out of reach.”

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This mid-year update to our whitepaper, Trends in Advancement, Fall 2022, underscores the reality that the “pandemic pivot” in institutional relationship-management has forced alumni, development and marketing offices to be more creative, collaborate more and test new ways of interacting. But while the shift from traditional, in-person activities toward digital and virtual engagement continues, alumni and donors now seek both. They expect virtual and digital for convenience and, still for some, safety, while many are also eager to be together in-person for the energy, efficiency and often more personable connections of face-to-face engagement. The key for alumni and fundraising professionals is to offer the right mix of virtual and in-person interactions, the balance that will serve the range of stakeholders and meet them “where they are.”

At the same time, and perhaps most important, is there is no turning back from the trend of recent years – to personalize, personalize, personalize. Whether it’s outreach, promotion, information-sharing, content and communications about them must compete to grab attention (e.g., video and digital interactivity) yet be transparent and demonstrate benefits and outcomes. Time is a fixed commodity, and to encourage your stakeholders to spend time with your organization rather than the next-best competitor for their attention, advancement organizations must offer a consistently positive, relatable, barrier-free and where possible, unifying experience.

Here’s our deeper dive, picking up from the advancement trends we identified earlier in this academic year…

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This mid-year update to our Fall 2022 whitepaper, How University-Related Foundations are Evolving, calls attention to a growing issue that may bring increasing challenges to university foundations – the talent and employment trends in higher education overall. AGB’s CEO Update from November noted a “meaningful realignment in higher education as an employer” and, as a result, on university-related foundations’ strategic priorities. The article, linked in full here, pointed to data in a summer 2022 CUPA-HR survey — nearly 60 percent of higher education staff members from 949 institutions were very likely, likely or somewhat likely to look for new employment opportunities in the next year. Why? The need for increased salaries, the opportunity to work remotely and the desire for a more flexible schedule. Faculty as well as faculty and staff from marginalized communities are facing additional challenges. The AGB’s assessment – “this is an alarming trend for higher education” and advised foundations to work with their institutional counterparts to influence systemic change.

As we reported at the outset of this academic year, higher education stands at a multi-lane crossroads, and the most consistent trend is the industry must change dramatically to meet the needs of students, the economy and the many stakeholders within its ecosystem. Leaders who are not prepared to adapt will fail. Innovative institutions will survive and thrive, while those that continue to look through the rearview mirror will likely be threatened by obsolescence. Now is the time to be flexible, nimble, expedient, and responsive.[1]

This assessment has significant implications for university-related foundations and advancement organizations in general. “Higher education is changing rapidly as the forces facing today’s colleges and universities become increasingly formidable. Yet within the vortex of those forces, there are many emerging opportunities for constructive and adaptable change. The acronym ‘VUCA’ describes the environment well – it is filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity,” said Barbara Gellman-Danley, President of the Higher Learning Commission. “Change does not come easily, but the past few years have demonstrated the ability to rise to the occasion with innovation, transformation, and a laser focus on the students we serve.”

Institutions must continue to do more with less while consider fiscal reforms and innovative sustainability measures. Among the HLC’s major trends particularly related to institutional costs and support:

  • Equity and Access for All Learners

In 2022, gaps are still far too wide to meet the needs of all learners and whole sectors of society are left out because of cost, location, programs and the marginalization of certain populations.

  • Broken Models, New Opportunities

Institutions need to consider moving from isolation to collaboration. Change must be intentional, based on input of all stakeholders and must embrace new models of learning. Partnerships can be helpful and successful, as long as the right partnerships are formed.

  • Changing Demographics

Declines in traditional students and international student enrollment are here and likely to continue. The shift to more adult learners has been emerging for years; institutions are best positioned for success by diversifying served populations.

  • Teaching and Learning, Looking at Options Through a Kaleidoscope

The pandemic has highlighted the challenges and opportunities of remote learners. Demand for flexibility and access is growing and universities must respond while focusing on quality assurance in education and sufficient coverage in advancement staff. With significant growth of outsourcing of complete academic programs, oversight needs to remain with the university.

  • The New Credential Landscape, Multiple Choices for Learners

Non-degree programs and certificates are on the rise. Many learners are choosing alternative offerings that may or may not lead toward a degree. Expanded credentials open the door for new partnerships.

  • Financial Pressures and Enrollment

Enrollment decreases and declines in state and local funding are increasing financial stress across higher education. Institutions are building plans and new business models to assure sustainability, and tuition-driven institutions will need to expand revenue sources to strengthen financial health, while addressing public criticism of rising costs.

  • Is it Worth it? Public Perceptions About Higher Education

Public perceptions of the value of higher education are increasing the need for institutions to show successful outcomes with measurable metrics. An equity gap exists between colleges with the resources to support extensive data analytics and those without the resources to compete.

  • Post-Pandemic Mental Health, Imagining the Impact

With the pandemic uptick in reported student and faculty mental health issues, institutions have increased mental health services, but cost can be prohibitive to many colleges and universities.

  • Human Resources and the Work “Place”

Retention and attraction of employees has been greatly impacted by the pandemic; they expect flexible hours and the ability to work remotely. This has created staff and hiring shortages, like other industries, which can decrease human resources for fundraising, alumni relations and other advancement programs.

Here’s our deeper dive, picking up from the Foundation trends we identified earlier in this academic year…

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Over the past three years, we’ve seen several universities, schools and foundations make the mistake of pausing their multi-year planning projects because of the pandemic – yet a time that multi-year thinking, and preparing for the “next future” was needed most. Yet leaders of other organizations understood that discipline around strategic planning was more vital than ever, and through virtual and in-person planning activities – which clearly required substantial extra effort for administrators, faculty and staff and stakeholders – they stayed the course with momentum to ensure focus and create clear outcomes.

Their approach was in sync with business analysts, who, during the pandemic, produced data showing that companies that use a long-term planning approach consistently outperform their industry peers. Common characteristics included linking current moves to future outcomes, retooling strategies and futures readiness through scenario planning.

Our clients – leaders of universities, independent schools, institutionally-related foundations and advancement organizations – recognize that adapting smart business thinking to their educational mission is ever more vital. We’re pleased to share several of these projects – along with their strategic plans and websites that describe their goals, objectives, process and progress. While features of their projects are custom to their own needs, what they share is a commitment to a multi-year implementation strategy with dashboards, KPIs and other measures that both track progress and enable their teams to reforecast their plans as conditions change:

University of New Mexico – UNM 2040: Opportunity Defined 

Memphis University School – Legacy Forward 2026

St. John’s School of Houston

And, as the University of Tennessee, Martin (UTM) illustrates – continuing to refresh the plan and adjust to new circumstances is essential to long-term success and viability:

UTM, which created its first five-year strategic plan, Prepare for Takeoff, in 2018, was well-positioned to build on this momentum, take into account the pandemic impacts and refresh this plan in spring 2022. Prepare for Takeoff 2.0 continues that focus for the next five years to ensure the university fulfills its mission, keeps its promise and remains viable, As the refreshed plan explains in the introduction: “Since the creation of the ‘Prepare for Takeoff’ in 2018, we have developed and implemented a strategic enrollment plan and experienced the disruptions from more than two years of Covid-19. Through the refresh process, the UT Martin community celebrated what we’ve accomplished since 2018 and explored new opportunities to pursue over the next three years.”

Shifts in consumer behaviors and expectations accelerated by COVID-19 have forced organizations to change how they connect with customers. In business, those that do not adjust will be left behind. Why? Because “platform organizations” that connect with customers online via multiple touchpoints informed by sophisticated analytics accelerated improvements in relationship management during the virtual activities forced by the pandemic. In many cases, nonprofit organizations, including those in university advancement, were not prepared to make the shift from in-person activities. Yet others did use the time to make improvements in the digital “customer experience” for students, alumni and donors – and not lose traction.

Because of these developments, traditional major donors comfortable with face-to-face solicitations in a linear series of in-person cultivation activities are increasingly responsive to “digital” and “instant” interactions – just as they are day-to-day with Amazon, Uber, banks and online retail. In fact, what’s in your “in-basket” will more likely grab your attention if it is personalized, timely and focused. What McKinsey & Company describes as a “proven formula for executing customer-experience transformations” is also applicable to nonprofit organizations, such as universities and their advancement divisions. This model comprises specific steps across three core building blocks – a clearly defined aspiration, an agile transformation approach and a thoughtful deployment of new capabilities, particularly advanced analytics.[1]

The past 20 years have seen substantial changes in how fundraising organizations use technology; those on the leading edge (and their partner alumni associations) use customer relationship management software that pulls together multiple pieces of data to create useful donor profiles. Advancement data science teams are partnering with firms like Salesforce and Fundmetric, among many others, to leverage another new partner – artificial intelligence (AI). With data-gathering and predictive analytics tools, AI – once feared as a threatening replacement for people – is potentially one of advancement professionals’ best partners.

As the following trends show, the path toward “Advancement 2040” is hyper-personalized, builds strategically and has customization with multiple touchpoints from admissions to lifelong learning in the longterm relationships of universities and their constituencies (sometimes called the “60-year degree”). These trends focus on five key areas: (1) fundraising, (2) generational shifts, (3) continuously evolving methods for engagement, (4) integration of alumni and career services and (5) sophisticated digital transformation.

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As the 2022-2023 academic year began, topics of confidence in higher education and workforce relevance, higher education’s costs, university admissions practices and diversity initiatives dominate the headlines. With respect to confidence in higher ed and workforce preparation, The Chronicle of Education’s Special Report, “Building Tomorrow’s Workforce,” zeroes in on a critical theme summing up higher education’s relevance as the economy wobbles between recovery and lift-off: many employers, and not just in technology, are reconsidering longstanding requirements for a four-year degree.

The numbers tell the story:
• 95% of chief academic officers rate their institution as very/somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work, while 11% of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies their businesses need.
• That’s quite a gap. And it’s only reinforced by a third statistic in the same data – 13% of Americans strongly agree that college graduates in this country are well-prepared for success in the workplace.

And to illustrate the challenges facing employers in today’s post-pandemic economy, the State of Maryland announced in March that it would no longer require applicants to have a degree for many state jobs and a number of companies are starting their own bootcamps and training programs while colleges are seeing their enrollments decline, the report documents. With labor shortages, understandably employers need to find smart ways to attract workers in short-term timeframes; yet coupled with the other realities, such as students’ ability to fast-track to jobs and the cost of a postsecondary education, once again higher education’s agility to respond to dynamic forces is in the spotlight.

Nonetheless, for most Americans, a college degree does pay off. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, those with bachelor’s degrees earn a median of $2.8 million over their careers, 75% more than those with only a high school diploma. “This isn’t the first time Americans have questioned the value of higher education,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, a research professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “This rhetoric that you don’t need to go to college has been a persistent problem in the United States,” he said, and it tends to resurface during recessions.

The Chronicle report also identified seven growing sectors of opportunity for higher ed – matched to employers’ needs: (1) specialized skills for elementary and secondary education, (2) renewable and other energy fields, (3) analytical skills for the financial services industry, (4) multiple, flexible talents for health care professions, (5) evolving skills for a robust and growing manufacturing industries, (6) the shifting and broadening world of retail and (7) the technology field that is completely “bursting at the seams” with opportunity.

Admissions practices, particularly those with respect to the Ivy League colleges and universities, coupled with their impacts on the diversity of the student body, also lead the trends narratives. The most selective institutions still see strong demand. While a college education is attractive because degree-holders earn more, there is concern that some students have decided if they cannot get into the most prestigious schools that promise the most earning power, college isn’t worth it. This threatens to drive an even wider wedge between the haves and have-nots. At the same time application rates are rising substantially at almost every Ivy League school, acceptance rates are falling to all-time lows each year.
This report summarizes key trends that administrators, boards, staff, faculty and students collectively face in postsecondary institutions today.

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In reporting on the trends in Pre-K–12 independent school education earlier this year, Donna Orem, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), cited several outcomes, questions and lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. With no single typical experience among the schools, she noted several common themes that can provide guidance for the future:

  • Average enrollment nose-dived early in the pandemic, then rose in 2021-22, but the picture is mixed for the years ahead. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, private school enrollments are expected to remain flat for the next decade. While this varies among schools and regions, Orem suggests the need to explore whether the potential for growth is higher if school costs were lower.
  • Student diversity is also on the rise – from 21% representation of students of color in 2010-2011 to 31% average today. Yet, children of color to age 17 represent 53.3% of the US population. “Our focus on belonging must be priorities as our communities become more diverse,” she wrote. (See more on the topic of “belonging” on page 3.)
  • The international student market appears to be falling as a result of the pandemic and the next five years might be worse or much worse according to an NAIS pop-up survey.
  • School leaders also prioritized keeping their communities together during the pandemic, but many were unsure whether they would be able to meet the increased demand for financial aid. At NAIS schools, the percentage of students on financial aid has consistently been around 23-24% since 2010, went up to 27% in 2021, but is coming back down again.
  • Other challenges and opportunities:
    • Schools accepted new ways of doing things (i.e., online school and online events) and flexed their ‘muscle of adaptability,’ while responding to the toll on mental and physical health of students and faculty. The next question is how to continue to be flexible as needs arise without feeling the pressures.
    • A deeper understanding that mental health is as important as physical health. “Schools can take the lead in becoming centers of community well-being and, in the process, improve student outcomes and more successfully recruit and retain a workforce in the future,” she counseled.
    • With widening inequalities between the haves and have-nots, and the U.S. middle class “virtually disappearing,” schools will need to affirm their purpose and their approach to this unequal society and the business model that aligns with it. If not, “the market will dictate it for us.”
    • With the dynamic demographic and social changes, “schools need to begin scenario planning now for the school market of the future, which may be unlike any ever faced.”[1]

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The evidence is clear that employees today want more work-life balance. A Bain study found that 58% of workers across 10 global economies feel the pandemic has forced them to rethink the balance between their work and their personal lives.[1]

Employees are questioning why they work – what is it for? how can we do it better? The result is a “new era of humanity,” according to Korn Ferry. Among the ways organizations will reinvent themselves in response are to become more fluid with flatter, non-hierarchical structures and formalized hybrid models of working.[2] One report suggests that “human relations” will take the place of “human resources.”[3]

McKinsey has laid out 9 themes important to employees in the future workplace:[4]

Supporting employee perspectives about reimagining the workplace experience, a Gartner survey of 52 HR executives in 2020 found that companies were already moving ahead with changes:

  • 94% of companies made significant investments in their well-being programs
  • 85% increased support for mental health benefits
  • 50% increased support for physical well-being
  • 38% increased support for financial well-being[5]

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As colleges and universities seek to become more relevant to all their constituencies and engage them in lifelong relationships, the traditional “career center” is undergoing a major redesign. Key drivers of this organizational shift are the evolving needs and expectations of the “student consumer,” the dynamic realities of the job market and the demand by business for “skills-ready” employees. Several institutions have differentiated themselves by adapting their strategies and positioning themselves for leadership in this competitive space. Like most everything else in higher education today, the solutions are being developed one institution at a time. This report is a snapshot of the general trends coupled with specific examples of different approaches.

The Context for Change

In its 2022 “Jobs Landscape” report in 2019, the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international non-profit foundation for public-private cooperation, offered a provocative assessment of the future linked to four significant trends:

  1. Increasing need for lifelong learning in a non-linear world
  2. Evolving needs and expectations of the “student consumer”
    • “Younger generations entering higher education have a completely different point of departure than previous As digital natives, they have always had technology integrated into most aspects of their lives.”
    • “One-size-fits-all education will soon be a thing of the past and individual learning paths will arguably be less defined by traditional educational structures.”
  3. Emerging technologies and business models
    • “Fast-growing innovators in educational technologies and education industry outsiders are already challenging the status quo by structurally undermining the long-established business models of higher These new actors use technology and data to introduce new, alternative approaches that better deliver on the evolving expectations of learners…inexpensive, personalized, AI-driven…”
  4. Toward a “skills over degrees” model – “While the degree still rules, by and large, we are slowly moving towards a reality with more focus on acquiring skills not degrees…Research shows that education level is only weakly correlated with job performance and, in fact, more and more companies [Google, Apple, Ernst & Young UK, IBM] are actively shifting focus away from degrees to new ways of measuring employability as a consequence of the changing nature of work.”1

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