Insight November 29, 2023 Colin Gillespie

6 Key Trends Playing Out in Higher Education

Students on a University Campus

Higher Education in the United States has come under serious scrutiny in recent years because of the dichotomy between its growth and market importance, as well as the disruption that it faces in the modern world. Research from Verified Market Research shows that the Higher Education market globally is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.03% over the next 7 years, reaching a total market size of $853bn globally.

But those numbers hide the fact that in order to unlock that potential, the US Higher Education industry must keep up with the trends that are affecting society and deliver relevant modern solutions that students and companies can count on. In this article, we’re going to examine 6 of these trends to explore how companies and educational institutions can adapt if they are going to catch the next wave of innovation in the sector. This is not meant to be a ranked or exhaustive list, but rather a contribution to the ongoing complex discussion on the future of Higher Education. 

6 Trends That Are Transforming Higher Education

1. Student Wellbeing is Becoming a Higher and Higher Priority

There is a growing and important movement related to mental health and general wellbeing in the social zeitgeist, and this is also taking place in Higher Education. The overall well-being of students is being prioritized by staff, management, and parents – as we seek to create a truly holistic educational experience for our young people. This is a positive change compared to a more hands-off approach, but it also brings with it a range of other costs, considerations, and skills that need to be acquired as the dynamic shifts.

Higher education institutions are taking this trend seriously in order to effectively compete and deliver the sorts of experiences, programs, and support that students and their parents are expecting.

2. The Enrollment of International Students in US Higher Education Institutions has Plateaued

If you look at the demographics of the student population in Higher Education,  you will see a non-trivial and often significant proportion of students who have come to the US from other countries around the world. In fact, the proportion of international students to overall enrollment increased steadily from 2004 to 2019. However, the number of international students in Higher Education institutions today has plateaued. This is not a discussion on the short-term and dramatic reduction in international enrollment in 2020/2021 during the pandemic, rather it is an analysis on the more systemic drivers for the flattening of the curve in the long run.  

Some possible reasons include the rise of remote learning that doesn’t require relocating to the USA, the emergence of EdTech products that can replicate some aspects of higher education globally, the current macroeconomic conditions that make it more difficult for international students to afford overseas education, and the polarized US political climate. What is certain is that Higher Education institutions need to understand this trend and consider it in their planning as they try to create diverse and globally relevant student bodies that prepare young people for the globalized world that they are entering after graduation.

Students taking a photo

3. Enrollment in Higher Education in General Might Be Peaking

This is one that many in traditional Higher Education institutions don’t want to speak about, but it’s possible that enrollment might be peaking and that we’ll see fewer and fewer people enter these programs in the future. This is because the world has shifted rapidly, and the value of a college degree has changed compared to where it was a decade or two ago. With information being more accessible than ever and the staggering pace of change making it difficult for curriculums to keep up, more and more people are going a different direction with their education – escaping the clutches of student loans and instead focusing on building specific skills that can carry them forward into the world of work.

It’s clear that Higher Education institutions need to adapt if they are to survive and remain relevant in the future. They should be embracing technology, hybrid working environments, updating curriculums and processes, and everything else that comes with the changes to come. There is an opportunity here, for those who choose to take it, to redefine what a college degree looks like and to re-imagine what the higher education journey can deliver for students. It’s not easy to break away from the status quo, but it’s what has to happen in order to move with the times.

4. The Definition of Higher Education is Morphing and Changing

Building on the points above, it’s clear that the very idea of what Higher Education is must adapt to the world’s changing circumstances. First and foremost, the advancements we’ve seen in technology and information distribution challenge the very idea of what a typical brick-and-mortar learning experience can be. Higher Education institutions cannot hold onto what has worked in the past as the students are entering a world dominated by technology – one that requires specific skills and a nuanced view of where things are going. In fact, as result of this focus on relevant skills, non-degree credentials will be awarded more often than traditional bachelor’s degrees within the next decade, according to HolonIQ.

Secondly, with the rise of artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies, the way that we learn things has to change. Instead of pushing against this, Higher Education institutions need to shift away from those skills that are likely to become automated in the future and instead focus on those aspects of critical thinking that are uniquely human. These include things like reasoning from first principles, creative problem-solving, psychological thinking, and so on. By investing time and resources into helping students with these foundational skills, they can then apply them to any industry or vertical that they end up entering – giving them something of substance to carry forward for the entirety of their career.

5. Higher Education Admissions are Changing After the End of Affirmative Action

On 29 June 2023, the US Supreme Court issued a long-awaited and somewhat controversial decision by effectively announcing the end of affirmative action in university admissions through its ruling on admissions practices at two elite US universities. This means that universities are not legally able to actively create a diverse and varied student body by applying race quotas or other such measures, but do have some leeway for considering race on a case-by-case basis. The ruling hopes to ensure a merit-based admission approach, but it doesn’t come without its challenges.

At this stage, it’s unclear how the ruling will change the admissions processes, especially at the elite and brand-name universities. Some believe that it will simply make the admissions process more opaque and complex than ever, and others worry that it will simply increase the gap between classes as the disenfranchised aren’t given the opportunity to level previous social and economic disparities. Regardless of what you think, it’s clear that the way that admissions take place will have to change accordingly. This will impact not only the make-up of the student body but also how young people think about their educational opportunities.

6. Co-Op Programs Will Continue to Grow in Relevance and Popularity

In an attempt to close the skills gap that we’re seeing in most industries today, many employers have started to partner with Higher Education institutions to invest time and resources into setting up co-op education programs that bring students into the organization as paid interns to be upskilled in specific core competencies. These practical initiatives are most prevalent in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but they also have started gaining traction in the wider humanities as well.

These opportunities can only be positive for ensuring that students can focus on practical, real-world skills that have value, while also helping them to get a more realistic picture of what their chosen career might look like.

Educational building with students and faculty

Companies with a Focus on Higher Education

Here at The Renaissance Network, we’ve been watching the Higher Education space with great interest and have been buoyed by the great work being done by many companies across the industry. In no particular order, we’d like to note just a few who are driving positive change and delivering great outcomes for students, families, and the wider Education sector at large:


Handshake is a mobile-first platform designed to help students find jobs and internships that can kickstart their careers. They combine public profile building with thoughtful and nuanced curation to match talented young people with companies who need new skills to inject into their organizations. The entire user interface pushes students to find the right opportunities for their personalities, skills, and career ambitions.


D2L is a wide-ranging EdTech solution provider that is best known for its Brightspace LMS. Through their software, higher education providers can manage complex learning ecosystems without compromising on quality or efficiency. They deliver best-in-class technology to enhance the effectiveness of personalized learning at scale, significantly improving the quality of education and streamlining those burdensome administrative components that can sometimes get in the way.

Cambium Learning Group

Cambium Learning Group is an education essentials company that focuses on using technology to create experiences for educators that enhance and transform the way that they can teach. Their core design principle is that of simplicity – creating solutions that address the challenges in higher education without creating unnecessary complexity around the edges.


Ellucian has created a platform of different SaaS applications specifically focused on improving higher education outcomes. Their suite of solutions spans across fundraising, student success, data analytics, financial management, and more – all of which are cloud-based and imminently scalable. They play a big role in enabling core learning infrastructure that allows a Higher Education institution to thrive.

Cengage Group

Cengage Group is one of the largest and most established Education companies in the world, delivering high-quality digital products across a range of different use cases. They help Higher Education instructors, learners, and institutions thrive with course materials built around their needs. With roots in publishing, the group has now expanded to service almost all of the EdTech value chain.  

Education Graduation Cap

The Renaissance Network – Building World Class Teams to Impact Education and Communities

In conclusion, it’s clear to see that Higher Education is at a crossroads. The industry needs to make some difficult decisions about its long-term direction and the objectives that it is trying to solve, and then it needs to adapt and adjust to changing circumstances in light of those. Insights-led change and innovation need to be embraced more liberally, and it is the institutions that do that who will be best positioned to benefit from the disruption to come.

Here at The Renaissance Network, we are excited to be a part of this journey and will continue to support the missions of great Education and Impact companies by helping them attract, hire, and retain key leaders and individual contributors who can take them to the next level. If you’re looking for help in finding and hiring those A-players, be sure to get in touch today, and let’s see how we can help!

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Colin Homer Gillespie is a strategic and purpose-driven GM with significant global experience and a record of product innovation and business transformation.

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