Looking Back, Looking Forward: Examining 2015’s Predictions and Peering into the Future

Last year I made some predictions about what we’d see in 2016 in higher ed. I also said I’d look back at those predictions at the end of 2016 to see how accurate I was. Well, that’s what I’m here to do, and I’ll go one step further: I’m going to make some more predictions about what we’ll see in 2017, in terms of the trends I talked about last year and some new things I see developing now.

2017 is, I think, going to be interesting and challenging to predict. A change of administration always shakes things up a little bit, and the higher ed industry has been abuzz with speculation about whether Donald Trump will be an ally or an obstacle in the coming years. I’m going to do my best to see the future, though, crystal ball and all!

Trend #1: Competency-based Education (CBE)

In my interview with her at Connect 2016, Allison Barber mentioned that the number of schools with CBE programs underway has risen from 52 colleges in 2014 to nearly 600 in 2016. Certainly, more and more institutions see the value of CBE and are adopting it, but little of that growth has happened in the last year, so I’m not sure I can call my prediction a good one.

I hope institutions start to focus on students other than the “traditional student,” and more on the increasing number of students who have jobs and families to juggle, and who already have some foundational skills. For people like this, CBE certainly resonates.

I also said we’d start to discover the challenges associated with CBE, and we have. While the institutions adopting CBE programs expect those programs to be financially efficient, the latest research suggests it’ll take five or six years for that to become the case. Once a CBE program matures, it should cost about $3,200 to educate a student; before it does, though, that price tag might be as high as $50,000.

We’re also not seeing a lot of consistency as CBE programs are implemented, and that’s a problem. Everybody knows what a bachelor’s or master’s degree is, and employers mostly agree upon what such degrees mean. With CBE, though, a standard has yet to emerge. My hope continues to be that microcertifications like badges become that standard, but that has yet to happen.

In 2017, I think we’re going to see more institutions adopt CBE, and I think we’re going to see a more concerted push toward some form of standard. The Department of Education has been placing more and more focus on student outcomes, and creating a standard of certification for CBE courses supports that goal.

Trend #2: New Emerging Skills Training (NEST)

I can say that we’ve seen growth within our own bootcamp, The Software Guild, over the last year, and the rest of the industry seems to be seeing the same kind of growth. We’ve also seen a development with the nanodegree and the MicroMasters – that Udacity and EdX have trademarked those terms. Their stated intent is to ensure consistency of application and to provide a quality standard, and certainly the fact that they’ve trademarked those terms indicates confidence that those credentials will stick around.

MOOCs are still growing too, though there are some concerns about completion rates. As with other new, alternative forms of credentialing, schools and companies are still figuring out how MOOCs work, what they mean for higher ed and how to apply them effectively.

I think we’ll continue to see growth in 2017. Companies pioneering NEST programs are entering into more business partnerships with employers, which is adding legitimacy and creating a market standard of quality. If this continues, I think we’ll see more NEST programs, and more different kinds of NEST programs in 2017 and beyond.

Trend #3: Retention

Last year, I said, “Making sure that graduation rates rise, even as enrollments drop, can be critical to remaining a vital part of the education landscape.” Now we’re seeing data emerge that indicates that graduation rates are rising as enrollment rates drop, though maybe not for the reason we’d all have hoped. The recession led to a big increase in enrollment, and it seems like not all of those new students were completing. Now that we’re seeing graduation rates for the next batch of students – a smaller batch, I might add – we’re seeing graduate rates start to come back up again.

I’d like to see this trend continue in 2017 and, judging by what educators are discussing, I think the odds are good that it will. I believe we’ll start to see a more widespread adoption of technology in the classroom, a bigger focus on graduation than on enrollment and more interest in student outcomes. If our Online Learning at Private Colleges and Universities survey is any indication, we’ll see a more widespread adoption of online learning, too.

Trend #4: Enterprise Partnerships

We’ve seen federal support of this idea through EQUIP. I’ve talked in the past about my thoughts on EQUIP, but the federal government throwing support behind vocational partnerships like this points to more such partnerships in the future. That said, I can’t recall any big deals between higher ed and corporate America this year, and these initiatives seem to be slowing down a bit. Looks like my crystal ball was a little foggy on this one.

Trend #5: Proving Outcomes

The government has certainly been focused on student outcomes lately, and it’s resulted in the closure of for-profit schools like ITT Tech, which weren’t able to sufficiently prove good student outcomes. There’s also been increased pressure on accrediting bodies by the government, and I think this is a step in the right direction.

There’s a “but” coming here. 2016 was an election year, and any election year is going to see policy changes in the future. This year, those changes are likely to be significant, and among them is a high probability of some of this pressure being rolled back. Stocks in for-profit colleges have been soaring since Donald Trump was elected president, and that indicates more leeway for them in 2017.

That said, Mr. Trump has made remarks about holding higher education institutions accountable for investing in their students. This could mean more focus on outcomes and more pressure on higher ed to provide them.

All of this speaks to the question of whether or not higher education is worth the sticker price. Many of the trends I’m talking about in this post are attempts to make the answer to that question “yes,” but there are other approaches I’d like to see get wider adoption too. I think open educational resources (OERs) are a great way to keep costs to students low but continue to provide them with high-value education. I’d also love to see mobile learning become more prevalent. People are increasingly using smartphones and tablets as their primary computing platforms, and I think a shift to embracing that technology as a way to teach is natural and necessary.

Finally, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about another of the government’s attempts to provide more value to students: Donald Trump’s plan to consolidate all repayment plans into a single income-based forgiveness plan. On its face, providing graduates loan forgiveness after 15 years of payment certainly sounds like it provides value to those students by mitigating some of the cost associated with education, but I think the government is underestimating how much this will end up costing in the long run. Daniel Pianko has written about the risks of being wrong about how many people will default on their loans, and a lot of that cost will be passed on to the taxpayers. At some point, tuition is going to have to go down.

Trend #6: Reverse Transfer

The University of Hawai’i at West O’ahu has used the reverse transfer program to award more than 1,400 associate degrees in the last two academic years, an increase in the average number of associate degrees awarded of 18 percent. We’ve also seen the Alabama Community College System and all of the state’s public universities adopt reverse transfer policies.

This is a trend that I think will continue in 2017. It’s tied directly to outcomes and graduation rates: colleges with reverse transfer policies can provide degrees to students who might not otherwise earn them, which allows those students to get jobs they might not otherwise get.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

In retrospect, my crystal ball was fairly accurate, though I missed a few things. I think some of these trends bore out over the year, though maybe not always in the way or to the degree that I wanted to see. I think 2017 holds a great deal of uncertainty, but also a great deal of potential, and that makes me excited for what we’ll see in higher ed in the future.

Specifically, I think we’ll see more NEST programs, better student retention, a stronger focus on outcomes and a wider adoption of reverse transfer programs in 2017. I think OERs are going to become a popular way for colleges to save money and continue to provide value in the face of a student population that is questioning the value they do provide. I also think that, given the increasing adoption of online learning, mobile learning is the next logical step; we’re going to see more of it in 2017. Finally, I’m willing to place another bet on enterprise partnerships and CBE. They may not have seen much increased use in 2016, but I definitely don’t think we’ve seen the last of them; both initiatives have real potential, and I think people in higher ed know that.

What do you think higher ed’s future holds?

About Todd Zipper

Todd Zipper serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer at Learning House. He joined Learning House as Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer during the Weld North Holdings LLC acquisition in 2011. In his role, Todd oversees all operations and provides strategic management. Before joining Learning House, Todd co-founded and served as Chief Operating Officer for Education Connection. Todd can be reached at: tzipper@learninghouse.com