It’s all bets off in 2020. So what’s next for higher education organizations? We consulted the experts to reveal the top higher ed trends in tech, marketing and enrollment.

Right now, it’s hard to make predictions, especially when it comes to higher ed.

Currently, more than 1.2 billion students have been affected by global lockdowns and today’s colleges and universities are working tirelessly to ensure their organizations stay resilient in the face of a new normal.


With so much in flux, we reached out to some of the brightest minds higher ed to get their best predictions on how the higher education landscape will evolve. Here’s what they had to say.

Table Of Contents

  • Top Tech Predictions

  • Higher Ed Marketing Finally Gets An Upgrade

  • Enrollment Trends: What Can We Expect?

Higher Ed Trend #1: Remote Learning Will Continue (But Not Like You Think)

“The days of online education being synonymous with adult education are over. The campus model as we know it is being challenged and may potentially change forever.”

—Seth Odell, Vice Chancellor of Marketing, National University System


With the recent pandemic, the spike in distance learning comes as no surprise. 

Even higher ed organizations that were once reluctant to transition to remote training and learning are now moving at full speed to transition to a fully digital operation.

But remote education is neither something new nor experimental. In 2017, there were already over 6 million Americans pursuing online training and the trend has only been gaining traction with every passing year. 

The global quarantine? That was merely fuel for the fire. 

Prior to the coronavirus epidemic, the average online student age was 32 years old and 68% of online students were experienced professionals. According to higher ed expert Seth Odell, this is set to change.

“It is highly likely that we will see a dramatic increase in demand for fully online offerings from Gen Z,” says Seth.

Some studies demonstrated that students require 40 to 60% less time to learn and retain 25 to 60% more material when learning online. With data like this to back it up, online learning will become a viable option for a new generation of students, prompting a growing number of higher ed organizations to finally start making it a staple in their programs. 

Higher Ed Trend #2: The Rise of Blended and Hybrid Models

“This [crisis] will have a particularly strong impact on how much higher education embraces hybrid approaches to learning and participation.”

—Kelly Walsh, Founder of EmergingEdTech & CIO at The College of Westchester

Prior to 2020, the discussion around traditional vs. non-traditional methods of learning was still pretty binary: on-campus or online. 

Not anymore. 

“Blended and flipped learning have been a growing trend for over a decade now, and this will certainly continue to evolve and expand,” says edtech expert and College of Westchester CIO, Kelly Walsh.

We already have a rich set of studies demonstrating how hybrid and interactive learning provides greater flexibility and improves academic results. Now that we’re under the current circumstances, more higher ed organizations will experiment with new approaches for educating their students—and there will be some bumps along the way.

“It might seem a little harder for some forms of active learning (experiential, project based, inquiry based, constructivism, etc.) to take place in a remote teaching environment, but it doesn’t have to be,” explains Kelly.

According to experts like Kelly, this inevitable shift comes down to two key trends:

  1. Technology is catching up. Advancements in virtual reality, augmented reality, and video conferencing allows educators to reach a new level of engagement during their online sessions.

  2. Web-based resources are becoming the norm. As Kelly puts it, “Having a robust web-based set of resources is something that should be essential in every course and hopefully that becomes more the norm going forward.”

“Of course, there may be some students and faculty who aren’t having a great experience and may come down on the side of face-to-face more strongly than ever,” Kelly cautions. “But I imagine there will be a larger faction that will take good tools and techniques away from the experience.”

Higher Ed Trend #3: Crisis Online Formats Will Need An Upgrade

“We run the risk of creating enemies of online formats with poorly designed and implemented courses.”

— Terri Griffith, award-winning author and consultant in higher education

As higher ed leaders scrambled to service their students amidst a truly unprecedented crisis, many universities created online formats reactively rather than actively.

Terri Griffith, speaker, author and consultant spanning high tech, education, and more acknowledges these reactive efforts as ‘Crisis Online Formats’ that should later be improved on.

“This is a great time for higher education to offer material in smaller bites, and bites that are more closely tied to a person’s needs at the moment,” says Terri. “Online and some asynchronous offerings can help us with that.”

But the work is far from done. 

“Schools that hadn’t yet made big moves into testing different types of online formats will now have experiences to guide them as they get the chance to move from Crisis Online Formats to more thoughtful ones,” she adds.

As Terri states in her blog on Crisis Online Formats, “We run the risk of creating enemies of online formats with poorly designed and implemented courses.”

Higher Education Trend #4: Survival Of The Most Adaptable

“The crisis will result in some institutions accelerating their reach while others will fall behind. Institutions that are nimble, quickly adapting in best interest of their stakeholders, will increase in value.”

—Teresa Paulsen, Founder & Owner, Teresa Paulsen Communication LLC

The ongoing crisis and following recession will reveal a lot as colleges and universities adapt to the unknown.

The choices you make today can make or break your success over the long term.

According to experts like Teresa Paulsen, founder and owner of Teresa Paulsen Communication, we can expect to see some organizations fall behind, while others speed far ahead.

“As an example, students—whether on campus or in distance learning—need uniform, consumer-friendly web interfaces for class registration and other tasks, versus dozens of distinct microsites from the same school,” says expert Teresa Paulsen.

Why has it taken a global health crisis for higher eds to finally upgrade their online presence?

Here’s Teresa.

“Most institutions are decades behind today’s consumer expectations when it comes to web interface. Consumer orientation was a basic element of success pre-crisis, and the crisis even further exposed this weakness.”

Clearly, the organizations able to pivot faster will be those with the most agile tools to run on.

Higher Education Trend #5: Higher Ed Will Grow IF It Remains Inclusive

“I think higher ed will grow — IF we remember to educate ALL learners across ages and inequalities, and if society continues to think people need more post-secondary experience.”

— Bryan Alexander, futurist, educator, speaker and writer

In his blog, Bryan Alexander, an internationally renowned futurist and higher ed consultant with over 20 years of experience, proposed three distinct scenarios for how the pandemic has changed or will change campuses:

  1. Post-pandemic campus: Colleges and universities mostly resumed their in-person practices with some students and members of staff continuing to operate remotely. Blended learning is now a part of university standard process. 

  2. COVID Fall: Due to the ravaging outbreak higher education is entirely online with a large portion of curriculum focused around COVID and public health.

  3. Toggle Term: Universities are frantically switching between online and in-person forms of education depending on the current circumstances of the crisis.


Although each of these scenarios is pretty different (and all of them depend heavily on the unknown), it’s interesting to note that there are already examples of universities following each one.

For example, both Purdue and Brown have already announced getting back to in-person classes in the fall, while San José will go almost entirely online, and both Johns Hopkins and California State have hinted at the ‘Toggle Term’ scenario. 

(By the way, if you’re looking for messaging inspiration for your reopening announcement, this NYT oped by Brown President, Christina Paxson is a must-read.)

Such a variety of responses reflects several factors, such as location, demographics and more. Still, it’s clear that higher ed organizations will have agency over their actions, and some will use this as an opportunity to proactively reshape the future.

Higher Education Trend #6: Expect A Tighter Link Between Education And Business

“Ultimately, over time, institutions will play to their strengths and I suspect there will be a further culling and diversifying of higher education.”

—Kelvin Thomspon, Executive Director, University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Center for Distributed Learning

Depending on your perspective, the main consumers of higher education are not students, but businesses.

And the gap between what businesses need and what skills future graduates possess will become even more apparent during and after the crisis. There is already emerging evidence from the Institute of Student Employers that businesses are actively reducing the number of graduates they intend to recruit.

Hard fact: Recessions force businesses to cut expenses.

Unfortunately, one of the first things to go is usually the employee training and development programs. Luckily, higher eds are uniquely prepared to fill that gap.

Schools that offer traditional four-year degrees may shift their attention towards niche education. As Kelvin puts it: “There will be a smaller number of more highly differentiated institutions.” 

Higher Education Trend #7: Trade School Enrollment On The Rise

“Over the coming years, you’re going to see the schools in the for-profit market grow and expand.”

—Managing Partner at Campus Cloud Services

According to the National Skills Coalition, almost half of all job openings between now and 2022 will be “middle-skill” jobs that require high-quality education, but not a four-year degree.

“Trade schools are going to take off”, shares Dan. With over four decades of experience in the education field, he can’t help but notice the recurring patterns. 

“When there’s large unemployment, higher education does very well,” he adds.


Millions of people are being laid-off from jobs, so it’s only natural for them during this period to seek the education that will allow them to get back to work—and not necessarily from behind a cubicle.

“Periods of unemployment generate a lot of growth in the higher education industry, especially in the career school area and the trades,” Dan explains. 

Certain government programs may accelerate this growth even further. For example, programs like Pell Grant could be extended to cover non-degree programs, as was done during the 2008 crisis.

If we’ve learned anything from checking in with the experts at a time of great uncertainty, it’s that it’s all about your organization’s ability to shift, change and grow as the rest of business as we know it does the same. 

Which leaves only one question: Where do you plan to go from here?

If upgrading your enrollment marketing is part of your post-covid strategy, we can help. Shape is the only higher ed CRM designed according to leading best practices established at schools like Woz U and SCI. 

With Shape, your recruitment and enrollment teams always know exactly who to contact next. Start enrolling more students in less time with the higher education community’s leading enrollment outreach platform.