• Featured
  • 01.29.24

Trends in Higher Education and Their Implications for Institutional Research

  • by Henry Zheng


The year 2023 was a time of rapid changes for higher education. Central to the changes was the integration of Generative AI (GenAI) in the already fast-moving digital transformation, reshaping the educational experience with a powerful tool that might fundamentally change the traditional teaching and learning paradigm. However, this innovation arrives amidst a backdrop of declining public perception regarding the value of traditional higher education. Concurrently, the surge in online and distance education, accelerated by the pandemic, has ushered in a new era of remote and hybrid work models, profoundly altering the academic and professional landscape. This article will explore these dynamic trends and will provide some preliminary thoughts on their implications for IR/IE professionals. 

Generative AI 

Generative AI or generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) refers to the use of AI to model human thinking and create new content such as text, images, music, audio, and videos. Generative AI is powered by foundation models (large AI models) that can multi-task and perform out-of-the-box tasks, including summarization, Q&A, classification, and more (Wikipedia).  

There are many GenAI applications available in the marketplace, but OpenAI’s ChatGPT (Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) has been the most influential one. ChatGPT has literally taken the world by storm since its launch on November 30, 2022, and reached 1 million users in only 5 days. The ChatGPT website received 1.7 billion website visitors in October 2023 (NamePepper.com). Such a phenomenal growth is unprecedented, and its impact is felt through all industries and all sectors. In higher education, AI and other advanced analytics can serve to contribute in numerous ways to the teaching and learning process as well as educational management (Webber and Zheng, 2023). The impact (or application) of AI in higher education can be grouped in four broad categories:  

  • Institutional use, including marketing and student recruitment, estimating class size, optimizing course catalog descriptions, allocating resources, network security, and facial recognition. 

  • Student support, including academic monitoring, course scheduling, suggesting majors and career pathways, allocating financial aid, identifying students at risk, and supporting mental health. 

  • Instruction, including personalized learning, creating library guides, using generative language models (e.g., ChatGPT, DALL-E), and making grading more efficient. 

  • Scholarly research, including synthesizing literature, drafting grant proposals, and creating new knowledge in many disciplines (both within individual disciplines as well as cross-disciplinary collaborations) 

While ChatGPT has received a lot of attention, other AI-supported systems have been used in higher education, including Georgia Institute of Technology’s use of AI Jill Watson for student tutoring and the U.S. Department of Education’s use of a chatbot for federal financial aid (Aidan). During the early years when AI was introduced to higher education, early adopters sought to enhance student success through tools such as online chat assistants, homework tutoring chatbots, and course learning systems that sought to gather student learning data from multiple sources. Some of the early tools were not user friendly, lacked comprehensive data, and/or did not have faculty buy-in and thus did not remain viable. However, these early tools sharpened our thinking, and the ensuing refinements moved members of the higher education community forward on how digital technologies can contribute positively to the higher education mission (Webber and Zheng, 2023). 

For IR/IE professionals, the profound impact of AI can be felt in the rapid accumulation of data and stunning speed of data processing from advanced analytics tools. While we are not always invited to the party, we should pursue every opportunity to be involved and engaged in the development and implementation of AI tools. IR/IE professionals can play a role in research designs for pilot studies, evaluation of program outcomes, and analysis of program data to generate actionable insights. We can use AI tools to help us improve our data models and optimize programming tasks. IR/IE professionals can be at the front seat when an institution has enterprise AI applications to process narrative data in a secured environment. Imagine the significant savings of time we can gain by processing large volumes of narrative data from open-ended survey questions or focus group transcripts. GenAI tools such as ChatGPT can perform thematic, sentiment, and net promotion score analyses in seconds. Of course, careful review and recalibration by humans are required as GenAI tools can hallucinate. Many experts predict that the accuracy of GenAI will improve over time, but at this time, it is critical to remain vigilant in reviewing, and to ensure that your office’s work continues to have high integrity. 

Distance Education and Micro-Credentialing 

Distance and online education have been growing in the last 20-30 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic pushed its transformation to mainstream status very quickly. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 20% of undergraduate students at public and private nonprofit institutions participated exclusively in distance education courses in fall 2021. At the graduate level, the percentage of students enrolled exclusively through distance education went up to 36% and 38% respectively for public and private nonprofit institutions. 

Distance and online education offer several advantages for learners. Its convenience allows one to learn from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Flexible scheduling and delivery formats, including hybrid learning (combining online and in-person), cater to learners with busy schedules. Distance education’s delivery format also allows learners the ability to review lecture videos repeatedly for difficult and complex concepts.  

Like the growth of distance and online education, micro-credentials are gaining momentum as a more versatile approach toward skill-focused and personalized learning. Micro-credentials cater to individual learning goals, allowing learners to build customized skill sets or stackable credentials towards further certifications or degrees. Popular micro-credentials include high demand skills such as data science, AI, cybersecurity, and project management, giving learners an edge in the job market. Micro-credentials are a convenient way for learners to upskill and reskill through specialized courses delivered via mostly online platforms, creating flexible career journeys and lifelong learning opportunities. 

For IR/IE professionals, the growth of distance education and micro-credentials created a number of opportunities as well as challenges. First of all, a common concern about distance education and micro-credentialing is the quality of learning when compared to traditional and in-person learning. IR/IE professionals should actively help evaluate student learning experience and outcomes to ensure that all learners are offered a quality education. For example, gauging the learning experience from distance or online students is an equally important student group that should not be overlooked. Second, in reporting enrollment statistics, it can become more complicated to report on different types of students in different learning formats, but IR/IE professionals should remain diligent in ensuring that the right data is being shared for accurate reporting. Third, with micro- and stackable credentials, it may become more difficult to report data in fields such as the CIP codes. With their growing market presence, distance education and certificate programs may be an area that deserves elevated attention in institutional analysis. IR professionals should remain proactive in anticipating these possible changes and working with campus colleagues to find solutions. 

Political Challenges and the Perception of the Value of Higher Education 

2023 was a tumultuous year for higher education from a political perspective. In a much-anticipated decision in June 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court held that admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, and that race can no longer be used as a factor in admissions. The High Court’s decision means that any institution that had been using race as a factor in admissions must now exclude race as a consideration to comply with the Court’s decision. Furthermore, any college or university that pursues racial diversity as an institutional goal may be exposed to legal litigations. 

The High Court’s decision occurred at a time when higher education has already been charged politically for being the hotbed for political correctness and other liberal causes. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law on June 14, 2023, to ban DEI offices and initiatives in public universities. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation prohibiting public institutions from spending money on DEI programming and from offering general-education courses that “distort significant historical events” or teach “identity politics” (Chronicle of Higher Education). Several other states have passed or are in the process of passing similar legislation. 

With political headwinds, 2023 also saw public perception on the value of higher education plummet. A Gallop poll conducted in June 2023 found only 36 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education, down about 20 percentage points from eight years ago. Prior polls of public confidence in higher education found significantly higher levels in 2015 (57%) and 2018 (48%) (Inside Higher Education).  

Of course, many stakeholders still believe that college education is a good investment. College graduates earn 1.66 times more than high school graduates without any college education (American Public Media). College education also makes people healthier, happier, and more involved in community and civic duties. However, the reasons behind the declining public confidence in the value of higher education are complicated, and this article is not the place to explore. 

For IR/IE professionals, the legal and political arenas are not our usual places for professional excursions, but there are things that we can do to support our institutional missions and core values. For example, in data reporting, despite the recent Supreme Court decision, race/ethnicity data is still very much an essential element to collect and report in compliance with federal requirements. Just because race is not being considered as a factor in admissions does not mean collecting the data is not necessary. There are also ways that IR/IE professionals can help to improve public perception of college education, including the timely completion and dissemination of the First Destination Survey, conducting return on investment analyses using our own institution’s cohorts, and sharing graduating senior and alumni satisfaction survey results with the public.  

Shifting Enrollment Landscape 

College enrollments have been gradually sliding for a decade and dipped during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the enrollment landscape is going to further worsen as predicted by economist Nathan Grawe who used the term "enrollment cliff" to describe the dramatic drop in the college-age population beginning in 2025. There was a drop in birthrates during the Great Recession, which began in 2008. During that time of economic stress and uncertainty, notes Grawe, people were having fewer children, and the number of children born between 2008 and 2011 plummeted dramatically. The lower birth rates during this period will likely affect college enrollment, starting in 2025 and reaching its highest point well into the 2030s (Best Colleges).  

In its Projections of Education Statistics to 2028, NCES painted a less pessimistic picture of the enrollment landscape, but these predictions still can be a cause of concern for colleges and universities. According to NCES, enrollment of undergraduate students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased 16% between 2003 and 2017 and is projected to increase 3% between 2017 and 2028. Enrollment of postbaccalaureate students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions increased 24% between 2003 and 2017 and is projected to increase 3% between 2017 and 2028 (NCES). In other words, the double-digit growth of the past has come to a squeaky slowdown of merely 3% for both undergraduate and graduate students. 

Some may say that international student enrollments may help close the gap. Unfortunately, contrary to public perceptions, international students make up a very small proportion of U.S. college enrollment. International students made up only 3.4% in 2004 and went up to 4.7% in 2021. The majority of the international students enrolled in research and doctoral universities therefore may not address the situation significantly for smaller and non-doctoral institutions. 

For IR/IE professionals, there are many ways that we can help institutions improve their competitive position in enrollment management. We can provide better and more precise data on high schools and their student characteristics beyond a school’s traditional territories to the admission office so that they can expand or better refine their recruitment targets and relationship building efforts. We can build predictive models to optimize admission yields. We can provide data and analysis support to university marketing departments to right target their marketing and social media efforts. We can help analyze National Student Clearinghouse data to see who the top competitors for their admitted students are and explore ways to keep fewer admitted students from committing to other schools. This is an area where experimental designs with pilot programs can be useful before making large scale changes in operations. We can facilitate collegial discussions on the institutional strategy for the balance of in-person versus distance and online instruction. 

Remote and Hybrid Work Going Mainstream 

In the post-pandemic world, especially during the immediate year following the “Great Resignation,” allowing employees to work remotely and via hybrid arrangements seemed like a good talent management strategy for recruiting and retaining employees (Deloitte). However, that temporary arrangement became an accepted practice in most institutions by 2023. According to CUPA-HR, the association representing higher education human resources professionals, 68% of college employees in their survey indicated that their work can be done entirely remotely. However, the percentage of remote work is relatively lower. Currently, 10.8% of the higher education employees surveyed reported working remotely and 23.7% reported working hybrid (on-site and remote).  

Remote and hybrid work arrangements are likely to continue in 2024 and beyond. Despite their benefits, flexible work arrangements come with some real challenges, including effective interpersonal communications and collaboration. Most would agree that there are some tasks that can be learned more effectively when interactions are spontaneous and one can observe body language and emotion. Building a team across different work arrangements can be challenging when some team members are never or rarely physically present. This can result in a feeling of disconnect among team members. The sharing of resources, inside knowledge, and technical resources among employees in different work arrangements can also create an issue of inequity.  

For IR/IE professionals, flexible working arrangements can be managed effectively. We should make every effort to have frequent and open communication with our colleagues. Use various tools like emails, instant messaging, and video calls to stay connected. A colleague in a peer institution recently told me that their monthly “virtual happy hour” has been very successful. Without in-person presence, clarity in communication is important, and careful documentation of your work is also essential. For those working remotely and in hybrid mode, there is a real issue of blurring one’s work life with personal life. It is important to keep a productive work-life balance.  

I would like to thank my colleague and friend Dr. Karen Webber for reviewing and editing the manuscript and offering valuable feedback. Thank you all for reading and wish everyone a very productive and healthy 2024.  

Henry ZhengHenry Zheng is Vice Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and Planning, Carnegie Mellon University