Higher Education 2022 Predictions with the 2021 Year in Review:

Changing Higher Ed Podcast 101 with Dr. Drumm McNaughton and Deb Maue

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Higher Education 2022 Predictions with the 2021 Year in Review

At the start of a new year, The Change Leader’s Drumm McNaughton and Aurora University Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Marketing Deb Maue, sit down to do their higher education 2021 year in review, including recapping Drumm’s 2021 predictions for higher education. Drumm then offers his Higher Education 2022 predictions on the major trends and issues that will arise in colleges and universities across the US.

The year 2021 has been a year of coronavirus, politics, and innovation born out of necessity. This offers a recap of some of the trends that have affected higher education.

Acceleration Toward the Enrollment Cliff

The enrollment cliff seems to be approaching faster than anticipated, in large part due to the COVID pandemic. Overall enrollment declines continue and the current bright spot – an increase in graduate enrollment – may not last.

Community colleges expected to see enrollment bumps due to free community college, but this didn’t materialize as they thought. Then, when this was cut/defunded, as well as it being removed from the Build Back Better plan, community colleges found themselves at increased risk of severe enrollment declines.

These institutions may need a full reorganization to survive.

Higher Education Governance Hangs in the Balance

This disruption of COVID also has brought out the best and worst among boards and faculty and many higher education boards continue to be politicized.

Under the title of “boards behaving badly,” one elected government official is reported to require trustees at a state flagship university to donate to his election campaign in order to keep their seats – up to $100,000 has been reported being required. This brings up the question of whether trustees are (1) qualified to act as trustees, and (2) can fulfill their fiduciary duties, especially in relation to the requirement to be loyal to the university.

Some boards are attacking academic freedom within their universities. The University of Florida attempted to prevent three of its faculty from testifying in a court case about state voting rights, citing a conflict-of-interest policy. The University later relented, but not until after significant pressure was brought upon the trustees.

But … a Florida International University professor was permitted to give testimony on this issue, but he had previously testified to the Florida legislature as an expert witness in defense of every GOP-drawn redistricting map since 1994.

And one of UF’s faculty senate reported that the University had destroyed COVID data, and attempted to muzzle faculty about this.

These things have resulted in the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) announcing they will send a special evaluation committee to the University of Florida to determine whether the institution exhibits “significant noncompliance” with the accreditor’s academic freedom standard.” 

And boards behaving badly would not be complete without us revisiting the entire University of North Carolina / Nikole Hannah-Jones incident. Issues with board governance began escalating when Republicans claimed a majority in the Legislature and started stacking the UNC system governing board with like-minded individuals in the early 2000s. This practice, which is a different governance structure than most state institutions have, again brings up the question – to whom are trustees loyal – the institution or the members of the General Assembly who appoint them.

But back to the Nikole Hannah-Jones incident. It wasn’t until significant public pressure was put on the UNC trustees that they voted to approve her tenure application (albeit months after it should have been considered). Tenure was something that previously had been done for faculty appointed to the same endowed chair. But by this time, it was too late, as she accepted a position with Howard University (and took other faculty members with her).

Not to be left behind, faculty acting badly has accelerated. Early on in the pandemic, faculty work closely with administration to pull together online courses, but now many faculty are tired, burned out, and dealing with budget cuts. This has resulted in numerous faculty senates holding votes of no confidence – there were 16 votes of no confidence in 2020, and more than double that in 2021 – leaving presidents and provosts to unfairly bear the brunt of accountability during a very difficult time in higher education.

Another trend emerging in red-states is the Republican desire to keep critical race theory out of the classroom. This will become a free speech issue and likely will prompt a lawsuit that will move its way through the judicial system.

Cost of Higher Ed and Institution Survivability

Significant federal money was sent to higher education as part of CARES and HEERF. However, many people are asking three significant questions.

  • First, is this enough money?
  • Second, does this infusion of money serve as an incentive to return to the old way of doing things?
  • Or third, is the money being used to create sustainable change that will meet student needs?

These are the big questions on many peoples’ minds.

Faculty may want the institution to remain as it has been traditionally, but in the current environment, colleges and universities need to adapt to ensure that institution’s graduates are prepared for the workforce. One way is through advisory boards made up of industry representatives who hire the institution’s graduates and can offer guidance on making the curriculum more relevant.

The high cost of higher education remains an issue. While higher education inflation is around 2%, the overall cost of getting a degree is still too expensive. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni researchers recently completed a report entitled “The Cost of Excess” that detailed some of these issues. For example, higher is trending toward more expensive administrative staff instead of institutional staff, and prioritized hiring less expensive and often less credentialed institutional staff, e.g., adjunct faculty, from 2012-2018. This was despite there being no statistical correlation between student services and improved graduation rates, and that the percent of increased instructional spending at public institutions was twice as effective in improving graduation rates as increasing administrative spending.

This is important because institutions spent $112 billion on these student services alone during the timeframe studied.

Some colleges and universities are creating different funding models, such as Hope College’s Hope Forward model that creates a “pay-it-forward” approach that limits enrollment while building the endowment to enable future students’ education to be paid for. Once these students graduate, are in the workforce and are financially able to do so, they will be invited to give back to the institution.

While the cost of higher education for students has slowed, the cost still is too high for many. Graduates have significant student loan debt, debt that is impacting graduates’ livelihoods and hurting other sectors of the economy, such as homeownership. Most students cannot afford college without loans, but what they’ve seen during the Economic Recession and the pandemic makes them wary of assuming student loan debt. Even though objective economic indicators are moving in a good direction, many people still have a significant amount of uncertainty about the future and also are struggling with feelings of exhaustion and burnout.

Innovation is Needed in Accreditation

Accreditation’s role in institutional innovation (or lack thereof) also was a major theme in 2021. For example, how many accreditors say they want their institutions to innovate, but are so focused on compliance with their standards that they stifle innovation? Some argue that this is because they must meet USDE requirements, but I think that’s just an excuse – I have seen some accreditors work closely with institutions to put together new business models that speak directly to improving student learning, but the majority do not.

Another key issue holding back innovation is accreditors’ requirements for shared governance, especially faculty controlling what is taught. Unfortunately, faculty generally do not understand what employers need in graduates, which leaves higher education lagging behind (and its reputation damaged). For example, according to AAC&U’s most recent survey, industry wants skills such as teamwork and critical thinking, but how many know how to teach or develop those skills?

This, plus the cost of a higher education degree, is creating a disincentive (or barrier) for enrolling students at a college.

Colleges and universities need to consider how they are incorporating these critical skills into the higher education experience. Until this changes, i.e., there is more consideration for the skills employers need in graduates (vs. what faculty want to teach), there will continue to be a lack of innovation in the classroom and in the curriculum.

Accreditation still rewards the time-based system of learning, such as credit hours and semesters, instead of a competency-based approach. Moving forward, watch for a decoupling of education from the time-based system as higher education shifts to a consumer-controlled model.

One other piece with this. The current program assessment and program review process is antiquated / needs updating. Reviewing/assessing programs and benchmarking them against other institutions makes little sense if the benchmarked institution isn’t innovating.

A way around this: Using an advisory board made up or prospective employers to influence curriculum improvements makes far more sense.

Higher Education Innovations

The current challenges in higher education also create the engine for innovation, and many are looking at different ways to innovate. Here are just a few that we’re aware of.

Howard University is partnering with both Google and Amazon Web Services to provide degrees (and internships and opportunities) for its students.  

Pres. Russell Lowery-Hart of Amarillo College has made great use of market research to understand who their student is (vs. who they want them to be). Once they found that out, they made HUGE changes to their structures and delivery mechanisms and created partnerships with social services in their surrounding area to meet the needs of their actual students. The result: they tripled their enrollment, and quadrupled persistence and retention.

REP4 (Rapid Education Prototyping for Equity, Change, Communities, and Learners) is an initiative started by Pres. Phily Mantella of Grand Valley State University as a collaborative effort between six public universities – Grand Valley State University, Shippensburg State University, San Jose State University, Boise State University, Amarillo College, Fort Valley State University. These institutions share a passion for innovation, putting learners at the center of the work and hearing students’ voices, and making this effort an open architecture that can be widely shared.

Roger Hughes, president of Doane University, is another innovator in his own way – in developing the next generation of higher education leaders. He’s proved that you don’t need to have an academic background to be a successful president – he was a head football coach at two major universities (Princeton and Stenson). Just goes to show that leadership is crucial for higher ed and especially for innovation.

Kim Hadley, CFO at John Brown University, is another person whose middle name is innovation. During the shutdown periods of the pandemic, she had JBU taking advantage of “downtime” by putting in an extra “J” term (January), and two summer sessions instead of the usual one. Not only did this improve cash flow during the pandemic shut down, it gave students opportunities to accelerate their time to graduation. She also did an incredible job with risk management, increasing the institution’s LOC, and getting knee-deep into enterprise risk management, and building multiple scenarios that could be sent to the board. Kudos for bringing something to higher ed from industry.

Mark Lombardi, president of Maryville University, is another innovator. He has brought a “business mentality” to his institution, one that rewards people for innovating quickly. Although a “traditional” academic, he was raised in a household that spoke business and brought that passion to his institution. One of my favorite quotes from him is “deliberation has nothing to do with time – if you’re doing strategic planning correctly, you will have already discussed multiple options and when an opportunity presents itself, you can seize it quickly.” He’s definitely doing things right – MU has run a surplus of $1+ million for 14 straight years.

Melik Khoury, president of Unity College, is another business-minded university president. He is transforming Unity, and his board and decision-making processes reflect this. For example, Unity has no committees – just task forces – and relies heavily on the RACI model for decision-making. They have four SEBUs (sustainable education business units): hybrid, online, Technical Institution for Environmental Professions, and sustainable ventures. Each SEBUs has its own faculty and staff, tuition, and calendars, which allows flexibility to meet the needs of each student demographic, whether it be residential, distance, or business education.

Stephen Standifird, president of Bradley University, has brought a turnaround mentality to higher education. He truly understands that higher education is changing, especially the environment in which it operates, and he is changing Bradley’s business model to reflect that. One need go no further than his Board of Trustees, which has no academics on it – it is a virtual who’s who of industry and includes retired global managing director of a Big 6 consulting firm, CEO of Baltimore Gas and Electric, a VP from Amazon, and other movers and shakers from industry. There is a sense of urgency in everything that they are doing, and they have increased enrollment significantly, even during the pandemic.

Danielle Wilken, the new president at the University of Bridgeport, brings a younger and fresher face to the president’s chair. As you may recall, UB was to be acquired by Goodwin and two other universities, but that was an innovation in itself in that Goodwin is now the “parent” of UB, and they have formed a consortium of three schools that allows for transferring credits and courses among them. What makes Danielle so special is her focus on remaking the culture at UB, bringing a “people first” mentality to the job.              

Through all the innovations we’ve seen over the past year, I think Billy Hawkins, president of Talladega College, said it best. “When crises hit, prioritize students.”

If we all can remember that (and bring business sense to higher education), we can continue to innovate and transform our industry.

Recapping Predictions for 2021

Drumm’s first 2021 prediction was that the COVID vaccine would be a game-changer. This proved to be true initially because the vaccine allowed colleges to offer in-person classroom instruction again. This also proved to be helpful to colleges and universities because some administrators, faculty, and students were not ready to embrace a fully online educational experience. However, the emergence of the Omicron variant is forcing some colleges and universities to shut down early because of concerns about breakthrough infections. These latest shifts to online learning are expected to be shorter in length than when COVID initially emerged in 2020.

Drumm also predicted that higher education would continue to develop partnerships with businesses, especially to explore the concept of lifelong learning. These partnerships are continuing to emerge, with many institutions following the lead of Michael Crowe and Arizona State University.

Another prediction involved a shift toward more online learning, which continues to be prevalent as higher education experiences periodic shutdowns due to the pandemic. However, some question whether online learning will remain prevalent once the pandemic is over. Faculty knew they had to shift when COVID-19 emerged and were able to do so. Many naysayers found that online learning wasn’t that bad, and now faculty and students see it as an option. However, online learning didn’t seem to truly stick as a preferred way of delivery, with the exception of mega institutions such as Purdue Global and SNHU.

Another prediction – that mergers and closures would continue – has happened. The CARES Act and other federal funding provided a buoy that delayed the inevitable reckoning for many institutions. However, that reckoning is coming since higher education is a mature and declining market. Additionally, Google and other corporate players are moving into the higher education area to offer courses, badges, and certificates. To counter this movement, some institutions such as Howard University are developing partnerships with these corporations to help students have practical application in their coursework, so they are ready to step into their jobs immediately after graduation.

Still, this prediction held, with 13 mergers and closures, with there being 3x more mergers and acquisitions – such as those involving Mills College and Marymount California – than closures in 2021. Some institutions increasingly are looking at mergers and acquisitions to increase their programmatic and online offerings. For example, University of Massachusetts System acquired the online arm of Chapman University while the University of Arizona acquired Ashford University. In the case of the merger involving University of Bridgeport, the initial plan changed so that now participating institutions share backend services. Some of these institutions also are utilizing their boards, who have previous experience in restructuring, to create these changes in a very different way.

Predictions for 2022

Moving into 2022, Drumm predicts the following:

  • College enrollment will continue declining.
  • More hybrid and fully online models will emerge at colleges and universities.
  • There will continue to be more traditional higher education institutions instead of online institutions, but many will begin offering more certificates, badges, stackable certificates and micro-credentials.
  • More partnerships with industry will emerge to ensure that new graduates are ready for the workforce.
  • Depending on federal funding, higher education may increase innovation. However, until there is movement among accreditors in relation to innovation and faculty governance, many institutions will continue to struggle in this area.
  • More closures, mergers, and acquisitions are in the offing.
  • The mid-term elections will not have much of an effect on higher education. However, politics will continue to influence higher education, especially in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, until the U.S. Senate addresses voting laws.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategic planning, implementation, and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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