6 Higher Education Trends from the Last Decade

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Article Summary

  • Digital learning tools grow in popularity, especially mobile. |Globalization impacts enrollment and teaching methods. |Nationwide, enrollment numbers fluctuated, primarily between 2010-14.|The “new” traditional student sets trends felt across higher ed. |More institutions employ adjunct instructors. |The topic of affordability stays top-of-mind for higher ed and political agendas.
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As educators forge ahead into the new year, we’ve compiled a quick review of some of higher education’s biggest trends from the last decade.

These six overarching themes and topics remain relevant today, too—from an increased use of digital in the classroom by faculty and students, to enhanced focus on making college more affordable by institutions and lawmakers.

Read on for a recap of 2010–2019:

1. Digital Learning Becomes a Classroom Mainstay

The students of last decade—and of today—continue to live their lives digitally. Bills are paid through apps, videos are streamed and downloaded in seconds and now more than ever, homework, studying and even class participation is done online, a method most students prefer.

Perhaps the biggest impact digital has made on higher education is in the use of mobile tech, such as smartphones, tablets and laptops.

Toward the start of the decade, a study of technology in the classroom found that the then recent launch of Apple’s iPad was already making significant waves in higher ed: “the iPad has made its debut and significantly altered the educational technology landscape.”

A study from 2019 showed the number of students using mobile tech has skyrocketed over the past decade, and instructors and institutions have had to keep up with these new, digital-focused learning and studying behaviors. According to the study:

  • 96.2% of respondents reported having a mobile phone and 85.9%, a laptop—while only 24.7% had a desktop computer
  • Of those with phones, 92% had a smart phone
  • 84% of students access their emails every day

2. Globalization’s Influence on Learning

By 2009, more than 2.9 million students were seeking an education outside their home country—a 57 percent increase from the prior decade, or 1999, according to the Institute of International Education.

As a more global higher education landscape emerges, instructors have had to keep up—and must continue to do so. Endorsing a culturally responsive approach to teaching accommodates students outside traditional backgrounds or from outside the institution’s immediate area.

3. Fluctuating Enrollment Numbers

Enrollment numbers at two- and four-year institutions across the country rose and fell—and rose again—over the last decade, especially between 2010–14.

As stated by the College Board in a report titled Trends in College Pricing 2015:

“Total postsecondary enrollment, which increased by 20% between 2005 and 2010, declined by 3% between 2010 and 2013; enrollment in the public and private nonprofit four-year sectors grew slightly over these three years.”

Another example included in the same report revealed that in 2012, large variances in enrollment of first-time students occurred across states:  the percentage of first-time students at public four-year institutions who were state residents ranged from 34% in Vermont and 38% in North Dakota to 93% in Alaska and New Jersey and 94% in Texas.

4. The “New” Traditional Student

Along with fluctuating enrollment numbers, the last decade has seen a shift in the type of students enrolling. The behaviors and demographics of college students aren’t as homogenous as they once were, thanks to trends set by “new” traditional students.

One such trend: delaying college enrollment. Traditional college students typically enroll right after high school, making them 18–24 years old. But in recent years, more students are entering college later (and therefore older); many also lack a traditional high school diploma. Today, 41% of college students are 25 years old or older, delaying post-secondary enrollment.

5. An Increase in Adjunct Instructors—Despite Challenges 

As of July 2018, at all US institutions combined, about 73% of instructional positions are “off the tenure track.”

Though adjunct instructors make up a significant portion of the higher education workforce, their hard work, real-world experiences and subject-matter expertise often go unnoticed or unappreciated.

One study conducted with more than 400 adjunct instructors revealed a variety of eye-opening insights, including: One-third of adjuncts feel disrespected or less valued than full-time faculty.

Despite these challenges, adjuncts continue to bring their perspectives and knowledge to classrooms—with the hope that the compensation and appreciation for their positions will someday match that of their tenured peers.

6. Continued Focus on Affordability

Across the country, and throughout the past decade, college affordability dominated the conversation around higher education.

In 2019, states and institutions implemented a variety of strategies focused on college accessibility and affordability.

One example: Washington State passed the Workforce Education Investment Act, which aims to provide free or reduced tuition to those in specific fields, like Engineering, Accounting and more. The result is two-fold: potential students gain access to a more affordable education, and employers know a larger pool of skilled candidates are entering the workforce.

Affordable access to education probably won’t fall out of conversation any time soon, if the upcoming 2020 presidential election is any indication. Many candidates made college affordability a key topic in 2019, and will likely continue to do so in the run-up to November 2020.

Curious how higher education trends have impacted student opportunities? Check out our 2019 Student Opportunity Index now by downloading the free ebook.