The Top Challenges Facing Higher Education




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As the higher education landscape changes, colleges and universities are facing increasingly new challenges and must learn to adapt. With the COVID-19 pandemic creating massive disruption in enrollment numbers, college debt rising higher than ever before, and younger generations shifting their view of pursuing a college degree, many higher education leaders are questioning where to go next. With these challenges in mind, it’s critical for institutions to develop forward-thinking strategies to remain a relevant and value-added option for students. 

The following provides an overview of current and emerging challenges that higher education leaders should consider while developing both short-term and long-range plans. 

Increasing Costs and Student Debt

It should come as no surprise that the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, with full-time attendance at a four-year college increasing by nearly 180% since 2002. Evidenced by a 317% increase in student debt since 1970, even after accounting for inflation, the possibility of graduating without loans is nothing more than a dream for many students. Today, graduates leave school with an average student loan debt of $40,339 when accounting for both public and private loans (Hanson, 2022).

Several higher education leaders, including the President of Duquesne University and President of Geneva College, state affordability as a major challenge facing both their institutions and higher education as a whole. They recommend solutions such as seeking funding from other sources, reviewing and cutting expenditures, and putting more emphasis on non-traditional student programs and pathways (The Change Leader, n.d.).

More Alternative Options

Earning a college degree is no longer presented as the only valuable way to gain a specialized skill set. More and more students are beginning to see trade schools and apprenticeship programs as pathways toward gaining well-paying employment while avoiding student debt and the time commitment of a four-year program. 

Besides trade schools and apprenticeship programs, accelerated bootcamp programs provide students with hands-on experience and a certification for far cheaper than a college degree. Some companies, such as Google, even state that they consider a certification from their in-house bootcamp program as equal to a college degree among job applicants (Drozdowski, 2022).

The emergence of new options, opportunities, and pathways leaves many students wondering whether a college degree is still worth the time and cost. Universities and colleges might consider implementing alternative programs into their higher education model for students interested in more cost-effective options.

Fewer Options for Faculty

Today, part-time faculty members account for 40% of the academic workforce. If you include part-time adjuncts, full-time instructors not on the tenure track, and graduate teaching assistants, that figure swells to roughly 75% of the instructional staff. A major reason for this is that universities and colleges often consider non-tenured faculty to be a cheaper option that provides more flexibility (Drozdowski, 2022).

However, the lack of options, reduced job security, and decreases in pay for faculty have had a detrimental effect on the higher education landscape. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (2020), 50% of faculty reported considering other options, including early retirement and career changes, and the majority reported feeling increased levels of job-related stress and anxiety.

To help mitigate the loss of high-performing faculty members and prevent a shortage in the future, institutions might reconsider pathways and benefits available to faculty members while ensuring proper work-life balance.

Decreasing Enrollment

From 2021 to 2022, both undergraduate and graduate enrollment declined by over 4%. Since 2020, higher education has seen a decrease of approximately 1.3 million students, with the current freshman class enrollment coming in at around 8% below pre-COVID levels (NCR Research Center, 2022). This has been especially true for small and regional institutions in both the Midwest and Northeast (Mintz, 2021).

Enrollment declines have led to financial issues for many schools, with some predictions stating that as many as half of all U.S. colleges and universities could close as a result. Going forward, focusing on student retention initiatives is key to sustaining enrollment numbers, supporting students in graduating, and ensuring the ongoing success of universities (Johnson, 2021).

Attachment to Outdated Paradigms

According to higher education leaders, including the Presidents of Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University, the current lack of innovation in higher education is a pressing issue that deserves attention. Old paradigms, such as the notions that the demand for higher education is endless and that full-time undergraduates are the ideal student, are keeping institutions stuck in the past (The Change Leader, n.d.; Mintz, 2021).

Moving forward, it could be valuable for colleges and universities to integrate more technology solutions that improve the affordability and accessibility of higher education, as well as develop innovative programs that meet the needs of the modern student (Mintz, 2021).

Higher education offers students of all ages and backgrounds a chance to gain valuable lifelong skills. Planning ahead and creating space for new ideas can help colleges and universities remain relevant in a constantly evolving landscape. Rather than focusing on what higher education used to be, leaders can get excited about exploring the possibility of what higher education can become in the future.

Partner with PLS Classes

PLS Classes provides graduate courses for K-12 educators. If your IHE is looking for outside the box ways to increase enrollments while saving the cost of hiring instructors and developing new courses, PLS Classes might be a good fit. Please reach out to Sarah Menegay, Director of Professional Learning, for more details at


Drozdowski, M.J. (2022). 7 Challenges Threatening the Future of Higher Education. Best Colleges. 

Hanson, M. (2022). Average Cost of College by Year. Education Data Initiative.

Hanson, M. (2022). Average Student Loan Debt by Year. Education Data Initiative.

Johnson Hess, A. (2021). 74% of colleges face financial challenges, according to a new survey of higher ed professionals. CNBC Make It. 

Mintz, S. (2021). Higher Education’s Biggest Challenge: Rethinking Ingrained Assumptions. Inside Higher Ed. 

NCR Research Center. (2022). Spring 2022 – Current Term Enrollment Estimates. National Student Clearinghouse. 

The Change Leader, Inc. (n.d.). The Greatest Challenges Facing Higher Education. The Change Leader, Inc. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2020). “On the Verge of Burnout”: COVID-19’s impact of faculty wellbeing and career plans (Research Brief). The Chronicle of Higher Education.