Signals tells us something about an uncertain future. We detect many signals in higher education. Most present both challenge and opportunity. The table below summarizes these signals and illustrates our view that status quo is no longer an option.


Learner Trends and Behaviors

Institutional Impacts and Responses

External Environment (employers, society, government, research funding)

Learner Demographic Trends


  • Unfavorable demographics in traditional 18-22 y.o.
  • Erosion of perceived value/relevance of 4-year degree by high schoolers
  • Majority of high schoolers believe purpose of 4-year degree is as a path to a career but are not convinced it delivers that outcome or lack understanding of potential career paths
  • Erosion of perceived value/relevance of 4-year degree by parents
  • Declining enrollment at UM and many other institutions across the country
  • Closure of small liberal arts schools
  • Strong enrollment growth at online institutionsemphasizing employment outcomes:
  • Western Governors University (WGU) has grown enrollment from 43,000 students (2013) to 120,000+ (2020)
  • Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) also focuses on aligning with employers and has experienced similar growth –- 33,000 FTE in 2013 up to 130,000 in 2018
  • Emergence of badges,micro-credentials
  • Emergence of alternative learning paths and programs (Google and other corporate training, bootcamps etc.)
  • Employers increasingly not valuing a major as a
    sufficient signal of capability - claiming graduates are not
    prepared for the workplace
  • Disconnect (miscommunication?)
    between employers’ value of liberal arts "skills" and
    perceived value of liberal
    arts degrees.
  • Employers place greater
    value on liberal arts + workplace skills than either on its own
  • Threat to federal/state
    funding due to perception of declining higher ed value in some legislative groups.
  • Strong interest from
    employers (gov’t, non-profit and business) in
    collaborating (and investing) around career awareness, career readiness and career
  • COVID is accentuating this signal
  • The demographics of the US are shifting from majority white to predominately BIPOC, and this is carrying into highering into higher education.


  • Low retention/persistence is further evidence of students not understanding or believing in value of degree
  •  Retention challenges
  • COVID is accentuating this signal

Financial viability of
higher education

  • Lack of affordability of 4-year degree is impacting enrollment and retention
  •  Institutional Financial Crisis
  • SNHU committing to $10k/yr cost of a degree
  • Historical investment and fixed cost nature of buildings
    and physical/in-person extracurricular experiences are a drag on the financial  situation during COVID and in face of declining in 18-22 y.o. students
  • “Adult” learners place reduced value on these features.
  • Closure of liberal arts schools
  • Program growth,  variety of learners, variety of learning modes places  challenges on internal processes, systems and management
    coordination. Technology enablement and analytics is key
  • Institutions are creating more flexible pathways  including online/asynchronous modes and stackable credentials
  • Threat to Federal/state funding due to declining tax revenues
  • COVID is  accentuating this signal for learners, governments and institutions

Costs and

  • Conventional models of 4- year education provide significant barriers with respect to accessibility, inclusion and diversity
  • Continued investment and commitment to accessibility, diversity and inclusion
  • Institutions leveraging technology better manage the student experience
  • COVID is  accentuating this signal
  • BLM/Anti-Racism

Tech tools <—> ways
of engaging

  • Current/upcoming generation consumes information and learns differently - craves experiential learning and concerned about impact
  • Tech/YouTube generation expects on demand, engaging, easy to use learning and support platforms
  • COVID has highlighted weaknesses in online
  • delivery (relying on Zoom, WebEx and asynchronous LMS platforms) and lack of innovation in traditional classroom teaching
  • Models such as the connected curriculum at University College London and University College Cork use “research” as a throughline to the undergraduate experience.
  • WGU focus on online “competency-based learning”
  • Many institutions investing in experiential learning, internships, co-ops
  • Minerva Schools “Forum” platform delivers strong learning outcomes
  • “Subscriptions for everything”
  • “Google or YouTube the answer”

Adult learner and
employer needs

  • Adult (~over 25 y.o. learners) have strong interest in gaining/enhancing their education and skills
  • However, majority are NOT seeking 4-year or graduate programs.
  • Emergence of alternative learning paths and programs (Google and other corporate training, bootcamps etc.)
  • Emergence of badges, micro-credentials
  • Strong interest from employers (gov’t, nonprofit and business) in collaborating (and investing) around career awareness, career readiness and career progression

 Graduate programs

  • Growth in certain (primarily professional/workforce
    oriented) graduate programs
  • Challenges in grad student funding

Old and new program

  • 4-year and graduate programs no longer equip individuals with everything they need for careers and personal journeys that now frequently include frequent and unpredictable shifts and changes
  • Individuals develop new passions and interests that may or may not be work/career related
  • Emergence of alternative learning paths and programs (Google and other corporate training, MOOCs, YouTube "learning", bootcamps etc.)
  • Emergence of microcredentials and badging
  • Technology, culture and other factors drive the need for many individuals to retool

Impact, stewardship,

  • Gen Y/Z Learners have a strong interest in making an impact
  • As a state institution we have a responsibility to have a positive impact on the state
  • And as a state institution we have a responsibility to uphold the commitment of the State of Montana to provide an education that "develop[s] the full educational potential of each person." Increasing recognition that many challenges require interdisciplinary collaboration
  • Opportunity to apply research and faculty/student expertise to community (business, gov't, non-profit) problems
  • Rapidly growing research enterprise at UM
  • Global, technological,
    demographic and other forces are  creating complex
    challenges that universities
    have expertise to address and solve
  • Increasing  recognition of the importance of  education for “participatory readiness” in society, democratic governance, and the world beyond the university
  • Strong indication from employers of needs with respect to graduates, workforce development
  • Grant funding and
    philanthropic organizations are focused on research
    that has “broader impacts”

Further Reading: