Another “top trends” blog post? That’s so 2023. The landscape of higher education and the mounting challenges - and opportunities - for higher ed leaders, have been well covered. Instead, we’re focusing on what we learned in 2023. As leaders in the higher education solutions industry, we’re well-positioned to share and reflect on insights from our clients, partner organizations, client-support teams, and longtime subject matter experts.
1. Student experience now factors into most business decisions.
In 2023, every interaction students had with their institutions mattered. Every touchpoint - from the way students were greeted at orientation to the speed with which their business office calls were answered or their 1098-T tax form was processed - became part of the student experience.
These interactions are evolving into data points that map the likelihood a student is engaged, will reenroll, graduate, and become part of the alumni community. Non-academic support for student wellness and financial responsibility are just as important to the student experience as the coursework and cost of education.
The ability of an institution to recognize and assign value to the many factors contributing to student success is the first step to delivering better services and a better experience. In 2024, institutions are mobilizing their student experience data into action plans.
2. A softer approach to payments and collections is needed.
In keeping with the student experience, financial literacy and wellness continued to appear in not only regulatory guidance but also college course listings and financial aid offices. Scrutiny around payment plans, tuition costs, and rising fees can put campuses on the defensive. But the most successful ones leaned into their students’ financial wellness journey in 2023. Some of our clients shared that it’s the role of the entire institution - not just the financial aid office - to help students understand and honor their financial commitments to higher education. The University of Alabama discussed the role of consistent, compliant outreach strategies for students who have fallen past-due.
Seattle University shared that introducing standardized repayment plans and automated processes allowed the institution to help students stay enrolled and on track for graduation. With the right technology in place, colleges and universities can increase operational effectiveness while helping their students manage their financial relationships and responsibilities.
3. Staffing challenges are forcing institutions to think differently.
While higher education’s staffing concerns aren’t news, they continued to challenge institutions in 2023. The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources 2023 Employee Retention Survey found an 81 percent increase in higher ed staff turnover from 2020 to 2023.
In 2023, we saw institutions approach these challenges with renewed resourcefulness and creativity. A look at the technology stack in place across campus, and a deep dive into what processes that technology can collapse, condense, and automate, has served institutions well. Viewing technology as a force multiplier allows institutions to direct in-house expertise to more critical tasks.
Another way to protect and amplify staff expertise is to delegate select administrative responsibilities to a trusted third-party partner. In 2023, we supported clients with everything from custom administrative projects and tedious mailings to full-on contact center support for students’ one-stop needs.
2024 is expected to bring tighter budgets, new regulatory requirements, and staffing challenges. Forward-thinking institutions are looking for a balance between experienced, on-campus support and supplemental technology and budget-conscious staff reinforcement.
4. Re-enrollment is as critical as enrollment.
In an economy where every cent matters, higher ed leaders are recognizing retention tactics as budget-relieving opportunities. Recent studies show that more than 39 million Americans have some college but no degree, meaning that nearly 20 percent of all U.S. adults have started, but not completed their higher ed journey. First-year undergraduate students have a 12-month dropout rate of 24 percent; among all undergraduate students, up to 40 percent drop out. We also know that a majority of students are worried that a financial setback will result in needing to leave college.
Institutions are feeling the pressure to provide a white-glove approach to students who are navigating higher ed financial waters. It’s in an institution’s best interest to understand when and why their students leave and build processes and programs to help support students before they get to that point.
But no matter how advanced an institution’s programs, not all students pay on time. Sending students to collections is not only tough on students, but it also leaves outstanding balances institutions might never recoup. We’ve found that a soft, compassionate approach to working with past-due students can increase institutions' retention and re-enrollment rates by 45 percent.
5. More than 28 million borrowers returned to repayment.
2023 brought the payment pause to an end, sending millions of federal student loan borrowers who had their federal student loan and interest payments automatically suspended during the Coronavirus pandemic into repayment. For most borrowers, the first payment was due in October 2023.
In December of 2023, the U.S. Department of Education released data showing that 60 percent of the 22 million borrowers with payments due in October made those payments by mid-November. Due to the cohort default rate, institutions have a vested interest in ensuring students repay their loans. Educating students about their commitments and continuing to be a compassionate, knowledgeable resource to students after they’ve graduated or left is a trend that will continue.
Serving your mission
In summary, 2023 was a year of rising pressures for higher education. In 2024, higher ed leaders must continue to monitor trends and expectations - not just from regulatory bodies, but from their current and prospective students. Whether elevating the student experience, addressing staffing challenges, or staying on top of changing regulations, institutions can partner with ECSI, a higher education services organization with more than 50 years of experience in the industry. Let’s work together to unburden your business office and free your staff to focus on what matters most – the success of your students.