Looking Forward

Trends In Education

A look at the near future for colleges and universities

trends at collegs and universitiesBusiness Management Trends

While most of the early, post-Great Recession efficiencies—think standbys like better paper purchasing and deeper cuts to health care/retiree benefits—have been implemented, Brian Mitchell and Rick Gaumer of Academic Innovators see several new business management trends on the horizon for colleges and universities.

“College costs are largely fixed, [so] there is very little real discretion in a college operating budget,” says Mitchell via email. He points to three areas that intersect in that budgeting process: People, programs, and facilities.

People—Mitchell sees staff increases due to state and federal regulatory requirements and the need for more employees in athletics, counseling, and student services departments. Most staff cuts, however, come from attrition. “Except in financial exigency, it’s hard to fire people,” he says.

Programs—Colleges continue to turn towards new programs as the easiest, least controversial way to improve cash flow. Some, according to Mitchell, are choosing tried-and-true expansions of continuing and adult education or are moving selectively into graduate programming. He cautions about the trend of fairly rapid expansion of planning for online programming. “Many colleges are simply not equipped to do so with little understanding of their market and a relative incapacity to launch programs of consistent quality,” he observes.

Rick Gaumer points to new, innovative programs and activities for students that drive enrollment. He sees a bump in new and revised programs mandated by area employers to better align with required job skills. Gaumer also spots a ramp up of new affinity groups like eSports, archery, or biking to feed students’ interest in school.

Facilities—Mitchell points to the trend of using up debt capacity to improve student housing, often without understanding the value of real estate assets “especially in eds/meds urban centers.” He also sees public universities outstripping private institutions in their willingness to consider public/private partnerships and third-party housing.

Many institutions are looking at strategic partnerships in three areas: across regions, across consortia, and with business. Look for joint admission counselor tours, athletic conferences that also accomplish strategic academic program goals, and the incorporation of residential broadband. Small, rural colleges will look to USDA loan programs that mix debt refinancing, facility improvements, and new program expansion. Some research universities are expanding their concentration of shared large research grants across state lines.

And then there’s big data. Gaumer sees the use of predictive data analytics during the recruiting and financial-aid award cycle resulting in increased enrollments and increasing net tuition. “[By] using big data to better understand which students are more likely to persist and be successful and preventing over-discounting on a student-by-student basis, schools are seeing both increased enrollment and reduced discounting,” he says via email.


Dr. Daita Serghi, education programs manager, Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), sees an integration of formally separated sustainability efforts around campus. “Sustainability programs are focusing holistically on universities’ impacts in all areas of operations, academics, coordination, and planning and engagement,” she says via email.

Serghi is also seeing a deeper focus on the social dimensions of sustainability. “Sustainability professionals know that we cannot solve the current climate crisis and the linked environmental problems unless we also address the social challenges that accompany it,” she says. “This climate emergency is more complex than just changing [a] lightbulbs and we’ll need all areas of the higher education community and our society in general to participate.”

Expect future sustainability pushes to be more complex. “Demonstration-scale” renewable energy installations will ramp up with bigger, often off-site, projects. Campuses are moving towards electrification to lower emissions. Conversations around aging heating plants include carbon capture technology, storage solutions, and even geothermal.

Serghi predicts foundational-level shifts as the work of sustainability professionals is changing direction. “It will be less about focusing on individual projects and more on institutional transformation,” she says. “It is easy to get lost into the day-to-day projects; however, this will not help…institutions move fast enough to meet their goals. Professionals will need a broader focus on building and mobilizing others to ramp up the sustainability transformation we are seeking. Instead of pushing against a brick wall, they are facilitating a movement on campus.”

“Furthermore,” she continues, “campuses will need to have some serious conversations regarding resilience and adaptation. There is a fair amount of climate change that is locked into the system and unavoidable no matter what we do; institutions will have to prepare for that: more extreme weather, rising sea levels if they are in the coastal area, hurricanes, diseases, etc. Focusing on developing systems to manage these unavoidable impacts will be important…in the years to come.”

Sustainability Part II: Construction Materials

Look for trends that make buildings healthier, according to Javier Esteban, AIA LEED-AP, principal, KWK Architects, as WELL Standards and the high-performance Living Building Challenge gain steam.

Esteban also points to the new materials disclosure requirements in LEED V4 as a driver. “The new materials have been focused a lot more on its basic components, as well as the total carbon footprint in the production and transportation of materials. Especially important are those products that feature Cradle to Cradle.”


Gensler has identified several educational design trends to look out for in the coming years. One of the most compelling focuses on the campus experience. Yes, digital learning is important and will continue to grow, but the campus experience is still a strong component to learning.

One of the most important changes on campus is the rise of the academic incubator.

These incubators will be places to expand pathways to new careers and partner with surrounding communities and cities to drive growth, according to Gensler’s Meghan Webster and Nathan Kim. Incubators will be a place for “ideas to thrive, learning is hands-on and problem-based and budding entrepreneurs can fail their way to success,” they write on Gensler’s blog.

As proof they cite The Garage at Northwestern University, which has incubated more than 300 student-founded startups, and Texas Medical Center’s TMCx accelerator, which fledges 100 new healthcare startups each year.

Alongside incubators, flexible spaces throughout the campus will allow learning in and out of the classroom. The library will remain a nexus for quiet study while simultaneously being updated as a collaborative, tech-friendly center for group work. Experiential settings will reflect the real world students will face after graduation.

“Active learning” remains in the driver’s seat for classroom design, as areas with fixed seating—such as lecture halls—are converted into flexible spaces. Furniture is modular and moveable, offers outlets for students to plug in their many devices, and writing spaces are everywhere; on the furniture as well as the walls.

Transparency is another design trend. Natural daylight is being invited deeper into facilities, along with more glass walls and larger open spaces, providing visibility into every part of the building. Glass walls and open spaces, both vertical and horizontal, encourage inquiry, allow students to see and be seen in the process of learning and increase interaction.

For residence halls, there are indicators that the era of the “luxury dorm” is waning. This comes amidst growing concerns about rising tuition and student debt, declining numbers of high-school graduates, and the changing tastes of students and their parents. The focus is slowly shifting from including a myriad of hotel-style amenities with their requisite considerable price tag to spaces that are functional, comfortable, and offer fewer over-the-top amenities but come with a lower cost, which may also help keep students on campus instead of them choosing to seek less-costly off-campus housing.

Technology and Residential Life

The majority of colleges and universities—72 percent—allow students to connect as many devices as they wish to the residential network. The devices consuming the most bandwidth on campus are smartphones, according to the State of ResNet 2019 Report from the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International (ACUHO-I). ACUHO-I polled 351 higher education administrators at 200 institutions about ResNet trends, practices, and policies to understand the challenges schools face providing high-performance networks in residence halls and campuswide.

Smartphones beat out both desktop/laptop computers and gaming systems as the biggest campus bandwidth hogs, cited by 73 percent of respondents compared to 59 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Emerging technologies such as wearable devices (spanning education, fitness, and medical devices) are also grabbing their share of bandwidth capacity, increasing by about three percentage points over last year. Voice assistants (such as Google Home and Amazon Echo), added to the survey for the first time this year, are already perceived as large bandwidth consumers by 13 percent of respondents.

When asked what type of data is using the most bandwidth, 89 percent of respondents pointed to TV and video consumption (e.g., Netflix) and 80 percent cited web-based rich content. Video games (60 percent) and music (55 percent) were also a significant drain on capacity.

To put that bandwidth demand in perspective, the study found that nearly three-quarters of schools (74 percent) dedicate bandwidth of 1 Gbps or more to the campus ResNet. Twenty-nine percent of institutions offer 7 Gbsp or more of ResNet bandwidth. Three out of four schools responding to the survey utilize some kind of bandwidth management practice to make sure users have the access they need for both education and entertainment. The most common tactic, cited by 39 percent of respondents: blocking activities such as P2P sharing and music downloading.

Other strategies include shaping and limiting bandwidth by protocol, implementation of cache servers, providing minimum guaranteed service levels by user, and shaping networkwide throughput available to streaming video. Notably, just 10 percent of institutions resort to individual bandwidth quotas, compared to 32 percent in 2012.

The full report, including an infographic summarizing results, is available on the ACUHO-I website.

The Dining Hall

Customization is trending in menus at campus dining facilities, as surveys indicate today’s students rated the ability to customize their meal (i.e. choosing a portion size or some of the ingredients) as an important aspect of dining. From yesterday’s simple salad bar, made-to-order cooking stations have emerged, where diners can select their ingredients and have prepared for them a custom meal while they wait, from sandwiches to stir-frys.

Grab-and-go kiosks are popular, and are not limited to sandwiches and salads. Packages of veggies and dips or chips and hummus, hardboiled eggs, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, and yogurt are also big sellers. These grab-and-go locations are often located in areas of campus that can’t support traditional dining halls.

Other food trends to look for include offering more plant based-options that support vegetarians, vegans, and people who want to incorporate more vegetables in their diet.

Smaller and shareable plates are popular. Tapas, mezze, and antojitos encourage sharing while cutting down on food waste. This trend also plays into another shift as the student body becomes more diverse; the popularity of global food offerings.

Avoiding allergies is behind Sodexo’s Simple Servings concept. This service provides dishes without eggs, milk, tree nuts, and other common allergens. With more than 120 university dining centers on board, it remains a trend to watch. Perhaps the most unexpected food trend on college campuses is the rise of celebrity chef partnerships. Sodexo partnered with James Beard Award-winning chef Art Smith to bring some of his signature dishes to college dining centers across the country.

What’s Next?

Higher education is facing a number of challenges as states vote to freeze or even lower funding, enrollment slows (including international student enrollment), student debt is seen as an unwelcome burden, nontraditional students continue to change the makeup of the student body overall, and there is increasing clamor for verifiable results and workforce-ready graduates. Still, colleges and universities remain the proving ground for innovations and innovators, inspiring discoveries and new ventures.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management July/August 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.