University Leaders Raise Concerns About Adapting to Market Forces Reshaping Higher Education

WASHINGTON, DC – A new report, “The Transformation-Ready Higher Education Institution: How Leaders Can Prepare for and Promote Change,” co-authored by the American Council on Education (ACE), Huron, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, found that few higher education leaders are highly confident that their institutions are adequately prepared for changing market forces. Additionally, leaders are challenged by public perceptions of the value of higher education and increased competition for students both domestically and internationally.

The leaders that consider a long-term, yet adaptive, strategic planning approach can better anticipate these market trends and make the necessary changes to thrive now and in the future. Yet only 16 percent of respondents are looking 10 years or beyond in terms of strategic planning.

“We know there is no one correct approach to preparing for change. We do know strong leadership, careful but dynamic planning, and a resolute focus on students will better position institutions to educate the learners of today and tomorrow in new ways,” says co-author Louis Soares, chief learning and innovation officer at ACE.

The authors of the report suggest creating a culture of shared leadership that considers multiple perspectives rather than a single person or governing body. This model can help institutions prepare and be nimble enough to respond to these changes.

Most leaders recognize changes are needed to respond to the competitive landscape and acknowledge these investments should align with the evolving student population, with the majority of respondents indicating they are rapidly overhauling their academic programs, investing in technological improvements, and expanding online offerings.

“The fastest growing population in higher education is adult learners, now comprising nearly half of the total learner population. Working professionals have vastly different needs than those of the traditional student,” says Dr. Nelson Baker, dean of professional education at Georgia Tech. “That shift coupled with the fact that technology allows us to provide educational opportunities on a global scale makes it imperative that we plan more strategically and prioritize agility in order to meet the needs of learners today and in the future.”

Yet only 14 percent of the leaders planning technology investments have strategic technology management integrated across their institutions—suggesting a potential gap between intentions and leadership’s capacity to realize the value of these investments.

“Many institutions subscribe to planning models that were built for a different time and a different competitive market,” says Peter Stokes, managing director in Huron’s education business. “To become truly transformation-ready, institutions’ short- and long-term planning efforts should link directly to the needs of increasingly empowered, discerning audiences for whom higher education is not simply a next step after high school.”

Together, ACE, Huron, and the Georgia Institute of Technology surveyed 495 higher education leaders, including more than 250 presidents and chancellors, from four-year public and private nonprofit institutions to understand their perspectives about how their organizations are preparing for the inevitable change and disruption. Participants were asked how they are anticipating and planning for shifts in market trends such as declines in federal and state funding, increased competition, and a shrinking, yet more diverse, student population.

In addition to the survey, several participants were interviewed to offer their perspectives on innovation and its impact on the higher education industry. Portions of those interviews are included in the report, which can be viewed here.

About the American Council on Education
ACE is a membership organization that mobilizes the higher education community to shape effective public policy and foster innovative, high-quality practice. As the major coordinating body for the nation’s colleges and universities, the organization’s strength lies in its diverse membership of more than 1,700 colleges and universities, related associations, and other organizations in America and abroad. ACE is the only major higher education association to represent all types of U.S. accredited, degree-granting institutions: two-year and four-year, public and private. For more information, please visit or follow ACE on Twitter @ACEducation.