7 higher education trends to watch in 2020

Higher education made a striking number of headlines in 2019, in part due to the Varsity Blues scandal that exposed the seedier aspects of college admissions and attracted nationwide attention for its celebrity perpetrators.

But last year brought other changes and controversies to higher ed. Conversations about how to keep struggling small colleges alive have resulted in new state accountability legislation, the first of its kind. And the myriad Democratic presidential contenders are pushing college affordability on the campaign trail — from sweeping free college proposals to cash infusions for troubled historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Below are seven issues affecting higher ed in 2019 that we expect to dominate the ever-changing landscape in the new year. 

College closures and mergers

A rash of factors is threatening the financial health of small institutions, particularly in New England and the Midwest, where several shut their doors last year. 

Moody’s Investors Service predicts around 15 closures for 2020. High-profile cases such as the abrupt demise of Mount Ida College in 2018 have drawn policymakers to this issue. Despite the clout of Massachusetts’ private colleges, the state legislature late last year passed a unique law that increased oversight of their finances and could help alert state regulators to an imminent closure. Pundits believe these measures could serve as a model for other jurisdictions.

The timing of a shutdown — when the campus and the public should be warned —​ has been a pressure point for the sector. That was demonstrated in November, when Inside Higher Ed tried to publish a forecast of when private colleges might close. Anxiety and outrage were immediate among some institutions on the list, including one that threatened to sue. 

The problem of unpredictable closures isn’t confined to private colleges, though. For-profit institutions are still under scrutiny after a series of collapses in the last several years. Observers are still trying to determine the circumstances under which the U.S. Department of Education and accreditors would step in to address floundering for-profits’ finances and ensure students can complete their programs. 

Some college operators have attempted to rebrand and even spin off their institutions as nonprofits, but 2019 showed potential roadblocks ahead for those trying to do so.

The consolidation trend is affecting some public systems, too. Recently, the University of Alaska System proposed merging its three accredited campuses into a single entity as a way to absorb the blow of massive state cuts, but that idea has since been rejected.

Effects of deregulation

The Ed Department spent 2019 completing or finalizing several regulatory measures, some of which remove policy changes that the Obama administration championed. Critics of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos fear these rules will remove critical surveillance from areas of higher ed.

This fall, the department issued final regulations on accreditors and state authorization for distance education, which will go into effect on July 1.

Among their changes, the rules remove geographic restrictions for accreditors and make it easier for institutions to get programs approved. But as pundits have pointed out, accreditors already sometimes fail to hold colleges and universities in their purview accountable. The Ed Department recently flagged possible compliance issues with the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an accreditor that has already had its federal recognition pulled for allegedly not adequately monitoring its colleges.

New regulations on Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law, are expected early this year. They will likely be similar to a draft version the department published in 2018, giving colleges and universities more flexibility to adjudicate campus sexual assault cases. The new regulations force administrators to allow cross-examination and narrow the definition of sexual harassment. 

U.S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education is underway with several regulatory changes affecting higher education, including rules pertaining to accreditation and Title IX.

Shalina Chatlani


Higher ed and the 2020 election

Multiple recent studies have indicated that Americans’ confidence in higher ed is waning, particularly over affordability concerns.

Candidates for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election have that in mind. Some front-runners, including U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have proposed policies such as free college and universal debt forgiveness. 

HBCUs are also in the spotlight, with Democratic candidates pledging to invest in those institutions should they win the election. Cory Booker, a New Jersey senator, recently unveiled a $100 billion plan for HBCUs, eclipsing proposals from Warren and Sanders. 

Students are expected to be a much more influential voting bloc than in years past after traditional college-age voters turned out in far greater numbers for the 2018 midterm elections than they did in 2014. Activist groups have encouraged colleges to try to boost political engagement among their students, too.

Adult students and online learning

Though the number of students outside the traditional college-age range of 18 to 24 is slowly declining as part of a national downturn in higher ed enrollment, institutions are still trying to attract this population. 

Online-focused schools such as Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire universities have wooed adult students with the flexibility of their programs. Purdue University acquired the for-profit Kaplan University in 2018 to inherit its online infrastructure and student base.  

Traditional four-year institutions have not always been successful in figuring out adult students’ needs. Retention experts have recommended offering credit for prior work and military experience and providing additional support beyond the classroom, such as tailored advising and child care services.

Workforce development initiatives

The Ed Department has encouraged institutions and employers to develop academic programs that address the knowledge, skills and training experience required in the workplace. That rhetoric reflects interest from the Trump administration in apprenticeship programs. 

DeVos, speaking to business leaders at an event in Washington, D.C., in November, urged them to reach out to their local institutions and form partnerships.

Amazon Web Services, Google, Facebook and other tech companies are working with colleges to help design curriculum that teaches students how to use their products. And major employers such as Walmart and Chipotle are changing the scope and strategy of their educational benefit programs as a way to reduce turnover, diversify their leadership pipelines and fill skills gaps among their ranks. 

As colleges look to reach new student populations ahead of an expected drop-off in the number of high school graduates, more may be interested in partnering with companies to help train their workers. 


In 2019, Walmart added technology and health care programs to its $1-a-day college degree program.


Standardized testing under fire

More colleges have been foregoing SAT and ACT scores as an admissions requirement, including elite institutions such as the University of Chicago.

Opponents of standardized testing in college admissions have framed the two assessments as exclusionary to minority and low-income students who may not be able to afford the same type of prep as their more affluent peers. They also may not have the time or transportation access to get to a testing site or the means to afford to take the test several times to improve their scores.

What may be the biggest development on the test-optional front so far came in 2019, when advocacy groups sued the University of California System over its use of the tests in admissions.

Other systems may follow suit should the lawsuit succeed or UC decides to remove the testing requirements on its own.

Scrutiny in admissions

The Varsity Blues scandal shook the admissions field, exposing how the system was vulnerable to exploitation by wealthy and influential individuals who used their advantage to secure their children spots at elite institutions they may not have been qualified to attend. 

In its wake, practitioners cited a need to reflect on, and even change, their practices.

Meanwhile, a long-running and controversial lawsuit against Harvard University for its use of affirmative action in admissions was decided this fall. A federal judge ruled that the university hadn’t been prejudicial in its admissions processes for Asian American students. 

The decision was viewed as a win for efforts to protect widely-challenged policies that let colleges use race as a factor in admissions. But the group that filed the lawsuit is expected to appeal the decision and has separately sued the University of North Carolina System over its use of affirmative action.