In every conversation I have with college and university presidents, the one question I always ask is this: “What are the biggest challenges facing your institution?” Regardless of size, history, or location, all of them are dealing with similar issues. Higher education has been a hot-button issue in today’s political landscape, which has shone a brighter spotlight on the most pressing issues in the industry.

Unfortunately, the crisis plaguing higher education cannot be easily traced to a single source. The challenge for many of these institutions is a combination of two separate but related issues. The first being the continued rising cost of education. It has become more and more expensive to attend college in the traditional sense. The cost of college has increased staggeringly, rising 500% since 1982. The increased price of a 4-year degree has forced many students to consider alternative options when furthering their education.

The exploding cost of higher education has predictably led to the second issue: a steady decrease in enrollment rates. Fewer students are pursuing the traditional college education in favor of expedited, more affordable options. Colleges and universities are feeling the impact as fewer and fewer students turn up each fall.

The combined effects of higher costs and lower enrollments have culminated in a financial crisis for many of these institutions.  With fewer students, colleges and universities are put into a financial bind and are forced to take measures to combat this.

Unfortunately, it seems that there is no “waiting out the storm” on this issue. As the cost of education continues to rise, institutions have no choice but to adapt or die. Some colleges and universities have become hyper-competitive in an effort to differentiate themselves among a students’ considered set. Other nationally-recognized brands will continue to receive more applications than they could ever accept, but the vast majority of schools need to re-evaluate how they do business.

Though it may be an arduous process, the decision-makers at higher education institutions need to take a long, hard look at how they market, recruit, enroll, and retain students in order to reduce costs and be more efficient. To stay relevant, they must become dynamic in their strategy, by listening to what students want and meeting their ever-changing needs. More than anything, schools need to understand the new learner. With more alternative options, students place a higher importance on flexibility than ever before. The schools that are able to understand and adapt to the new learner are those that will find success throughout this difficult time in higher education.


James M. Hunter – Founder and CEO

Jim has 20 years of experience at the administration level within higher education institutions. He now uses that experience to help connect higher ed institutions with solutions that allow them to move from surviving to thriving.

Jim oversees activities related to the business development of Emerge Education and the academic strategy for Emerge’s partner institutions. Held roles as the VP of External Relations, Academic Dean and Director of Online Enrollment at Crown College (MN). Currently serves as a Business Development Consultant at Mission Advancement as well as a J Center Affiliate at the University of Minnesota.