College 2030, Part II: The 5 challenges higher ed leaders must address

Barnes and Noble Education leader discusses the importance of ROI, student supports and potential contraction.
By: | June 28, 2022
Adobe Stock

Return on investment, cost of attendance and career preparedness continue to be major factors driving post-pandemic and postsecondary decisions made by current and prospective students, according to a new study published by Barnes and Noble College Insights.

The Second Edition of “College 2030: Emerging from The Pandemic: Reimagining Higher Education,” which surveyed more than 2,500 students and faculty, shows that while the perception of value has increased over 2021, that favorability is limited primarily to adult learners. Students overall want more support and more assurances that the payoffs from their education will be substantial to offset tuition and loans they take out. Those will be among the many challenges for higher education leaders facing sagging enrollment, ballooning costs because of inflation and the quest to rein in tuition, fees and student loan debt.

“This report really is focused on moving forward. How are you preparing the student, giving them more value and giving more value to the community?” says Mike Huseby, chairman and CEO of Barnes and Noble Education. “What are they really going to get out of this investment, which is very substantial? Is it really worth taking the risk?”

One-third of students, faculty and administrators say the value of higher education has increased while a lesser percentage say it has declined, a slight improvement over last year’s report. Affordability is the top issue facing students polled, with 68% noting schools should focus on lowering costs to provide more value and 80% saying it is their No. 1 factor when picking an institution, ahead of both location and academics. Huseby says more students are asking, “Am I putting myself under a mountain of debt that’s going to be hard for me to work my way out from underneath?”

Students also want three key items as they move forward toward 2030: support in place from colleges, hybrid learning options (even though the majority of faculty want in-person learning) and the development of soft skills that can boost their chances of success in the workplace, including leadership, self-motivation, communication and critical thinking. “The need to provide ancillary services, especially with respect to supporting mental health and career preparedness, is one of the things we’re trying to help with,” Huseby says.

Looking at the road ahead, with an eye on 2030

So what are the biggest challenges for higher ed moving forward? Huseby offered five significant areas leaders must address:

  • Staving off declining enrollments
  • Meeting the needs of a shifting demographic of students, who are more consumer-driven and want “choice, convenience, competitive pricing, and are looking at ROI
  • How to robustly offer support services, especially addressing mental health and career preparedness
  • Overcoming inflation and pressures from the macroeconomy
  • How to ensure long-term viability without Cares Act funding. “We had some schools that implemented our First Day Complete product, and they completely funded the cost of all textbooks for all of their students,” he said. “What’s going to happen now? There will be more pressure put on the government. I think you’ll see out of necessity, institutions becoming more creative in seeking funding help.”

More from UB: A look back at last year’s College 2030 report


Value/ROI: A greater share of students noted that the value of higher education had increased over last year’s report, but Huseby says, “most of that was being expressed by community college students and the older student that bought into the change in format—more virtual, more hybrid, more personalization to fit their lifestyle. How do you provide value in the face of declining enrollments of that 18-year-old population? It will be important for institution leaders to continue to create learning environments that really understands who the student is and what kind of environment they need to be in to be successful.” From the study, 73% said they feel well-prepared for careers but aren’t getting the support they need from their institutions. Nearly half want further networking assistance, 43% want more help with resumes and 38% need more mentoring. “One way to do it is establish stronger connection points with specific businesses, looking at requirements that the employers have and tailoring the curriculum to meet those new requirements.”

Affordability: Noting that student loan debt for 44 million people has reached a “mind-boggling” $1.7 trillion, Huseby says, “Schools are going to need to continue to show why higher education is worth the return and find ways to provide more personalized learning experiences. If you get a good job and can pay off the loan, you’re not as apt to be hesitant about taking on the debt.”

Mental health support: Huseby says it is a “huge topic that we heard about from three business leaders we talked to. Some are being overrun with requests. Despite 80% of the students and over 90% of faculty aware of assistance given on campus, only about 20% of them are using it. A lot of schools have gone to outsourcing so they can deal with demand. One president we deal with at a large institution said, ‘no student left behind.’ That’s a big challenge trying to cover all 100%. You have to make adjustments to your adjustments.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion: Huseby says it is important that institutions “create an environment where the student actually believes that they’re being heard. That has rub off impact on mental health and also on retention and ROI. The more comfortable you can make a student and show them that you’re listening, that will help build an inclusive campus. There’s been a heightened awareness of the importance of DEI, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, sexual preference.”

Consolidation: While some smaller, less-nimble institutions have been saved by CARES Act funding and donors ponying up with transformational gifts—or by streamlining curriculum—the next eight years may offer less good news. “There are financial pressures, not just on the student, but when the consumer feels financial pressure, the institution is going to feel it because of macro events like inflation,” Huseby says. “That’s going to affect labor costs on campus. I think we’ll see some fallout. Either you’re an acquirer, or you’re an acquiree. You want to be in a position where you can choose, and you have to be careful how you allocate your resources.”