How have higher ed’s 7 wicked problems changed thanks to AI and other emerging trends?

2024 is a "prove it" year for AI and edtech products to show that they can have a major impact, the whitepaper suggests. If the technologies are to democratize education, they must incorporate user-centered design and be learner-focused.

WGU Labs is no stranger to the seven “wicked problems” facing higher education today. As difficult as they are to alleviate, due to their solutions being subject to real-world limitations, the emerging trends and challenges of the past year have changed the puzzle.

In its latest report, the research arm of Western Governors University forecasts how AI and other factors have complicated or smoothed the path toward student equity and success in the new year. These insights come from the 17 colleges and universities and 10 edtech companies WGU has partnered with, as well as the nearly $900,000 it has invested in edtech startups to tackle some of the most pressing issues.

“We understand that we need to learn fast, and the only way to do that is to learn together,” the report reads.

1. Postsecondary access

Despite purported threats to the value of a college degree in today’s marketplace, statistics collected by WGU Labs point to the sustained importance of credentials for Americans who seek high-paying jobs. Thus, the higher education marketplace is not in as much danger as the outside commotion suggests.


As much progress as the United States has made in erasing the digital divide that separated students from WiFi and related devices, a new gap has emerged in the form of AI. Dubbed the Digital Divide 2.0, higher education must focus on how it can ensure first-generation students are as adept at using ChatGPT and other AI tools that are becoming vital to the economy.

Education delivery will shift as well. With in-person instruction back in full force since the pandemic, students will not accept preset education models. Rather, they will mix and match in-person and digital modalities across education and student support.

2. Cost of education

The end of the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund has left colleges and universities with fewer resources to offer students who are struggling with their college finances. Higher education has an especially difficult cohort to support now that 40% of undergraduate enrollment comprises adult learners who are most likely balancing a job or career with their academic pursuits. Student loan repayments, which began again in October, may add to learners’ queasiness about college costs.


Wraparound support will become a more mainstream institutional initiative as the financial hardship students face outside of their college costs becomes less taboo to discuss. Antiquated financial aid models that only take into account the experience of financially backed wealthy students will be retired and modernized for adult learners or those who do not receive financial support. Lastly, more colleges will institute learner pathways that are shorter and less costly.

3. Student belonging

Evidence suggests that students feel a greater sense of belonging if they are able to navigate campus career services, like tutoring, financial services, advising and mental health support. However, only about 60% of students are adept at what their college offers.


Digital access and automating rote advisor responsibilities can help promote accessibility via virtual communities, social media apps and peer-to-peer tools. Students who primarily follow online and digital modalities in their academic careers may not get a chance to interact with their peers as often, but it will still be vital for them to feel a sense of community. As a result, institutional belonging will become a more significant point of emphasis and study.

4. Tech-enabled learning

While most students and faculty expect higher education to be more online and tech-enabled in the future, fatigue over this modality is growing. This is a concerning sign since positive sentiment is necessary for students and faculty to remain engaged.


After last year’s hype, 2024 is a “prove it” year for AI to show that it can have a major impact. If the technology is to democratize education, it must incorporate user-centered design and be learner-focused.

The same goes for many edtech tools that have gained popularity. Products will become obsolete if they cannot be integrated into institutions’ primary learning management systems or adequately streamlined for student access.

5. Diverse learning paths

The rise in adult learners and their continued importance for institutions looking to diversify their enrollment will require colleges and universities to shift toward competency-based education models and increase remote support services that rival those of their on-campus offerings.


Micro-credentials will become a more popular commodity for several reasons. One, they recognize students’ qualifications in more nuanced ways than a degree. This is a more attractive model for students who must inch through school with a job on the side. Second, non-degree, skills-based pathways have become increasingly accepted in information technology and healthcare sectors. However, higher education and employers must work together to understand in which sectors—and what skills—micro-credentials could serve as viable certifications of competency.

6. Learning-to-work transition

One of higher education’s most prominent criticisms is that the bridge learners must cross into the workforce is fragile and lacks cohesion. Students don’t feel like they are receiving adequate training for the marketplace from their studies, and these structural barriers must be addressed to sustain future students’ confidence.


AI will eliminate most companies’ entry-level job positions, cutting employers’ ability to train new hires on the job. As a result, companies will seek accelerated partnerships with institutions to ensure students are fully trained and equipped once they are hired into upper-level positions.

7. The future of learning

Continuous learning opportunities and the proliferation of micro-credentials will help institutions credential employees based on their skillsets at a faster pace than what it takes to build new, robust degrees.


Students and employers’ diverse experiences will trump today’s cut-and-dry qualifications. Instead, students can access various entry points and exits in learning journeys that are tailored to support their distinct needs.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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