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Admissions Trends to Watch: Past Challenges, Future Priorities

What does 2024 have in store for higher education? As institutions grapple with ongoing challenges and new obstacles in the year ahead, admissions leaders are reevaluating strategies, revamping processes, and reaffirming their commitment to their institution's efforts to broaden access to higher education.

From the emergence of generative AI to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn affirmative action, a multitude of changes impacted student recruitment and admittance in 2023, forcing schools to prioritize agility and adaptation.. 

But in 2024, it won't be enough to merely respond to change. Institutions need a proactive approach to drive innovation and reshape the future of higher education. It's a pivotal moment — are schools ready to embrace it?

3 Trends that Shaped Higher Education in 2023

The events of the past year raised major questions that struck at the very core of higher education: What is the value of a degree in today's economy? How do new technologies impact learning and instruction? How can institutions stay true to their mission and maintain their diversity and equity goals given new rules and regulations?

These questions reflect the myriad challenges and trends impacting admissions practices in 2023:

1) Declining confidence in higher education. While student enrollment grew in 2023, it has yet to recover to pre-pandemic levels. This lingering challenge underscores deeper skepticism among the public about the value of higher education. In response to rising tuition costs and changing workforce needs, more potential students are opting for alternatives to post-secondary education. In fact, only around one-third of Americans say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in post-secondary education, while more than half say a four-year degree isn't worth the cost. Consequently, many schools are working to improve academic programs, expand course offerings, and revamp recruitment and marketing strategies to meet shifting student preferences and market demands.

2) Technology has opened new opportunities — and new challenges. Even with the return of in-person learning, remote courses and programs have remained widely available. While online learning programs continue to offer students greater flexibility and freedom, other technology innovations have proven more complicated, particularly generative AI. The emergence of ChatGPT, Bard, and other generative AI tools has raised new questions about academic integrity — and what, if anything, schools can do to prevent students from plagiarizing, cheating, and misusing AI tools in personal essays and application materials. While every question and concern about generative AI has yet to be fully answered, higher education leaders have begun to carve out strategies and best practices to guide the responsible use of AI technologies.

3) The end of affirmative action upended admissions There was no bigger disruption in 2023 than the Supreme Court's ruling overturning affirmative action policies in admissions processes. The decision has upended schools' admissions policies, recruitment strategies, and diversity goals  In fact, a recent Acuity study found that 73% of admissions leaders believe the ban on affirmative action has a significant impact on student diversity. Months after the ruling, uncertainty remains about its legal implications and impacts on admissions policies.

These challenges won't go away with the new year. In fact, it's even more crucial for schools to develop long-term, sustainable solutions to address skepticism about higher education, concerns about technology, and potential changes to admissions practices.

3 Things Higher Education Leaders Need to Look Out for in 2024

Admissions leaders find themselves at a crossroads. The shifting landscape is undoubtedly a challenge for higher education, but it's also an opportunity to innovate, implement much-needed improvements, and reinvigorate the admissions processes.

Amid these changes and challenges, the following priorities will remain top of mind for many academic institutions:

1) Revamping admissions processes. Higher education leaders spent much of 2023 weighing their options when it comes to new approaches to admissions and recruitment. In 2024, they will need to take action to revamp their admissions processes and find alternative ways to support diversity while complying with the new legal framework. However academic institutions need to keep a close eye on whether changes will introduce new barriers for candidates, perpetuate biases, and hinder diversity efforts.

Many schools are already considering moving toward more holistic admissions processes that consider an applicant's access to resources, socioeconomic status, and life experience beyond traditional academic metrics. A recent Acuity survey found that 56% of schools are turning to holistic admissions practices to support student diversity — and that trend will likely continue as schools look for new ways to broaden education access and diversity. With a focus on holistic admissions you can not only expand access to higher education and improve your school's programs, you can also prioritize the holistic success of students beyond graduation.

2) Reevaluating technology. As AI and other advanced technologies continue to shape day-to-day work, academic institutions will need to determine whether they are receiving value from digital tools — and whether they have the necessary safeguards and strategies to ensure technologies are used effectively and responsibly.

Administrators should leverage AI tools to streamline processes and improve efficiency while relying on human expertise to provide necessary oversight and to handle creative thinking, collaboration, and communication. AI can help applicants navigate the complex admissions process. For example, prospective students can find schools that align with their needs and values by using AI tools to research institutions' missions and programs.

3) Refocusing on mission. Whether revamping admissions, expanding recruiting efforts, or strengthening academic programs, higher education leaders have a lot on their plate in 2024. But now more than ever, it's crucial they remain focused on their core promise: creating a transformative learning environment that nurtures intellectual growth, cultivates critical thinking and creativity, and prepares individuals for meaningful contributions to society.

In particular, higher education leaders have the opportunity to use advanced data analytics to ensure programs align with the institution's missions and evolving student and industry demands. By leveraging the vast amount of data collected throughout students' academic careers, schools can improve decision-making and create better strategies to broaden access to education and support student diversity. Moreover, schools can leverage data in recruitment and marketing to underscore the continued value and opportunities of an academic degree.

Reinvigorating Higher Education

Amid increased public skepticism, changing legal frameworks, and other pressures, higher education leaders have their work cut out for them in 2024.

But institutions also have a critical opportunity to reevaluate core practices and policies and set a new course for the future. If 2023 was marked by change, 2024 will be marked by renewal — and a reimagination of the role and purpose of higher education.

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