Concept education graduation cap overlaying outstretched hands

5 Challenges Threatening the Future of Higher Education & How to Overcome Them

Emily Clark
Higher Education Industry Lead
Apr 17, 2024

Higher education has long been seen as a gateway to success and a key to unlocking opportunities. However, the landscape of higher education is rapidly changing. With it comes a new set of challenges that colleges and universities must surmount to survive. 

In this article, we will explore seven of the most pressing challenges facing higher education and how institutions can leverage iterative techniques and advanced technologies to meet the needs of today’s students.

#1: Rising Costs

According to data from U.S. News & World Report, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2023-2024 school year was $42,162 for private institutions, $23.630 for out-of-state attendees of state schools, and $10,662 for in-state public university students. These prices have been steadily rising for years, and, combined with today’s high cost of living, are making it difficult for many students to justify a 4-year degree at a traditional campus.

Even students who want to attend school are having trouble managing costs. Many see how recent generations, especially millennials, have been weighed down by loan repayments. To combat these issues, many higher education institutions are offering deeper discounts to many applicants. Unfortunately, this can limit net tuition revenue growth.

Additionally, rising costs for students are being mirrored by rising acquisition costs for colleges and universities. From 2020 to 2022, the cost to recruit an undergraduate student rose by 5% for public schools and 32% for private institutions. 

#2: Increased Competition

The main competition in higher education used to be between public and private schools, and then within circles of prestige. Today, students have numerous options when it comes to continuing their education. While 62% of students continue to go to college after high school, they can now choose between full-time and part-time learning paths, hybrid schooling, and completely online degrees.

Much like rising student costs, rising competition also contributes to increased acquisition costs for higher education marketers. To stay competitive, higher education institutions need to be able to provide greater student flexibility than ever before. They also need to ensure that potential applicants are aware of the offerings through an array of digital channels. In many cases, that may require hiring in-house experts in email, SEO, and social media, or partnering with agencies that specialize in these areas.

#3: Shifting Student Behaviors

In addition to rising costs, today’s students are becoming increasingly skeptical of the worth of a traditional 4-year degree. For one thing, many of today’s most prominent technology professions didn’t have widely available degrees 10 years ago. For another, 52% of graduates are underemployed one year after graduating, a fact that has had a diminishing effect on the idea that a college degree is the foundation for a successful career.

In response to this and other factors, student enrollment has been declining for the past decade. Between 2019 and 2023, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 6%, with over 900,000 students declining to pursue an undergraduate degree.

Today’s students recognize the need for individualized learning opportunities that adapt in real time to changes in the job market. This still, in many cases, includes a bachelor’s or master’s degree. But it can also come in the form of boot camps, vocational studies, or post-graduate certifications.

To remain competitive and increase enrollments, higher education institutions must show that they are keeping up with the times through innovative learning paths and opportunities for students to continue upskilling throughout their careers.

#4: Regulatory & Privacy Challenges

The longest-standing privacy law in education is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which was passed in 1974 to protect student educational records. However, the breadth and depth of student data available to higher education institutions has increased greatly in the past few decades.

Graphic explaining FERPA Data Access Allowances by type

Thanks to digitized record-keeping and marketing technologies like 3rd-party cookies, higher-ed marketers have been able to create and execute highly targeted strategies to boost enrollment. But, as privacy concerns among students have risen, new regulations and limitations are beginning to emerge. European GDPR rules require strict compliance and impact any school with international students. In the U.S., many states are passing data privacy and AI laws, while popular web browsers are limiting or eliminating support for 3rd-party cookies.

For higher education professionals, this creates two distinct challenges. First is the issue of compliance; not only do schools need to ensure compliance in their home state and country, but also anywhere they are marketing to applicants and anywhere enrolled students live. Second, higher education marketing teams need to shift away from third-party cookies to first-party data collection and make changes to their marketing campaigns accordingly.

#5: Technology & Efficiency Needs

Technology has transformed the way we live, work, and learn. However, the integration of technology in higher education has been slow, and many institutions are struggling to keep up with the pace of technological advancements.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed colleges and universities to adopt technology for remote learning, but many are still struggling to provide a seamless and effective learning experience online. Students are often frustrated by a lack of technical support and inefficient virtual learning platforms. Even if a school has the right technology in place, a lack of integrated strategies for collaboration and engagement online can leave students feeling isolated or unheard.

Schools are also being impacted by workforce and budget shortages, and the “do more with less” mindset. Many retail, service, and technology brands have turned to SaaS platforms and providers like analytics consultants to create efficiency across smaller teams. However, the higher education sector’s delay in adopting these technologies has now put it at a disadvantage.

Combating Higher Education Challenges

Schools aren’t going to be able to reverse trends in the job market or slow down the creation of new professions (and obsoletion of existing ones). However, they can leverage data, technology, and proactive strategies to boost enrollment, retain great students, and engage with alumni. Here are a few steps you can take to stay competitive.

Implement Omnichannel Campaigns

To sustain application rates, higher education institutions will need to appear wherever students are spending their time. Today, that could mean creating marketing strategies that combine TV ads with TikTok videos, blogs with dynamic emails, or events with Instagram reels. Make sure that your team has access to these channels, in-house or agency expertise on how to leverage them, and a plan for campaign distribution.

The difference between multichannel and omnichannel marketing

Segmentation and targeting can also make a huge difference in performance. While limitations on 3rd-party cookies can hinder this in some ways, strategies like contextual targeting and persona targeting can help boost campaign effectiveness. Take time to identify key demographics and develop personalized messaging that addresses both their concerns and goals.

Increase Your Agility

If the job market continues to shift quickly, then higher education strategies need to be able to pivot quickly to keep up. When it comes to curriculum building or introducing new majors, that may still have a long lead time. However, what higher education marketing teams can do right now is track real-time workforce trends against existing programs. When a profession rises in demand, you can easily increase your marketing efforts in that educational area. Conversely, when a profession is lower in demand or popularity, you can adjust your focus away from it to protect your budget and ROI.

A/B testing can also help increase agility. You could A/B test emails with different subject lines. Or, compare CTAs on your website’s homepage. In paid spaces, you can A/B test messaging within a campaign, or create diverse campaigns to see how effective they are for a given target audience. You can even A/B test visual layouts on form pages to increase form fillouts. The best part is that every experiment gives you information that can be iterated on for cumulative results.

Embrace Data and AI Technology

Thanks to generative AI platforms like ChatGPT, many higher ed teams view AI with a mix of skepticism and concern. But the reality is that, when leveraged responsibly, AI and machine learning in higher education can not only close the gap between you and your competitors but give you a sustainable competitive advantage.

In higher education, AI and machine learning can be used to:

  • Personalize content to improve engagement across platforms
  • Create predictive analyses that increase student retention
  • Power chatbots to answer application questions dynamically
  • Easily retrieve key data from your CRM or CDP for real-time reporting
  • Target and optimize alumni marketing campaigns
  • Protect student data against security breaches

Implementing advanced technology can be intimidating. For these projects, we recommend utilizing a data and AI solution provider with specific expertise in the education industry. The right partner will be able to work with you to align on goals, choose the right solutions, ensure data privacy and security, and help you build on your data foundations to create long-term growth.


The challenges facing higher education are complex and multifaceted, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Rather, higher education professionals should seek to understand their students’ unique journeys and identify key moments for engagement, from applicant to alumna. By combining these insights with a test-and-learn approach and the right technology, schools can not only find success today but also ensure a brighter future.

Looking for a true partner to help build your data and AI strategy? Further’s proven experience has created impactful outcomes for higher education institutions like the University of Phoenix, MIT, Colorado State University, and more. Schedule a call with us to learn more.

Emily Clark
Higher Education Industry Lead

With over 15 years of experience in data, analytics, and digital marketing, Emily helps universities reduce acquisition costs, increase enrollment rates, and graduate more students. She excels in leading teams to transform complex data into strategies that drive results. Away from work, Emily is often found outdoors, running, hiking, backpacking, or gardening.


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