Office of Planning & Budgeting

July 23, 2019

2019 Higher Education Trends

As the higher education landscape continues to change and evolve in the United States, below are some select national and state trends driving higher education policy and innovation in recent years. The Office of Planning & Budgeting (OPB) continues to monitor these, and other, trends. This list was curated using multiple sources, including recent news articles and blogs, recent state-level legislation, and higher education trends analyses from The Brookings Institution and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

1. College Affordability

College affordability continues to dominate the national conversation around higher education. This year, the Washington Legislature took big steps to make college more accessible and affordable for Washington families. Read more about the proposal in OPB’s brief on the legislature’s final compromise 2019-21 state budgets.

Additionally, many of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have released higher education policy proposals to address college affordability. These proposals include initiatives to increase funding for Pell Grants, to create “free college” using state-federal partnerships, expand student loan forgiveness, and increase dedicated funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).

2. Changing Student Profiles

According to the Lumina Foundation, 38 percent of all undergraduates are older than 25. Traditional college students – 18- to 21-year-olds who attend school full-time – now only make up about a third of the college population.

Students are also increasingly taking on additional responsibilities while in school. According to HBSC, 85 percent of students are working in paid employment while studying. Lumina also reports that students work, on average, 19 hours per week.

3. Integrating Data

A report from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, Association for Institutional Research, and Educause found that “most institutions are investing in data and analytics projects, but few are measuring the resulting costs.”

The report found that colleges are using data in more ways as they modernize and manage programs to show returns on student and state investments. Studies of students’ academic progress and success are the leading types of data projects. Many institutions are conducting several types of student success studies annually. However, nearly one fourth of institutions are not collecting usable business and systems-level data and few institutions are systematically collecting, integrating, and using their data.

4. Changes in Admissions

Last year, the University of Chicago announced that it would no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, the most-selective institution ever to adopt a test-optional policy. Today, more than 1000 U.S. colleges and universities have adopted similar policies.

As colleges and universities continue to use data to better understand how their students perform, they become less reliant on test scores. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “on many campuses, deep dives into enrollment data have helped admissions offices determine which pieces of information they collect from applicants actually help them predict a variety of student outcomes, such as first-year grades and progress toward a degree.” The University of Chicago “found that ACT and SAT scores didn’t tell it much about who would succeed and who would struggle.”

5. Open-Access Research

Global advocates are calling for publicly funded research to be available through open-access sites, rather than behind paywalls of subscription-based journals. Over the last few years, the movement has gained momentum at increasing cost to publishers. In 2018, Florida State University said it would not subscribe to a publisher’s journals in one bundled deal. This year, the University of California system cancelled its contract with Elsevier, one of the biggest academic publishers in the world. The University of Iowa also announced a new open-source online journal, providing open access to the research and creative scholarship of the university.

This debate has some immediate consequences for academics and researchers, who will lose access to journals unless schools renegotiate with publishers. The University of California attempted to mitigate some of these consequences by publishing alternative methods to access publications.

 6. Transnational Students

According to Studyportals, the number of American students enrolling at foreign colleges is expected to grow from 2.3 million student in 2015 to 6.9 million in 2030. This trend is attributed to multiple causes, including “higher ambitions and investments for world-class universities” and “accelerated growth of global, multi-national networks.”

However, in the United States, the number of new international student enrollments is declining. Inside Higher Ed reports that, “New enrollments fell 6.3 percent at the undergraduate level, 5.5 percent at the graduate level, and 9.7 percent at the non-degree level from 2016-17 to 2017-18.” While overall trends remain at an all-time high, increasing by 1.5 percent in 2018, there is some concern that new U.S. immigration policies might have long-term impacts on international enrollment.

7. Online Enrollment

Online courses continue to become more popular in the United States. In 2016-17, overall postsecondary enrollment dropped by almost half a percent, while the number of students who took at least some of their courses online grew by 5.7 percent. Over the last 15 years, online enrollment has quadrupled.

However, a report from George Mason University claims that the growth in online enrollment has been “disproportionately large in the for-profit sector.” Further, “online coursework has contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability.”

8. Online Program Managers

As online enrollments rise, online program managers (OPMs) are working with colleges and universities to provide online options for students. OPM providers contract with institutions of higher education to create, market, and recruit for online degree and non-degree programs. In return, OPMs earn a percentage of the revenue or tuition from the online programs offered at public colleges and universities.

College and universities like Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of North Carolina already provide online programs through OPMs. Purdue University chose to acquire Kaplan University in 2017 to directly expand its online presence.


Higher education continues to adapt to new technologies and a changing global environment. This blog represents just some of the most recent changes, and there are many other challenges and opportunities for American colleges and universities. As institutions seek to balance the status quo with contemporary shifts, their flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances will be a key element in determining their future success.