September 18, 2023 |Enrollment | Competition | Value of Higher Education

Those of us in higher education find ourselves affected by a world changing at a pace unlike any other time in history. I think it’s fair to say that traditional institutions of higher education are not, by and large, prepared to keep up. How we respond to this revolution of change, and our own biases against change, will determine our future.

Higher education is rooted deep in tradition. Minnesota State University, Mankato, with its 155-year history, is no different. Those traditions are powerful in many ways and have educated and inspired countless individuals on their paths to make their marks on the world. However, the strength of our traditions, histories, and culture are challenged as we move through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The challenge faced by higher education in general, and regional public universities in particular, is the subject of this essay.

Rapid and exponential change brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution will fundamentally alter how higher education functions in a world changing at a pace unlike any other time in history. It's fair to say that traditional institutions—in any domain, but especially higher education—are not, by and large, prepared to keep up. How we respond to a revolution characterized by exponential change and our predispositions against rapid change will determine our future.

While fundamental shifts in higher education are rare, they have happened. For instance, the first three industrial revolutions profoundly affected higher education institutions.

Beginning in the 1780s, the First Industrial Revolution witnessed steam power's introduction, allowing for greater mechanization and productivity. Advanced education equipped machinists, engineers, and operators to harness and apply steam, improve productivity, and allow for automation. Institutions adapted to meet the new needs for specialization, skills, and outcomes-based instruction, representing a change from traditional liberal arts instruction.

The second industrial revolution of the 1870s introduced mass production and new energy sources—electricity, gas, and oil. The advent of the telegraph and telephone allowed for long-distance communication. Higher education responded with increasingly specialized disciplines and the rise of a managerial class to oversee manufacturing operations, accounting, and sales.

The third industrial revolution began with the introduction of the microchip in 1970. It was a time of tremendous growth in electronic and digital technologies that allowed for greater automation of production and significant increases in knowledge. Digital learning platforms, easily shared videos, teleconferencing, and computers transformed the world of work and higher education.[1] Digital search capabilities replaced card catalogs; word processors and spreadsheets changed the work environment; digital learning platforms allowed new instructional methods; and e-mail replaced many in-person visits. There are many other examples, all of which changed how we learned, worked, and interacted with one another.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution promises to significantly change transportation, manufacturing, health care, energy, agriculture, and higher education. The rate of change driven by technological advances, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, among many others, promises new opportunities while threatening the stability of traditional organizations, decision-making processes, and institutional structures. What is clear is that the skills needed to take full advantage of the new, emerging economy differ significantly from those upon which traditional higher education institutions have focused. [2]

A Challenging Context

Over the past decade, the landscape of higher education has changed significantly. The most pressing changes are enrollment decline, loss of public confidence in higher education's value, and emerging competition. 

Enrollment Decline

Following World War II, the GI Bill and returning veterans sparked a demand for increased capacity in higher education institutions. The subsequent baby boom created more demand for increased capacity. However, birthrates are declining with a significant and steady drop following the Great Recession of 2007-2009.[3] Further, the U.S. birthrate fell by 4 percent in 2020, marking the lowest number of births since 1976 and the sixth consecutive year of declining birthrates.[4]

Birthrates represent just one factor that will continue to play a significant role in declining enrollment. Reduced demand is another. The National Student Clearing House reported that in spring 2022, enrollment in public 4-year institutions dropped 3.4% on top of a 3.0% decline in fall 2021, representing a 1.3 million-student decline since spring 2020.[5] Reduced demand coupled with lower birthrates are projected to result in a loss of 11 to 15 percent of enrollment within the next decade and beyond. [6]  

Nationally, higher education is bracing for an enrollment crash expected in 2025. Megan Zahneis, in her article “A Historic Decline in U.S. Births Signals More Enrollment Troubles,” makes the point that once this “demographic cliff” hits, it won’t let up for more than a decade.

Loss of Public Confidence

By almost any measure, postsecondary educational attainment serves both a private and public good.[7] Yet, between 2020 and 2022, public confidence in higher education’s ability to lead toward positive change in America declined 14 points from 69% to 55%.[8] Only 50% of Americans think the economic benefits of college outweigh the costs. And more than 80% said college expenses meant that low-income students did not have access.[9] While 75% of those surveyed believe that some postsecondary education is valuable, increasing costs and concerns about debt undermine students’ perceptions of potential return on investments. Pair that with an increasing belief that online instruction is of the same quality as face-to-face learning (50% up from 30% in 2021), there are added questions about traditional models for higher education.


Given declining enrollments and skepticism over the value of public higher education, it is not surprising that competition has increased. Perhaps the greatest threat to traditional regional, comprehensive universities is the rise of the mega-university.[10] These large, distance-education-oriented institutions, including Arizona State, Grand Canyon, Liberty, Southern New Hampshire, and Western Governors, have vastly outpaced growth in the traditional sector. These institutions market their online programs to working adults, leaning into their ability to provide an education that will strengthen the economy while improving students’ lives and the lives of their families. Much as Amazon and Walmart now stand as the templates for retail businesses, mega-universities in many ways reflect a shift in what Americans see in a college degree: something practical, convenient, and inexpensive.[11]

For many of you, what I've said here is familiar information. But as we continue to think about the future, we need to know what challenges we face. The speed of change coupled with significant external pressures will force higher education to transform. Next month, we'll explore some of the changes needed to overcome these challenges.

Until next time,
Ed Inch

About Dr. Inch

Dr. Edward S. Inch is the 13th President of Minnesota State University, Mankato. He assumed the presidency July 1, 2021, and brought with him strategic leadership and an understanding of the importance of working in a collaborative, transparent and authentic manner to build a shared vision. [Read more]

[1] iED Team, The 4 Industrial Revolutions, Institute of Economic Development,, June 30, 2019.

[2] iED Team, The 4 Industrial Revolutions, Institute of Economic Development,, June 30, 2019.

[3] Vital Statistics Rapid Release, “Births: Provisional Data for 2020,”, May, 2021.

[4]  Megan Zahneis, “A Historic Decline in US Births Signals more Enrollment Trouble,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 7, 2021.

[5]  NSC Research Center, “Current Term Enrollment Estimate,”, May 22, 2022.

[6]  Jon Marcus, “Declining Birthrate Means Hard Times Ahead for Colleges,” Washington Post, May 22, 2021.

[7]  Karin Fischer, “The Return of College as a Common Good,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 3, 2022.

[8]  Karin Fischer, “Americans’ Confidence in Higher Ed Drops Sharply,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 26, 2022.

[9]  “America’s Hidden Common Ground on Public Higher Education,” Public Agenda,, July 11, 2022.

[10]  Lee Gardner, “The Rise of the Mega-University,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 17, 2019.

[11]   Gardner, 2019.