2023: What’s Trending and How It Might Impact Our World (ChatGPT DID NOT Write this Article!)

You’ve probably already seen more than a few articles purporting to predict trends in the year ahead. They are so ubiquitous that today’s artificial intelligence tools can probably write them for us.  In fact, we asked ChatGPT for its take on higher education trends in 2023. The results – stale and uninteresting – stem from the AI’s language training process that means it will tend to hew to a very conventional wisdom and its answers always seem to be about a year out of date.

If there is anything the last few years have taught us, it’s the folly of prediction. Yet, there is something in the process of cataloging trends that allows us to take stock and reflect. So, without further apology, here’s our take on trends to watch in 2023.

A Cooling Labor Market. The labor market has been white hot in the post-pandemic recovery. The actions of the Federal Reserve have served to cool the economy and labor markets – so that they are, at present, merely tight. The only question now seems to be how fast the economy will cool and whether the Fed can engineer a “soft landing” or whether we will face a recession and significant unemployment. Second only to underlying demographics, labor markets are huge drivers of demand for education. Conventionally, there is more interest in pursuing education when labor markets are looser. In general, Network affiliates will want to track labor markets and prepare for an uptick in interest in returning to college as workers see work hours and wage premiums fall.

Continuing College Enrollment Challenges. For most colleges in most places, declines in college enrollment will continue to be a key business and strategy driver, although a handful of states and institutions actually showing enrollment increases in the last two years. Community colleges have been especially hard-hit with the steepest declines among students aged 18-24. As the economy cools, conventional wisdom suggests there should be some recovery in enrollment numbers. But a worrying factor will be the long-term educational setbacks for high school students during the pandemic, which may have set up the condition for a “lost cohort” of prospective traditional age college students.
Readers of The Lightbulb should be prepared for increased interest among working adults in returning to college as labor markets cool. And the value proposition for the work of Network organizations has never been higher for many higher eds. This is a great time to build and strengthen relationships with higher education institutions with enrollment challenges. Finally, there may well be a growing constituency in your community of younger people who are not enrolled in school and have not found their footing in the world of work; now might be a good time for practitioners to consider how they can reach out to these groups if they are not doing so already. We will certainly be looking at whether we see an uptick in younger adults across our research partner organizations over the coming year. 

A Continuing Debate over the Value of College Degrees. We are not seeing any let-up in the discourse from those questioning the value and primacy of college degrees. And faced with talent attraction challenges, employers have been somewhat receptive — job listings in recent months seem to have de-emphasized college degree requirements, although hiring still generally favors those with degrees. A cooling labor market will stress-test the idea that workers without college degrees can succeed in labor markets. Traditionally, recessions and rising unemployment disproportionately impact those with less education. Network affiliates will want to be attuned to how a cooling labor market shifts demand for degrees and whether sub-Baccalaureate education credentials provides more or less security for workers in a period of rising unemployment.

Developing Deeper and Systemic Equity and Access Solutions. The last few years have seen a focus on racial equity and inclusion in higher education as part of the nation’s larger racial reckoning. Efforts to strengthen community inclusion, new academic programs and initiatives, and commitments to ensure diversity in discourse and leadership have been hallmarks of higher education’s response to date. There may be opportunities to consider more systemic solutions in 2023. Network affiliates are well-positioned to offer pro-equity solutions like Comebacker navigation, which is backed up by the rigorous analysis of TGN’s Data that Move Us longitudinal data set.

Wildcards: Employers, Student Debt Relief, Federal Government. There is a lot of uncertainty in the year ahead. There are three variables that are likely to impact the work of Network affiliates. First, we do not know how a slackening labor market will shift employer attitudes and actions. Historically, looser labor markets mean employers shift their focus away from talent attraction and development. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests the searing experiences of labor shortages in the last 24 months will keep employers engaged in these conversations, at least for the time being.
Second, the Biden Administration’s Student Debt Relief plan is still in limbo as challenges wind their way through the courts. And until there is a resolution on Debt Relief, the student loan payment pause will remain in effect, at least until late summer. The Supreme Court will hear arguments on February 28.
Finally, it is difficult to gauge how a divided Congress will address spending and policy proposals in the coming fiscal year. Spending bills for the coming fiscal year are likely to face intense debates. Prospects for developing the needed consensus around, for example, the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, would seem remote. And all of the Congressional activity will take place against the backdrop of a new Presidential election cycle.

Whatever the year ahead brings, we know our work – and yours – to support Comebackers in securing educational and economic opportunity will be as relevant as ever.

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