Higher Education

Higher education faces an uncertain future. Even before COVID-19, it was under strain, facing a looming demographic cliff, rising student debt, reduced government financing, and attacks over affordability and value. The pandemic has intensified these challenges. Universities with strong brands and online programs will likely prosper, while others may face significant belt-tightening or worse. Some may be forced to merge, a trend we expect to intensify.

In the near term, the response starts with transforming university finances by growing and diversifying revenues while creating operating efficiencies. At the same time, universities must continue to improve academic outcomes, integrate technology effectively, and ensure effective board governance and stakeholder engagement. Over the longer term, a more fundamental reimagining of higher education may be required, rethinking conventional wisdom around value proposition, diversity and inclusion, student experience, business models and delivery channels.

Universities still have a great deal of value to offer. The economic and health benefits of earning a college degree remain clear. And higher education will become ever more important with increasing automation in the future of work. Our insights cast light on how the higher education sector can adapt to fulfill its mission of educating a more diverse population more cost effectively and equitably, lead innovative research to illuminate society and address pressing global challenges, and strengthen local communities across the world.

Featured Insight

Perspective on university transformation: A conversation with Paul Pastorek


Setting a new bar for online higher education

– Colleges and universities that learn from online education pioneers could improve operations and students’ experiences—and ensure their long-term viability.

How to transform higher-education institutions for the long term

– As financial pressures on higher-education institutions compound, a transformation approach focused on five best practices can help leaders make lasting change.

Higher education response to COVID-19


Coronavirus: How should US higher education plan for an uncertain future?

– With American campuses largely empty of students, higher-education leaders need to shift their thinking to what happens next.

Best practices for an unusual US admissions cycle amid coronavirus

– COVID-19 and changes to the NACAC code of ethics have created new challenges and uncertainties for institutions seeking to enroll students for fall 2020. Applying best practices can help universities even beyond May 1.

COVID-19 and US higher education enrollment: Preparing leaders for fall

– A college’s first-year class helps define the student experience and heavily influences the institution’s finances. Higher education leaders are concerned about what will happen in the fall; our latest survey insights can help.

Higher education technology and analytics


Getting the next phase of remote learning right in higher education

– Because of the coronavirus, American colleges and universities are entering new educational territory. Here are some practical ways to deliver excellence.

How higher-education institutions can transform themselves using advanced analytics

– Many college and university leaders remain unsure of how to incorporate analytics into their operations. What really works?

The role of education in AI (and vice versa)

– Princeton’s head of computer science, Jennifer Rexford, explains how artificial intelligence is set to change not only what teachers teach but how they teach.

Higher education leadership and operations


Shaping university boards for 21st century higher education in the US

– Many university boards have not revised their governance models in decades and struggle to deliver on their mission. To update their current operating model, boards can focus on three best practices.

Transformation 101: How universities can overcome financial headwinds to focus on their mission

– Troubled universities can reset their financial trajectory.

Building operational excellence in higher education

– The example of one university shows the potential value in transforming administrative operations.
Article - McKinsey Quarterly

Shaking up the leadership model in higher education

– Economic pressures, digital disruption, and rising job complexity are prompting universities to seek more “outsider” leaders for their top jobs.

Interactive trends


The rising toll of student debt: More than graduates can sustain?

– Total student debt is now higher than credit card debt in the United States, and the numbers are growing quickly and steadily: our research shows that each graduating class has more debt than the class before. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to increase debt to new heights. How much more can students take?

Rising costs and stagnating completion rates: Who is bucking the trend?

– The global COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated concerns about the value of higher education — prices are rising and completion rates are stagnating. Which higher education institutions are bucking the trend?

Connect with our Public Sector Practice