Megatrends in Higher Education

As the world enters the fourth industrial revolution, the education needs of the future workforce are drastically changing. But the structure of higher education has remained static for decades. By incorporating future-focused thinking into their strategic plans—and adopting trends that can provide the greatest impact—leaders of higher-education institutions can head fully prepared into a changing world of work and learning.

BCG recently conducted a global megatrend analysis for a private, liberal arts university to help it form a new strategic plan. We identified more than two dozen megatrends, from which we focused on five that would be particularly relevant for the university and for education institutions worldwide. By focusing on these megatrends, university leaders can pivot their strategic planning and not only accommodate the students of the future but ensure their institutions’ lasting growth.


Part of the evolution of higher education must be a response to the consistent demand for soft-skills training within the curriculum. Teamwork, decision making, communication, and the ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work are at the top of the list of soft skills sought by employers. Soft skills can be embedded in the curriculum or taught in standalone courses, while online platforms such as Coursera are already incorporating soft-skills content into their offerings, with hundreds of courses on topics such as communication skills and problem solving.


Students increasingly want to be able to transition between structured and unstructured learning modes—a trend that redefines professors’ roles and can lead to better learning outcomes. There’s a growing demand for “deep learning,” an approach that encourages students to have a more complex engagement with materials. There has also been a call for “blended learning,” which combines in-person and digital modalities most often by using classroom time for discussion and practice and providing students with lectures in video format that they can watch on their own time.

Further, mobility is changing the rules of the education game, increasing value for all stakeholders. Students seek international experiences, employers want workers with international exposure, and educational institutions can further their global reach—a win for all parties.


Today’s students often see themselves as consumers within the context of their education. They want to define the experience they have as well as the degree they earn—an autonomy that will allow them to identify where they can best use their talents and interests. For example, many students want the flexibility to design their own major and make greater use of electives. Universities will have to adjust and grow in order to meet the new needs and demands of students.


Research from Pew suggests that 74% of adults are lifelong learners. Education technology can play a large role in accommodating a wide range of lifelong learners. There are those who may have deferred entry into university, want an additional degree, want to refresh their skills through continued education, or hope to pursue personal growth in a particular subject later in life. Whatever the reason, lifelong learning is becoming the norm, and universities must introduce programs for nontraditional audiences.


Universities are finding it crucial to partner with the public, private, and social sectors, as well as other universities—sharing resources and tackling larger problems through collaborative research. For example, the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY Poly) formed in 2014 through the merger of two separate SUNY institutes—the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and the Institute of Technology—as part of a concerted effort by the state of New York to create a global, high-tech educational ecosystem. SUNY Poly is a research institution that offers traditional degree programs in fields such as nanoscience and nanoengineering and has leveraged more than 300 corporate partners and $20 billion in investments to create a state-of-the-art nanotech center in Albany, New York, that houses over 3,000 faculty, students, and researchers.