To state the obvious, 2023 has been a tumultuous year in higher education. But critical questions around academic freedom, free speech, ideological diversity, and more aren’t the only things driving turbulence in the sector. 

Indeed, more instability is in store in the year ahead. As the new year dawns, here are four other trends that could change the status quo in 2024.

1. More colleges will close or merge. Emergency funds from the federal government helped keep many institutions that were on shaky financial ground solvent through the 2023 academic year. That’s no longer the case. And according to a Bain & Company report, two-thirds of institutions must shift their business models to survive and thrive.

Expect more institutions to close or merge in 2024 than did in 2023. According to Inside Higher Ed, multiple institutions have announced closures this academic year, including Magdalen College, Lincoln Christian University, Alderson Broaddus University, Alliance University, Cabrini University, Cardinal Stritch University, Finlandia University, Hodges University, Holy Names University, Iowa Wesleyan University, Medaille University, Presentation College, and various for-profits.

What’s driving this? The decline in enrollment in higher education, disruptive alternatives to higher education, demographic declines, and the continued rise in spending by higher education.

2. Online learning will continue to have its moment, but a shakeout is beginning. Roughly 70% of students took at least one online course in 2021–22. Even as enrollment in accredited higher education institutions as a whole have declined, enrollment in online programs has continued to increase.

But the basis of competition is shifting. When disruptive innovation is afoot, competition follows predictable patterns. After satisfying basic reliability and functionality, the basis of competition is around convenience and access. Once that is satisfied, competition shifts to price. That’s where we are entering now, and it will have a significant impact on traditional colleges and universities and how they show up in the world of online learning. No longer will it be enough to simply have an online program. Students will focus on value, which in many cases will result in a focus on price. Ultimately, colleges and universities won’t be able to price their online programs at the same rate as their brick-and-mortar ones and use them to prop up unsustainable campus operations.

3. Big colleges and universities will get bigger. In the world of online learning, scale matters when the value is clear. It allows colleges to invest more in the learning design and student supports in their programs. And it helps their marketing engines in at least three ways: through advertising, student referral, and the ability to drive partnerships through name recognition. That means we should expect universities like Western Governors University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Arizona State University to continue to grow.

4. Apprenticeships will gain more traction outside of the trades. Apprenticeships enjoy bipartisan support. And more and more individuals are looking for meaningful alternatives to a good job than through traditional higher education that bears less risk. Apprenticeships, as Ryan Craig details in his new book Apprentice Nation, are an attractive answer.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.