Navigating the Changing Landscape of Higher Education (and Why AI Falls Short)

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It seems like every time we chime in on the subject of AI, it’s to highlight the ever-expanding capabilities of this game-changing (or world-ending, depending on who you ask) technology. Since our first journal entry, we at Findsome & Winmore have begun integrating AI-powered tools into our daily routines — from the magical to-do list maker Goblin Tools to ChatGPT: the generative AI golden child that even your grandparents are using. But in this experimentation with artificial intelligence, we’ve also been able to uncover where AI’s seemed superpowers end. And for all the wonderful things AI can do, we’ve proven our hypothesis that for some clients, verticals, and industries, it’s simply not the right fit. 

This is especially true in the constantly evolving world of higher education, where the game is changing faster than you can say “Zoom lectures.” Colleges of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of prestige have struggled to keep classes full long before COVID-19’s arrival. Toss a dormitory building-sized wrench like a global pandemic and ensuing labor shortage into the gears, and the need for a human-driven strategy grows even stronger than before. To add insult to injury, trade programs are seeing surges in popularity as “traditional” college applications wane, proving that general attitudes around higher education are changing: a prompt AI can’t yet address. 

Issues with attendance and the rise of trade schools are just two of the challenges higher education is facing. Below, we’ll unpack these problems and others — and explain why their solutions demand a human element that the Findsome & Winmore team provides.

Longstanding Admission Problems

Higher ed’s struggle to fill classrooms (virtual or otherwise) is nothing new, but COVID-era issues certainly haven’t helped. And according to Fortune magazine, this latest plunge in enrollment is the worst in recorded history, with colleges fighting harder than ever to attract students amidst a changing landscape. It should come as no surprise, then, that these issues cannot be solved with AI-generated blog posts alone. Rather, they require a carefully formulated strategy, cultivated through experience and tailored for the individual. 

Take our work for Stetson University and Florida Southern College, for example. While we could have relied on Google to learn more about these institutions and read reviews to see how students felt about their educational experiences, we instead paid visits to these campuses — uncovering the individual essence and taking a pulse check directly from the student body. In doing so, we revealed the good, bad, and beautiful: fundamental truths not found in any search engine. 

Questions of Value

Share enough college stories ‘round the fire and you’ll hear someone boast that they “worked a part-time job to pay for school.” While this may have been the case for generations prior, it’s simply not the reality for most 21st-century learners. In 1980, the federal minimum wage was $3.10. And in that same year, the average annual cost of tuition, room, and board at a United States university was just over $3,000. With some quick multiplication, it’s easy to see how an industrious student could pay for an entire education flipping burgers. Contrast this with 2023, where the minimum wage has done barely more than double while average public, in-state tuition has increased by a factor of ten.   

This isn’t a commentary in support or in criticism of a bit of back-in-my-day-ism amongst friends, but rather an explanation as to why today’s learners have a tougher time seeing the value of a college education. At a time when college is a hard sell, it takes a human appeal to communicate the true value of an education. Our campaign for Stetson, “Be Seen,” speaks to potential career outcomes but also to the unique experience of being a Stetson Hatter. And, as of the time of writing, AI still can’t quite express the bliss of wearing flip-flops all through fall term or absconding to the beach after acing a test. Advantage: humans.

The Rise of Trade Schools 

According to information gathered by Hubspot, we as a country continue to face active shortages of 500k construction workers, 600k automotive technicians, and as many as 800k manufacturing jobs. These shortages have been well communicated by local and national leaders — with would-be college students heeding the call and flocking to trade schools in droves. The resulting double-digit enrollment increase across vocational programs has eroded away at already anemic traditional college enrollment. And while technical schools are typically a lower-cost alternative to a four-year degree, this change may be as simple as having guaranteed employment upon graduation.

This is where, more than ever, deeply analytical approaches to higher education marketing are required to impress upon the minds of today’s learners. But while AI can process information like post-grad employment statistics, generating reports, and identifying trends, users should exercise caution when feeding corporate data into a generative AI. There are certainly ways around this — but if your organization has not yet established a company-wide AI policy and training module, your data should remain FHEO (for human eyes only).

Changing Attitudes Toward College

As it turns out, if you hike up tuition prices while providing alternative pathways to a six-figure living, even the most college-focused minds will begin to change. The Strada Education Foundation has conducted extensive research on this subject, finding in their 2021 Education Study that the perceived benefits of additional education are on the decline. Among adults 18–65 with an associate degree or less (and not currently enrolled in school), respondents across the board now feel that college is less likely to advance their careers, help them get stable jobs, or live up to the cost. 

But there are some populations still on the degree path. According to the same study, Black respondents and those who have already completed some schooling are more likely to enroll in a degree program. STEM majors, too, are still on the college track — likely due to the relative stability found in their respective fields. All this is to say the issues plaguing higher education are complex and cannot be solved by painting with broad strokes. And while AI can help us execute on marketing initiatives, streamlining processes and freeing up time for the nitty-gritty strategic work, it’s far from a standalone solution. 

Addressing These Limitations

While AI is getting better and more capable with every user request, it’s still not the cure for higher education’s ills. Why? Because ultimately these long-standing issues with enrollment and emerging degree deterrents stem from human issues. This demands that we as marketers make an emotional and compassionate appeal to prospective students, all while backing up these compelling campaigns with cold, hard facts. We live at the crossroads of unbridled creativity and itinerate adherence to data-driven strategy — a place that AI, even on its best day, cannot yet tread.

We know that enrollment issues within higher education won’t be going away overnight, and neither will AI. So, we at Findsome & Winmore will continue to leverage our flawed, emotional, creative, human minds to address these issues with our clients. And if, along the way, we encounter a new use for AI that improves our clients’ positions, you better believe we’ll be recruiting it for our efforts.