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January 8, 2024 Industry Outlook | Higher Education

AI, DEI, flexible degrees, campus expansions key focus areas for higher ed in 2024

RENDERING | CONTRIBUTED Trinity College in 2024 plans to break ground on an addition to its George M. Ferris Athletic Center.

Connecticut college leaders this year say they will focus on growth in innovation, including artificial intelligence, in addition to issues like sustainability, diversity, and campus expansion projects.

Several university leadership changes are also expected in 2024.

All that will happen as colleges continue to grapple with financial and enrollment challenges that were exacerbated by the pandemic.

As the number of high school graduates decreases nationwide in the coming years, colleges will compete over a shrinking customer base, adding pressure to invest in new programs and facilities that will attract the next-generation of students.

Here are some higher-education trends to watch in the year ahead.

Artificial intelligence

Artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT are significantly changing how content is delivered and interacted with in the classroom, and AI can provide personalized learning experiences, assist in grading and feedback, and offer new ways for students to engage with material, college leaders said.

Patrick Dilger

The use of AI for educational purposes is likely to grow, enhancing both teaching efficiency and learning outcomes, said Patrick Dilger, director of integrated communications and marketing for Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, which enrolls 8,820 students.

ChatGPT could be used for student support services, such as tutoring, answering frequently asked questions, and providing writing assistance.

These tools can offer 24/7 support to students, helping bridge gaps in learning and offering additional resources outside of classroom hours.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney

To navigate the prospects and pitfalls AI brings to higher education, leaders at Trinity College are initiating conversations around the use of artificial intelligence in teaching, research and career planning, said Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of the Hartford-based school with roughly 2,100 students.

In 2023, Trinity launched a pilot exploration program on the use of AI across disciplines. The Dean of the Faculty’s Office invited five teams of faculty and staff to organize learning circles to begin to dig into classroom and research opportunities, Berger-Sweeney said.

One issue colleges continue to grapple with is the extent AI, including ChatGPT, should be used by students in their coursework, and how to maintain educational integrity as new easy-to-use digital tools continue to emerge.

Looking ahead, Dilger anticipates seeing more adoption of virtual and augmented reality in course delivery.

He serves as the co-lead for the virtual reality and augmented reality education committee, where both technologies are becoming more prevalent in the classroom.

These tools can create immersive learning experiences, especially in fields like medicine, engineering and the sciences, where practical, hands-on experience is crucial, he said.


In 2024, higher education institutions will continue to integrate environmental issues — climate change and sustainability — more deeply into their curricula, with new courses, research initiatives focused on sustainability, and campuswide efforts to reduce carbon footprints, Dilger said.

Some sustainability efforts are coming from the students themselves, Berger-Sweeney said. Trinity and other schools are seeing student-led efforts to promote fossil fuel divestment, activism that “is critical to our future,” she said.

In 2023, Trinity also made campus sustainability part of student orientation, introducing new students to on-campus programs as well as off-campus amenities such as public transportation.

Admissions DEI

Colleges this year will also be dealing with the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s June 2023 decision (in SFFA v. Harvard and SFFA v. University of North Carolina) that effectively eliminated the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Members of the Class of 2028 are currently applying to colleges, and will be the first class to matriculate following the historic legal decision.

For schools such as Trinity College, where diversity has become part of the mission, Berger-Sweeney said “the court’s decision led us to double down on areas such as student programming and retention,” particularly for students from historically underserved backgrounds.

Dilger sees higher education institutions increasingly focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion by ensuring access to education for underrepresented and disadvantaged groups and engaging in research and outreach activities that address societal inequities.

Flexible education, corporate partnerships

Higher education will have to continue to explore how to meet the increasing demand students have for earning their degrees as quickly as possible, while maintaining quality and offering flexibility in delivery models.

That includes satisfying students’ desires for online courses.

Stephen Mulready

The University of Hartford, which has more than 5,900 graduate and undergraduate students, is continuing to build upon its growing number of accelerated programs and degrees, including increased online offerings, new ventures in corporate programming, and professional certifications, said Stephen Mulready, UHart’s acting president.

Colleges are also reaping the benefits of partnering with private industry, which creates more hands-on experiences and meaningful internship opportunities for students, Mulready said.

UHart’s partnerships with Stanley Black & Decker, Hartford HealthCare, Pratt & Whitney and Cigna — among others — have grown significantly and include scholarship and mentorship opportunities for students, Mulready said.

“Understanding the current and future needs of the workforce in Connecticut and beyond is critically important,” he said.

New leadership and campus improvements

Many colleges are also adding to or improving their campus infrastructure.

SCSU recently opened a four-story, 60,0000-square-foot School of Business building. Last summer, UHart renovated its Village Apartments and it’s currently building a new track and field facility that will open in late 2024.

Trinity College recently announced plans for a $30.1 million, 37,000-square-foot addition to its George M. Ferris Athletic Center.

Meantime, UHart, which has faced significant financial challenges in recent years, will name a new permanent president in 2024.

SCSU is currently led by interim President Dwayne Smith, who took up the leadership post in June 2023.

Check out the rest of HBJ's 2024 economic forecast issue

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