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Assumptions About the Relevant Future

Assumption statements will help the WSU system purposefully update the strategic plan on an annual basis. When conditions change, strategy needs to be adjusted. An annual review of these assumptions will help the system ensure the ongoing relevance of its strategy. The assumptions that follow are based on a pre-COVID-19 environment. Due to the impact of the virus and the future implications of COVID-19 for society and economies globally, reviewing, reassessing, and updating our assumptions on a regular basis will be even more critical.


  • The population of college-aged people nationally will continue to decline. Unless college-going patterns change, many institutions will experience large enrollment declines in the mid-2020s in line with predictions for the number of high school graduates. Washington likely will be an outlier in this regard, at least in the short-term future.
  • The number of traditional college-aged students will continue to decline nationally, and students over 25 who are working fulltime (non-traditional students) may eventually become the majority of the student population in higher education.
  • The diversity of the population will increase, and students will continue to come from more diverse economic, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Nearly half of Generation Zers (48 percent) are racial or ethnic minorities representing African American, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Asian American students, among other groups. Institutions of all types can expect a student body consisting of more students of color, but the specifics will differ by institution type and geographic location.
  • Students increasingly will enter four-year institutions with at least some of their lower-level requirements met through dual enrollment or possession of an AA degree, which will require the four-year school to concentrate resources on upper-division education.
  • Funding challenges will continue to affect the student population. Millennials have more income but less wealth than older Americans had at the same age, due in part to student loan debt, and this will be a challenge in terms of funding their education.

Social, Cultural, and Consumer Trends

  • The current political climate which has emerged not only on university and college campuses but also in communities across the country will continue to put university administrators in a difficult place. One major challenge? They will need to strike a balance between allowing free speech and maintaining a secure and safe environment for students, faculty, and staff.
  • The public will continue to scrutinize higher education policy and public skepticism about the value of higher education may place more emphasis on ROI (Return on Investment), micro-credentials, “mini-masters” academic programs, and non-academic careers.
  • If proposed cuts in federal funding for the arts and humanities are enacted, societal relief in terms of access to arts and culture will diminish, thus increasing stress and increasing disparity in access.
  • Students increasingly will view themselves as customers and consumers, expecting high-quality facilities and services.
  • Society will expect students to be able to immediately apply their knowledge, which will place a burden on institutions to broaden and diversify their experiential learning opportunities.

Economic Climate

  • Economic inequality will continue to grow during the next ten years, with a larger segment of the population living on lower incomes and with less access to wealth.
  • Business models of universities highly dependent upon tuition dollars and adjunct faculty will be tested more seriously than ever before.
  • While the state of Washington has been an exception, federal and state funding of higher education and research will be an issue nationally, particularly in a post-coronavirus environment.
  • The reliance on philanthropy to provide funding support for student scholarships, research, and education initiatives will continue to increase.
  • Society will expect more of universities in any economic climate.

Legislative and Regulatory

  • Population loss and economic shifts will continue to lead to the restructuring of major university ystems. Structural changes in university systems, such as campus mergers, will be the subject of legislative activity in many states.
  • The national focus on college affordability will continue, and state officials—from the capital to the campus—will likely feel more pressure to hold down the price of higher education.
  • An increased focus on sustainability in all its forms will continue to reshape policies and procedures at all levels of universities across the nation. Responding adequately to many of the issues will require additional funding.
  • Increased policy and political pressure from the federal government may negatively impact an institution’s ability to recruit and retain qualified international students.
  • The continuing uncertainty about the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration policy will continue. If DACA expires without a resolution, the impact on public higher education institutions, particularly in states with substantial populations of DACA students, will be consequential.

Higher Education

  • Institutions must adapt to the challenges and “new normal” confronting society as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Higher education institutions will continue to diversify in form and access. More “elite” public institutions will become less accessible to lower-income students because of changes in educational funding programs such as federal grants and loans. Private higher education institutions may continue to make up for some of this differential access through endowments and private giving.
  • As higher education is increasingly commodified, the role and purpose of the liberal arts and humanities will continue to be questioned. Current national-level discussions indicate the liberal arts are again likely to be more highly valued in the short-term future.
  • Reformation of core financial and educational practices, and greater business complexity, will require colleges and universities to provide greater transparency and implement new accountability structures to sustain public trust.
  • Occupations that require highly specific skillsets will more frequently emerge and disappear, requiring institutions to be able to quickly establish—and eliminate—degrees as dictated by the marketplace.
  • A greater number of university administrative and service functions (e.g., financial management, housing, student services) will be privatized.
  • In an era in which the value of higher education is being questioned at unprecedented levels, land-grant universities must recommit themselves to serving their local communities as part of the effort to demonstrate their value.

Scientific and Technological Advances

  • Data privacy issues will impact higher education institutions. Among the top issues: the need to secure student and research data, guard against data breaches, and demonstrate responsible enforcement.
  • Distance learning will be an increasingly common option in higher education. It will co-exist with but not threaten the traditional bricks-and-mortar model.
  • Tech-savvy students will expect fast-paced, interactive technology, as well as new methods to be infused in their educational program and learning experience.
  • Many students will have less developed communication skills due to their reliance on technology to communicate. As a result, many will enter college with diminished verbal and written skills.
  • Students will continue to be challenged by their instructors to engage in more personal interactions, as more of them will have been raised with social media being their primary form of communication and connection.