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Headwinds & Opportunities

It is critical for our community to understand trends that will impact St. Thomas and the current state of higher education. As we prepare to navigate an ever-changing landscape, we need to keep key opportunities and challenges top of mind.

Shifting Demographics

Our ability to maintain the university’s viability depends on us being able to successfully recruit from a broad pool of prospective students. In the next decade, however, we will face major shifts in demographics of those prospective students. In 2026, we will begin to experience a marked and sustained decline in the number of 18-year-olds graduating from high school. This decline will be nationwide, but it will be most apparent in the Northeast and Midwest. Because of growing economic disparities, there will be a diminishing supply of 18-year-olds who are able to pay for a traditional residential experience. Younger populations also are more racially diverse. We need to reach students we haven’t reached before. More rapidly increasing the racial and geographic diversity of the undergraduate student body and welcoming transfer students will become absolutely essential for St. Thomas.

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Affordability and Access Barriers

Predictions show that the high school graduates we enroll in the coming years will be more economically diverse than ever. We should expect and prepare for an increase in the number of students with financial need.

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Extreme Educational Disparities

A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis documents that Minnesota has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, and they are getting worse. Children from low-income families and families of color have shockingly lower educational opportunities and outcomes in Minnesota. If we do not close these gaps, some of these children might never fully participate in our economy, limiting Minnesota’s economic competitiveness. These racial and income disparities continue to higher education and compel us to engage in solutions.

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Challenges to our Value Proposition

The value of a bachelor’s degree in terms of lifetime earnings and flourishing is at an all-time high. However, higher education has come under increased scrutiny, and we see greater discussion of its value proposition, as well as access and affordability. This criticism has come at a time when tuition and student debt burdens have risen quickly. College education is a basic requirement for many jobs and careers, but some families are facing the reality of being unable to afford an education. Employers seek graduates with both professional and social-emotional skills, and increasingly, employers report that current college graduates lack the necessary technical and soft skills to succeed. As a result, higher education institutions must demonstrate practical excellence and embrace innovation.

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Learnings from the Pandemic

During the pandemic of 2020, staff and faculty quickly adapted traditional models to serve students. Our successful response proved that our university can act nimbly and respond to the rapidly changing environment while maintaining a student-centered focus. Learnings from the pandemic will improve how we work and respond to student needs and underscore efficiencies that can be implemented permanently.

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Student and Family Demands for Choices

Technology has revolutionized higher education, and the pandemic has jump-started our foray into online education. As we respond to increased demand for choice in delivery, we will face increased competition from providers near and far who will offer online experiences. We are competing with universities that are innovating with shorter, more flexible online and blended degrees and certificates. Our ability to respond to these demands and compete by offering a personalized, distinctive St. Thomas academic experience will be a key factor in our ability to thrive.

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Future Workforce Demands

Our employer partners report a growing need for graduates with both technical and principled leadership skills who can work across differences in a global and increasingly diverse world. Graduates with practical experience and the ability to think creatively across disciplines will best meet the demands of the future workforce. Several specific future workforce needs include:

  • Minnesota continues to lose engineering students to other states due to a shortage of reputable engineering programs, while our business community creates continued demand.
  • Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that the demand for health care services will grow twice as fast as the national economy over the next decade. The American Nurses Association says a combination of demographic factors and expanded access to health care will create a renewed critical shortage of nurses.
  • More employers are searching for graduates with data and analytics literacy, a demand that is expected to grow in the coming years.
  • Employers also want graduates who understand diversity, equity and inclusion and can work skillfully in dynamic, diverse environments.
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