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The state of higher education: Challenges and opportunities in 2021

Perspectives in higher education

Colleges and universities have been pushed to respond to myriad new situations over the past year including COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, fully remote or hybrid learning and the financial fallout from the pandemic.

Institutions are quickly planning for the future as a new normal takes shape. This year’s report highlights key considerations for colleges and universities as they move beyond the pandemic, such as the most effective use of campus space, the role of distance learning and revenue stream diversification. 

Key societal topics such as diversity and inclusion, student mental health, and environmental, social and governance issues are also highlighted. This report concludes with our annual Washington Update and key items that board committees should be considering.

Higher Education students graduating


  • Moving beyond the pandemic: Structural shifts in higher education were underway before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has acted as an accelerant, increasing the speed and magnitude of change that is reshaping the industry. Successful institutions will apply lessons learned from the past year to reposition for the future.  Items to consider include rethinking campus space, considering the role of virtual learning, reviewing the curriculum with an eye toward attracting the right student at an optimized cost, and diversifying revenue streams.
  • Diversity and inclusion: Building on the spotlight placed on social injustice last year, colleges and universities continue to emphasize diversity and inclusion in their mission and strategic planning, as well as to reexamine the ways they can be more transparent with their stakeholders. Given the current social climate, institutions will need to sustain and increase efforts to aim for more diverse faculty and staff in order to reach the levels of representation that mirror their student body, as well as the US population.
  • Student mental health: Colleges and universities identify mental health challenges as one of the highest risk areas in enterprise-wide risk assessments. Addressing mental health conditions is a multifaceted challenge for institutions of higher education; key pain points include financial constraints and resource availability. As colleges and universities move beyond the pandemic, greater awareness, technological advances and strategic business partnerships will likely be the cornerstones of mental health initiatives.
  • Environmental, social and governance: Environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics and reporting are fast becoming a business imperative. ESG reporting and metrics are an important indicator of an organization’s overall health, and ESG reports can lay the foundation for a compelling story about the impact an institution is making in the community and the world. Forward-thinking institutions are integrating values, goals and metrics into their overall strategies to mitigate ESG risks, including seizing the opportunity to innovate and reduce costs.
  • Washington update: Since our last update, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted higher education activity and a new administration has come to Washington. Key items that affect the higher education industry include: the COVID-19 response, Higher Education Act reauthorization, funding for higher education, student loan considerations, immigration, tax and President Biden’s education personnel.
  • Renewing board focus: Board committees play a vital role in helping an institution chart a course that aligns with the institution’s mission and strategy, advising on emerging risks and supporting management in confronting them. Leading trends that boards are prioritizing in 2021 include: taking action on board composition, navigating the risk landscape, integrating ESG oversight, modernizing the board agenda and focusing on change to emerge stronger. 

Contact us

Margaret Stover

National Higher Education Advisory leader, PwC US

Christopher Cox

National Higher Education Assurance leader, PwC US

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