Enrollment challenges loom large, declining for over a decade—a decline expected to steepen into an “enrollment cliff” by 2025 when the population of traditional college-age students shrinks. The value of college education, long considered the path to prosperity, faces skepticism as alternative pathways and credentials for high-demand, living-wage jobs compete with higher education degrees.
There are upsides. For colleges and universities positioned to adapt to changing demographics: 85% of students are considered “post-traditional … and are a diverse group of adult learners, full-time employees, low-income students, students who commute to school, and working parents.” These students value flexible education offerings that fit their life and work demands.
The New Era of Higher Education Events
A key lesson from the shift to digital is that prospective and current students of all ages express stronger preferences for digital course offerings, options, and experiences—even in face-to-face interactions. They expect “an Amazon-like experience in their education: easy, integrated, and personalized.”
What does all this mean for events? Astute colleges and universities are looking ahead to bring together their patchwork of digital offerings into a cohesive, results-oriented approach. Events are opportunities to personalize experiences and gatherings, meet the needs of individuals in diverse institutional communities, and build brand reputation.
To help you take your event strategy to the next level, here are five top trends shaping the future of higher education events in 2023.
1. Embracing digital elements for in-person events
In-person events are returning, but savvy event planners are assessing the new normal. “If you think 2019 efforts will deliver the same results, you’re probably mistaken,” according to Conrad Mills, principal analyst at Forrester Research. That’s because most people—particularly the digital-first generation of students—have acclimated to the digital environment.
If you’re wondering why you need an event strategy inclusive of digital elements, consider this: 77% of event and meeting decision-makers say that “in-person event attendees have higher expectations for digital features than they did a few years ago,” according to a 2022 survey conducted for Cvent by Forrester Research. By leveraging digital features, planners can extend the life of events to encompass a before-, during-, and after-event experience. This includes digital registration via mobile app, before-you-come information and meet-and-greets, schedules and maps for navigating event venues, compelling event presentations with interactive features like instant polling, and after-event surveys and on-demand surveys videos that increase your reach and deepen engagement.
What does this mean for higher education events? Your events, from learning experiences to alum weekends to donor get-togethers, will be more effective if you recognize that they are no longer one-off occurrences. Events are part of a broader journey that needs to be connected to a seamless, positive experience enriched with digital elements. Extended engagement with nontraditional students who value digital options helps bring them into the campus culture and fosters inclusivity.
Takeaway: To continue to make a good impression and keep people engaged, you must keep innovating and digitizing.
2. Engagement Goals Drive Event Format
Despite gathering interest in returning to in-person events, virtual and hybrid events aren’t going away. They are fundamental to genuinely engaging all students and other key audiences. For instance, most of Forrester’s survey respondents indicated using in-person events to increase engagement and interest in their organizations. Conversely, virtual (non-webinar) interactions help deepen relationships and mutual understandings between them and their event participants.
Hybrid events, for example, “give both in-person and virtual attendees the ability to engage with one another … which is crucial for all attendees to feel as if they are on campus, creating the same level of value for all.”
Students are ready for this. Within the past two years, a 24% decrease in student preferences for a “completely or mostly face-to-face experience” and a 20% increase in their preferences for a mostly or entirely online experience,” according to a 2022 Educause report.
Multimodal events support student preferences and institutional commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Only some people have the time or means to travel to in-person events. Nontraditional students juggle many responsibilities. Students with disabilities may face barriers to accessing events and event content. Virtual and hybrid events can make them all feel like they were there.
Takeaway: Digital elements enrich event experiences—before, during, and after they occur. They enable deeper and longer-lasting connections to your institution and your academic community.
3. Creating a consistent, exceptional experience across all events
As events shifted over the past few years, multiple academic departments and institutional offices turned to different solutions or platforms to connect virtually with students and other key audiences. Now, colleges and universities recognize that a hodgepodge of digital offerings may not deliver a great user experience, negatively impacting the participant’s perception of the institution.
An emerging trend is for a lead group to take ownership of event technology with a cutting-edge, digital-first strategy. Creating a consistent, exceptional user experience across all events is essential in a competitive landscape, using an entrepreneurial mindset that responds to different attendees' personal preferences and needs.
The lead group’s role is to codify best practices for user experiences that all departments use to run their events. The lead group also creates standardized event templates. This goes beyond the look and feel of events—although this is important. Appropriate brand representation means that everyone is telling your brand story and using the correct logos, colors, language, and templates to make a cohesive institutional impression on the world. The lead group often does a test run before events go live to ensure they go off without a hitch.
Balancing central event management with distributed event control makes business sense. It’s more efficient than every department reinventing the wheel for every event—and it drives down costs for product licensing and tech support in every department.
Takeaway: Every event allows your institution to deliver a consistent, positive, engaging user experience, enhance your reputation, and build brand awareness. Leveraging in-house talent to manage your brand assets and support event sponsors is smart.
4. Designing events with DEI and ESG strategies in mind
Like for-profit companies, many higher education institutions prioritize DEI and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives that reflect the values and motivations of their students, faculty, and donors in their actions and endowment investments, according to KPMG.
Colleges and universities are furthest along in the social component of ESG, most notably with DEI initiatives. Events are an opportunity to demonstrate DEI commitments. Multimodal events give participants different options to attend, to be seen and heard, and to engage. This expands inclusivity and access for everyone—particularly those facing barriers or aversions to participating in in-person-only events.
DEI considerations also play into student health and wellness. Student mental health is a serious concern on college campuses these days. Stress is the most-cited reason students consider “stopping out” of college. Emotional stress and personal mental health are also critical deterrents for people who have never enrolled in higher education—prospective students who might enroll if they knew they would have mental health support.
Events can reinforce campus counseling centers and other health and wellness efforts. For example, events can build in breaks in the schedule for attendees to unwind and engage informally in peer-to-peer interactions. Events are opportunities to build social networks, contributing to mental health and well-being.
Colleges and universities also are considering how to demonstrate sustainability, and technology is a great enabler. Fewer in-person meetings can reduce carbon emissions from travel. Electronic signage and apps can reduce paper waste. “Going green” can enhance your brand as well.
Takeaway: DEI and ESG are increasingly important in higher education. College communities care about these issues—and your events should demonstrate that you do too.
5. Leveraging tech to glean actionable insights and increase efficiency
Insights from event data are critical to understanding your constituents. When you plan every event as one part of a broader journey, you have more points in the process to collect measurable data on user engagement, experiences, attitudes, and interests. The more digital interactions you incorporate into events, the more you can use that data to improve the event journey and better understand each participant’s preferences.
As pressure to focus on ROI, cut costs, and increase efficiencies builds, hard costs aren’t the only measure that matters. It’s also important to consider how many people engage in which events, how they view their experiences, and what actions they take after the events. An event management platform can be the single source of truth for data on a single event and across all events. Event data enables you to understand your constituents, continue to improve, and justify your ROI.
Data privacy and security are paramount as well. Cybersecurity is “a massive concern for colleges and universities,”—and outdated technology puts them at even more risk. Securing data of event attendees is vital. An event management platform that complies with recognized industry standards can give you peace of mind.
A final word on the need to do more with less: Colleges and universities have not been immune to the “great resignation” of the past few years, with 80% of provosts saying that faculty members are leaving at higher or significantly higher rates. This leaves departments with a heavy lift for onboarding new staff. To do so efficiently, they want to leverage technology, such as an event management platform, to streamline the process.
Takeaway: Event data can provide a wealth of information about participants and their engagement with your institution, which you can use for continuous improvement and efficiencies.
For more information on how higher education institutions like yours are leveraging event technology to plan and manage their events more efficiently and effectively market their events while expanding reach and engagement, check out Cvent’s solution page for higher education.